This month’s Australian Open marks the end of the Sydney stranglehold on the national championship, a bias that is unforgiveable from a geographic or population standpoint but was ultimately necessary for its commercial health.
The Harbour City will see our Open again in 2021 and 2023 but for next year and 2022, it returns to Melbourne for the first time since the controversial 2002 Open at Victoria Golf Club, and to the Garden State for the first occasion since 2005. That Sydney has only three genuine venue options to host the Australian Open has drawn attention to the dominance, as we’ve been served a steady diet of The Lakes, The Australian and Royal Sydney since 2006, with a one-time departure to the magnificent but infrastructure-constrained New South Wales Golf Club in between.
The back-and-forth within the trio has grown tiresome and repetitive these past 14 years. Such a monopoly by the Melbourne courses would be eminently more forgivable, given its plethora of world-class courses.
But we come not to sink the boot into the Sydney stranglehold – NSW Government backing has breathed pecuniary life into the event, reinforcing the need for state government support of Australian golf tournaments – but rather to ask the question of the future possibilities of an Australian Open rota. In much the same way as the United States Golf Association is juggling the need for balance between its time-honoured, classic US Open venues and newer options, so too the Golf Australia organisation and the various state governments should be seeking to establish a fair and equitable system for sharing our Open across the country.
Perth last saw an Australian Open in 1974; Queensland’s most recent came in 2001, which ended a 28-year absence. Adelaide’s last staging was in 1998, which came after a break of 26 years and was largely precipitated by Melbourne hosting its first Presidents Cup a week later. Tasmania has hosted just one: in 1971. (And who wouldn’t want to see an Australian Open held at Cape Wickham or Barnbougle Dunes? Logistical issues be damned!)
As a result, this inability to travel has done nothing for the prestige of the Stonehaven Cup. The late, great Peter Thomson was among those who liked to cheekily quip that the Australian Open had become the NSW Open. So with an impending return to Melbourne next year, and the end of the current contract to stage the Open in Sydney looming, now seems an appropriate time to determine what is a fair geographic spread for the championship.
Much like the Open Championship has a rota of host courses, the Australian Open should have a rota of host cities. It makes sense for Melbourne to have the lion’s share. Sydney, with its population size and history of large crowds, deserves its piece of the pie. The dilemma becomes of the rest of the country. In a 10-year period, should Melbourne host four, Sydney three with one each in South-East Queensland, Perth and Adelaide? But what of Canberra? And Tasmania? Is a 12-year rota fairer?
It’s time for the powers-that-be in Australian golf to hatch a plan for the national championship that harnesses the word ‘national’. If the less populous cities and states knew the Open was coming in the decades and years ahead, it would likely do a lot to invigorate the golf scene in each place, giving kids and adults alike the chance to plan to attend – even compete in – an Australian Open in their backyard.