Why neither Australian Open will be held this summer
Cancelling Australian Opens is not much fun. One of the first decisions I had to make when I became chief executive of Golf Australia in 2020 was to put the candle out on that year’s men’s Open, which was meant to be played at magnificent Kingston Heath Golf Club in Melbourne.
And while it was hard, I couldn’t imagine having to do it again 12 months later. But that’s the reality of the world we live in. This time it’s The Australian Golf Club in Sydney that misses out on the 2021 Open, and it’s disappointing for everyone.
However, I think most people understand that the pandemic is still an issue for sport. You only need to see the cancellation of events like the F1 Grand Prix and the Tour Down Under cycling race to know that if you are trying to bring a travelling roadshow to town for a week, then you had better prepare for some major roadblocks. Plus some very big expenses.
Look at the problems the Australian Open tennis has had to face for the 2022 event, and Cricket Australia’s long-running debate with England over the Ashes tour. There is an excellent chance that both of those sports will find a way to make it happen. But there is a difference between them and golf. They have big television rights income, which gives them the opportunity to create biosecurity ‘hubs’ and some insulation from the lingering effects of COVID. We have none of those luxuries.
Golf Australia is funded in substantial part by club golfers through affiliation fees and it’s their money that we work with as we invest to grow the game. Any risk that we take has a knock-on effect in reducing the effectiveness of this revenue stream. It wasn’t something we were prepared to do in the end.
First, we pushed the Men’s Australian Open back from November 2021 to early in 2022 to give us some time. But the issues didn’t materially change; sponsors naturally are keen to know who is playing, players based overseas were unsure or unlikely to come home because of quarantine demands and there were uncertainties as to how the course would present in the peak of summer. We could not even get staff across the border from Victoria to start preparations in Sydney.
Ultimately, we took the view that it was too risky for us and too risky for the club that was hosting. There was minimal opportunity for preparation and planning and at worst, everything could have gone out the window with one outbreak of COVID-19 in the host city.
Even as the country began to open up in October, some states reduced or dropped quarantine restrictions and borders began to open, it came too late to help us because the planning and preparation had not been manageable or possible.
The quality of field would have been seriously compromised by comparison with past Opens. Some people say: why not just have an event, and don’t worry about the field? That’s a fair question, too. But with a tier-one event like the Men’s Australian Open, it costs a lot of money and the whole event is bound together by a few threads that include your major commercial partners. It’s unfair to go back to television and sponsors with a field that doesn’t match what they signed up for.
We couldn’t do that to them without harming our long-term relationships, and we also faced an almost certain financial loss that could not be justified to our members and the golf community. We had to do what was prudent. We searched around for alternative ways to do it; even looking into the notions of a ‘hub’ for players at a resort, and/or a joint men’s and women’s event. But it was not realistic.
The Women’s Australian Open, scheduled for Adelaide in February 2022, was slightly different. The LPGA Tour, which co-sanctions the event, confirmed that players would not agree to 14-day quarantine requirements and so from an early stage, we knew we would be left with a severely compromised field.
As with the men, our main players on the women’s side live overseas and had the same issues getting through quarantine and borders. It just would not come together for us to the standard that we needed to meet out of respect for our partners.
We took a prudent decision, and it was, in my opinion, the right call in the circumstances. Regrettably, we have had to put these two tournaments on hold, get our house in order (and there is so much to do outside tournament golf) and plan for the future.
So what next for the national Opens? What I can say with certainty is the big tournaments will be back when the time is right. We are optimistic about next summer and are already making grand plans. We need these events for the fans and for the players and they are a big part of our reason for being as an organisation that exists to grow the game. They provide inspiration for young golfers. They are hugely important. What we need is some clean air to run them.
James Sutherland has been chief executive of Golf Australia since October 2020.
Getty images: Mark Metcalfe