Multiple Australian Open fields will make for enhanced excitement and a better spectacle, even if there are some logistics to take care of. By Steve Keipert
[Getty images: Jack Thomas, Daniel Pockett/R&A]
The ingredients are right and the recipe well tested, courtesy of a decade of Vic Opens featuring male and female fields, but there’s no question this ISPS Handa Australian Open represents an entirely new realm for mixed-field golf tournaments. A new realm, but also a tremendous opportunity.
That’s the sentiment shared by players and administrators as the national championship breaks new ground at Victoria and Kingston Heath golf clubs this month. The twin fields will be spread across the two host venues on the Thursday and Friday before a cut is made and all remaining players converge on Victoria Golf Club for the weekend. Course setup and field management logistics must be juggled, but any minor issues on those fronts are sure to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the moment when it comes to showcasing to the world the wonders of dual tournaments.
“It doesn’t get much better, does it? Kingston Heath and Victoria,” enthuses Karen Lunn, chief executive of the WPGA Tour of Australasia. “If people aren’t going to enjoy this week, they’re not going to enjoy anything.
“I’ve said to a few people: I’m more excited about this event than I’ve been excited about a golf tournament for a long time. It’s having the women’s and men’s Opens together and we’ve got so many of our great players [coming home to compete]. This year is going to be really special and exciting with so many of our leading men and women playing. It’s going to be really special to potentially have Adam Scott and Cam Smith in one group and Hannah Green and Minjee Lee in the next group. For golf fans, it is just going to be an unbelievable experience.”
“When I heard that the men’s and women’s Opens were coming together for the first time, I knew that I wanted to be there,” adds Green, who made history in February by becoming the first woman to win a four-round mixed-gender tournament on any major tour when she captured The Players Series’ Murray River event. “We’ve experienced this kind of concept, with men and women playing together on the same courses at the same time – at the Vic Open and the Webex Players Series events – and to have it in place for the first time at a national Open is going to be something special.”
The enthusiasm is palpable, not just because of the revolutionary concurrent staging of the men’s and women’s Australian Opens, but also because it’s been three years since the men’s championship was contested and almost the same hiatus for the women (who did sneak in a 2020 event before COVID-19). The combination of the twin events and two elite host venues, plus Melbourne’s return as the destination, has generated more buzz around this Australian Open than has been felt for years.
LESSONS FROM THE VIC OPEN
The innovative Vic Open made the bold move in 2012 to co-stage the men’s and women’s championships, a year later taking it to its present home of 13th Beach Golf Links on the Bellarine Peninsula. Being home to a pair of Top 100-ranked courses made the logistics of running two events far easier and the event has grown in stature and popularity.
It was perhaps inevitable a larger championship would imitate the format, yet it took a decade as well as the pressure of financially managing the national Opens to see the mixed fields concept move up a rung on the prestige ladder. There’s a genuine air of confidence surrounding the 2022 Australian Open, too; one borne of 10 years of nurturing the concept at 13th Beach and knowing its capabilities as well as its logistical hurdles. More than anything, however, the players warm to the idea.
“They love the Vic Open, they love the mixed format,” Lunn says of her members. “It’s just different. They like engaging with the guys. A lot of them grew up playing junior golf and amateur golf together and they go off on their separate journeys and hardly ever see each other. So that’s a big part of it. Through The Players Series and the Vic Open and other events that we do together, they really enjoy being in each other’s company and learning off the guys and hopefully they like to learn off the girls as well.
“There’s certainly been no negative [feedback] at all from the women. All our girls are really looking forward to the event this year and it’s been nothing but positive.”
Lunn, who won 16 times – including the 1993 Women’s British Open – in a decorated playing career, can see all the benefits.
“If I was playing, I would just love the experience,” she says. “It’s the first time that we’re aware that two national Opens are going to be played together. Looking at what tennis has done with the Australian Open over a long period of time, to create one of the Majors, we can do that with golf – not a Major, but we can create a massive event that sets the tone for other countries to do a similar thing because it’s one set of infrastructure, one broadcast. That cuts down on the costs and obviously it’s a great experience for those that come to watch or anyone watching on TV. So hopefully this can put the bar really high up in terms of setting a standard for all.”
However, there remain obstacles to leap and many of those won’t truly surface until the week of the championship. Course setup will be crucial, especially setting fair pin positions for two fields on the one course. One player intimately familiar with not just Sandbelt golf courses, but also course architecture, course setups and the volatility of Melbourne’s weather is Geoff Ogilvy. He sees establishing the right length of courses for the men’s and women’s fields as the easy part. The hole locations will be far trickier.
“I’m glad I’m not having to make some of those decisions,” Ogilvy laughs. “Because while the girls are much straighter golfers than men and they have infinitely more accuracy with their hybrid clubs and their longer stuff, they’re not spinning the ball as much into the green. So there’ll be certain pins that would really suit some of those shots that you can feed the ball into [and they] would actually be an easier pin for the ladies than it would be the men – on some Sandbelt holes – just because of the nature of their ball flight.
“But on the other side of that, there’s also some pins that would be front, just over bunkers, that require spin that would be really tough for the ladies and a bit easier for the men. A lot of thought about pin positions is going to have to come out, and they’ll probably learn as the week goes on, to be honest. But they’ll have to get it right on Thursday and Friday, because everyone has to play to the same pins two days in a row. So that’ll be interesting.”
“That’s a challenge,” she says. “The benefits of having these events together I think will be shown, but obviously that’s one of the challenges and it’s one that we’ve talked a lot about, between Golf Australia, the PGA and ourselves and we’re well aware setting up a golf course for men and women is very different. I think the best thing to say is there’ll have to be compromises on both sides. But hopefully the end product will be worth any compromise the men or the women have to make.
“It is the hardest part of doing events like these, whether it be the Vic Open or elsewhere. And we have had a few Vic Opens to learn from.”
Count Minjee Lee among those players familiar with the Vic Open who know the different nature of mixed golf tournaments.
“Space is a big thing,” Lee says. “I’m not sure if they quite have as much space as where we play the Vic Open, so in terms of crowds and how they’re going to manage that it might be a little more difficult. It will be a much more intimate setting, so that could work in great favour to the tournament itself and the concept of it. I think regardless, it’s just going to be packed because we’ve been away for a couple of years and everybody’s kind of itching for a live golf event or even a sporting event to be in Australia, so it will just be a great atmosphere.”
A great atmosphere. It’s almost guaranteed, isn’t it? Regardless of who hoists the Stonehaven Cup and Patricia Bridges Bowl on Sunday, December 4, there’s certain to have been a tremendous sporting spectacle played out – one the fans can savour.
“We want huge crowds. We want a lot of a lot of kids there. We want a lot of girls there, we want a lot of women to come and watch,” Lunn says. “That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here, with the national strategies and getting more women and girls playing. We want our best players to put on a show like nobody’s ever seen before. We’ve had great fields at the Vic Open but never anything like we’re going to experience in Melbourne. I can’t see a bad outcome, to be honest.”