The concurrent Australian Opens were fantastic, but questions remain for the format in the future
Staging the triple-field Australian Open in December solved several problems when it came to running our national championships, but it created a band of new ones.
The optics of staging the men’s and women’s events simultaneously are sound in modern society and represent a coming-together in golf that’s long overdue. Meanwhile, the happy side effect is that Golf Australia probably saved a lot of money, as staging the women’s Open in particular was an expensive affair. The blended events generated tremendous intrigue and excitement in the lead-up, and didn’t disappoint when play got underway at Victoria and Kingston Heath golf clubs.
The logistical elements of running three tournaments – the 12-player All Abilities Championship field also played on the final three days – made for a number of operational headaches both before and during play. The residue of those headaches will linger for tournament officials in the form of questions that will require answers.
Matching field strength: The need for any comparison can be debated, however the 36-hole cutline of the men’s and women’s championships highlighted the disparate strengths of the respective fields. Two-over made the weekend for the men, while 13-over was the number for the women. Yet at the pointy end, the two winning scores (to par) were almost identical.
World rankings illustrated how the women’s field was weaker, their field reduced in number in the week or so before the championship due to a lack of entries. The answer from here, of course, is to resume co-sanctioning with the LPGA Tour. But would the LPGA’s best travel here in December? Unlikely. In February? Now we’re talking. Yet drawing the strongest men’s Australian Open field at that time of year is arguably more challenging than in late November or early December. Which means if the men’s and women’s championships are to remain concurrent and attract the best players, we now have a timing issue.
The second cut is the deepest: The Saturday cut, which trimmed the men’s and women’s fields to just the top 30 and ties after the third round, was unpopular with players before the week began and proved even more so in practice – especially when it cost the tournament the final-round presence of drawcard Cameron Smith.
Question marks lingered all week about the second chop, yet the number of players to survive the first cut highlighted the need for another cull when all play takes place at one course. The jumbo-sized field on Saturday – which included 71 men, 78 women and 12 All Abilities players – reinforced the issues created, especially when a large number of players make the cut. Tee-times spanned 6:30am to 1:45pm and play didn’t wrap up on Saturday until a few minutes before 7pm, a timeline that was unfeasible on Sunday with television’s timing requirements and the possibility of as many as three playoffs.
The vagaries of what’s called a ‘reverse U’ draw – which helps get large fields around the course in tournament play – also delivered a handful of problems and peculiarities. For instance, Lucas Herbert teed off in the third round at 8:10am and David Bransdon at 1:45pm despite both men sitting at even-par 142 after two rounds. A conventional weekend draw would have placed them within minutes of each other. And the first group off the first tee reached the turn on Saturday only to find there were four groups still yet to begin their rounds from the 10th tee, forcing a lengthy mid-round wait.
One solution is to stage the Australian Open at 36-hole facilities so that only one overall site is required. That’s restrictive, though, as 36-hole clubs are rare here, but there would be advantages. The sequence of alternating men’s and women’s groups could be retained for the first two rounds before alternating courses for the weekend rounds (i.e. the men play one course on the Saturday while the women play the other, then swapping for Sunday). A little of the mixed-field lustre would disappear, but galleries would still have a choice over which championship to follow and all would appear much the same on TV. The need to shuttle between two separate venues would also evaporate.
Royal Melbourne is the most logical 36-hole option, as is Peninsula Kingswood. Grange in Adelaide would also work, but it now has a LIV Golf event on the horizon. However, if staging the Australian Open at one metropolitan site is deemed logistically essential, a year-about rotation between RM and PK – especially after a two-decade drought of the men’s national championship being held in Melbourne – would represent a tremendous mini-rota for the short term. Three of the four courses at those two clubs rank in the top 10 in Australia and all four reside in the top 16. It’s difficult to envisage any complaints.
Junior member: Kingston Heath definitely felt like the No.2 course in the rotation, which is perhaps understandable given Victoria was hosting three of the four rounds. There was minimal infrastructure and less of a championship vibe at ‘The Heath’, the No.2-ranked golf course in Australia. If the two-venue sequence remains for 2023 and beyond, the danger is in diluting the atmosphere for the first two rounds by splitting the crowds. However, it must be said that the size of the weekend crowds at Victoria quickly drove home the popularity of tournament golf on the Melbourne Sandbelt.
There was plenty to celebrate, too, with several departments that require no change at all.
Venerable venues: The DP World Tour players who took to Twitter to rhapsodise about the magnificence of the two golf courses was significant. Melbourne might be a long way from Europe and America, but layouts the calibre of the Sandbelt’s best make the trip much harder to resist.
Smart setup: Surely the most stressful element of preparing for the multi-field championship was insuring a fair test for all. Inordinately wet spring weather in Melbourne didn’t help matters, but the weather served up for Open week was stunning and let the two courses shine. The skies were kind but the on-ground parts needed to match. That the winning scores for the male and female fields nearly matched is testament to the prescribed setup keys hitting the mark.
AAAC is A-OK: The Australian All Abilities Championship continues to flourish and again confirmed its value to and importance within the overall Australian Open picture. The loudest roar your columnist heard all week was in response to the long bunker shot Italy’s Tommaso Perrino outrageously holed at the 18th on Friday afternoon. Galleries embraced the dozen AAAC players and Kipp Popert was a worthy winner.
Crowded house: The galleries at the two courses were among the most eclectic your correspondent has seen in 30 years of attending Australian golf tournaments. The age range was most impressive, with a large number of children visible. Yet it was the number of women on-site – especially at Victoria on the weekend – that was most noticeable. That comes as no great surprise given the dual-gender championship, but it was still pleasing to see.