The Vic Open is good, but it could be even better.
By STEVE KEIPERT
My first experience of attending the Victorian Open came in 1995 when Stephen Leaney triumphed at Victoria Golf Club. It was an event also notable for the emergence of an 18-year-old amateur named Geoff Ogilvy, who held the lead entering the weekend.
Geoff is a year younger than me and his was a career I began following keenly from that Saturday onwards – a few years before it became professionally necessary. In my head I can still see the perfect iron shot he played into the uphill par-3 seventh at Victoria that day, as well as the most exquisite escape from a fairway bunker five holes later.
The galleries were healthy but not huge, perhaps because the Australian Open at nearby Kingston Heath the next week loomed as a more attractive crowd-puller. Still, it was an eye-opening and up-close look at elite golf on Melbourne’s Sandbelt.
It took me 18 years before I attended another Vic Open, doing so when the tournament made its debut at its current home of Thirteenth Beach on the Bellarine Peninsula in 2013. I happened to be in the area on another assignment and wanted to see how the first staging of a concurrent men’s and women’s tournament unfolded.
Thirteenth Beach is blessed with two courses, which makes such a concept logistically viable. But it was the much simpler logic behind the idea that had many on lookers, myself included, so transfixed. Why hadn’t this been done before? Tennis has been doing it for years, of course, but there mightn’t be another sport better suited to combining women and men than golf.
I visited during the second round, which saw the men on one course and the women on the other. On the weekend and post-cut, they went off in intertwined groups of three men then three women, which emphasised the mixed feel. The crowds loved it, the players revelled in the format and the Vic Open has leapt forward in the six years since – including signing influential co-sanctioning agreements with larger overseas tours. It truly is the tournament success story of the past decade.
I’d like to see this most adventurous of events venture a little further, though. Could we see a true mixed tournament offering a single prize to the winner, whether male or female? Might we disregard gender altogether and just refer to the field as all being ‘golfers’? We might look in the history books one day and see a single set of Vic Open winners that toggles year by year between females and males.
“What happened from 2020?” a peruser of such a tome might ask.
“The two tournaments were combined into one.”
“What took them so long?!”
It may well be too soon for that. However, one change I would make today is to mix the groups to include players from both fields. Yes, they play from different tees, but club golfers around the world play in groups where players tee off from different markers and everyone manages.
One tournament that will ‘go there’ in 2019 is the Jordan Mixed Open, a collaboration between the European Tour and Ladies European Tour in the Middle East nation. Scheduled for early April, the Jordan Mixed Open at Ayla Golf Club will welcome a field of 123 players made up of 40 from each of the European Challenge, European Senior and LET circuits plus one leading amateur from each of the three ‘divisions’. Three different teeing grounds will be employed for the 54-hole event with one overall champion crowned.
The tournament “will be played in the cradle of modern civilisation”, says Davide Lantos, the LET’s director of tournament operations, and “is a great opportunity to showcase all that is great about women’s golf”.
“In a world that is beginning to recognise the importance of gender equality, this unique format and event could not have been better timed,” Lantos said. “The real challenge for us is in preparing the course and in ensuring the correct format of play so that our male and female professionals can compete on the same course with the same chance to score well.”
“There seems to be an appetite in golf for mixed events right now and this is another opportunity to deliver another entertaining yet credible format,” added Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour.
This is uncharted, but necessary, waters for professional golf to sail into. The new tournament in Jordan will lead the way this year. Let’s hope the Vic Open isn’t far behind.