WHY THE AUSSIE OPEN HAS LOST SOME LUSTRE

Golf Australia - - HUGGAN’S ALLEY - BY JOHN HUGGAN

IT’S a great ti­tle, one be­fit­ting the most his­toric and pres­ti­gious cham­pi­onship in one of the world’s lead­ing golf­ing na­tions. There’s no deny­ing that ba­sic fact. But a harsh re­al­ity has emerged over the last few years. Right now, the Aus­tralian Open isn’t what it was. Or should be. Which is one of the game’s top-10 events.

Yes, the roll-call of win­ners over the last decade con­tains ma­jor cham­pi­ons like Jordan Spieth (twice), Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott and Rory McIl­roy – the Stone­haven Cup clearly re­mains a de­sir­able item on at least a few high­pro­file wish lists – but the 113-year old Aussie Open is to­day not nearly as im­por­tant as it once was.

It can even be ar­gued that Australia’s na­tional cham­pi­onship isn’t ac­tu­ally the big­gest deal in this great na­tion. Not for the play­ers any­way. Ask any young Aus­tralian pro­fes­sional to choose be­tween win­ning his home Open or fin­ish­ing first at the Aussie PGA and he would be silly to pri­ori­tise the for­mer over the lat­ter. The tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that come with vic­tory at the PGA cur­rently far out­weigh those on offer in the Open. Which is just wrong. But that’s the way it is. Here’s the re­al­ity. Win the 2017 Aussie Open at The Aus­tralian Golf Club in Syd­ney and you get a nice chunk of change, an ex­emp­tion into the 2018 Open Cham­pi­onship at Carnoustie and, well, that’s about it re­ally. Win the Aus­tralian PGA one week later and a sim­i­larly large pile of cash will come your way, in ad­di­tion to – and here’s the big thing – an all-but three-year ex­emp­tion onto the highly lu­cra­tive Euro­pean Tour. For any pro­fes­sional, young or old, that is a nice com­fort blan­ket to have go­ing for­ward.

There are other im­pli­ca­tions that come with the Aus­tralian Open’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion. Qual­ity of field for one. And not in a good way.

“I’m not go­ing to play in the Aus­tralian Open this year,” says Mar­cus Fraser, one half of Australia’s team at the Rio Olympics in 2016. “I’ll be in Hong Kong for the Open there. It is played on one of my favourite courses, one that is well­suited to my game. Plus, next year is the last year of my ex­empt sta­tus on the Euro­pean Tour so it is im­por­tant for me to get some money up. Quite sim­ply, it is in my best in­ter­ests to play there. It gives me op­por­tu­ni­ties the Aus­tralian Open does not.”

Still, in the midst of this neg­a­tiv­ity, an op­por­tu­nity beck­ons. The end of the Aus­tralian Open’s af­fil­i­a­tion with the ill-fated One-Asia Tour leaves the event free to look else­where. And that, at least to this in­ter­ested ob­server, means ne­go­ti­at­ing a slot on the Euro­pean Tour with­out fur­ther de­lay. Think about it. Right now, the month of Fe­bru­ary is ba­si­cally up for grabs. And three weeks – say, one in Perth, one in Syd­ney, one in Mel­bourne – would also make sense for the Old World cir­cuit. Mid­dle East – Australia – Asia rep­re­sents a rel­a­tively smooth travel sched­ule for even the lead­ing play­ers be­fore at­ten­tion turns to the Masters in early April.

“The Aus­tralian Open should be one of the best tour­na­ments in the world,” agrees Fraser. “And it has to be on the Euro­pean Tour to get more of the best play­ers in the field. If it moved to Fe­bru­ary – the Euro­pean Tour should be in Australia for that whole month, in my opinion – they would also get a few of the Amer­i­can play­ers to come down.

“I un­der­stand why Golf Australia went with the OneAsia Tour in the first place. But now it makes no sense at all. It is time for them to cut their ties and go with the Euro­pean Tour. With the way the Euro­pean Tour is grow­ing there would be huge ben­e­fits on both sides.”

No one is giv­ing too much away at this stage but, sig­nif­i­cantly, those with the oomph to make that hap­pen are at least ac­knowl­edg­ing the ex­is­tence of talks.

“As the Emi­rates Aus­tralian Open is the flag­ship golf event in Australia, we to­gether with Golf Australia felt it was ap­pro­pri­ate that the event be sole sanc­tioned by the PGA Tour of Aus­trala­sia,” says Pa­trick Joyce of man­age­ment com­pany La­gardere (Spieth is a client), who own the rights to the Open ti­tle. “The event has al­ways boasted a world class field of ma­jor win­ners and leg­ends as well as the top Aus­tralian tal­ent. We are al­ways open to part­ner­ships that will add value to the event and have had an open di­a­logue with nu­mer­ous tours on fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties. We have had de­tailed talks with the Euro­pean Tour as with oth­ers. Sadly, I can’t share any­more than that.” Okay, fair enough. But come on ev­ery­one – get it done. You know it makes sense.

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