A FAIRWAY OVER
FROM JASON DAY ON DOWN, THE NATION’S GOLFERS CONTINUE TO EXCEL–EVEN AS THE TOURNAMENT SCENE HERE SHRINKS IN THE FACE OF THE GAME’S GREATER GLOBALISM. AS THE GOLFING PLANET ASSEMBLES IN MELBOURNE FOR THE WORLD CUP, WE ASK: JUST WHERE IN THE WORLD DOES AUST
Matthew Giles might just embody the diversification necessary to sustain professional golf careers in Australia in the future.
The 27-year-old had just come from what sounds like a pretty good gig, finishing third at a tournament in Fiji after leading after two rounds. He will soon complete a Master of Commerce degree at the University of Sydney that he hopes will allow him to foster dual occupations. Because, as the Australian “Summer of Golf” begins, Giles has contested only seven four-round tournaments in 2016 due to a combination of the time he’s devoted to studying and the limited opportunities for pro golfers who don’t hold a tour card overseas. Giles bridges the gaps by entering pro-ams, which are shorter, far less lucrative and usually cut-throat, one- or two-round affairs. Despite the dearth of tournament action, he still sits fourth on the PGA Tour of Australasia money list for the year with nearly $98,000.
The Summer of Golf is a curious paradox, as the local golf season neither occupies much of the three warmest months nor extends throughout them. Well, not in the eyes of most sports fans. Truth be told, events are scattered across the season and throughout the year, but it’s the Big Three of the Australian Open, PGA and Masters that people remember. Heck, when Robert Allenby somehow contrived to win all three in one stretch in 2005, the golf media and others within the game had to quickly dream up a term that encompassed the trilogy: the Triple Crown.
But the Masters is absent from this golf season and it might have disappeared for good, plummeting into the same abyss that has claimed too many tournaments in recent years. Officially, the tournament noted for the winner’s garish gold jacket is absent only for 2016, however the likelihood of its return decreases with every passing day. In its place this year is the World Cup of Golf, a nomadic, sporadic tournament last held in 2013, also in Melbourne. No longer an annual event, the World Cup cannot be viewed as a permanent replacement for the Masters, which was held in Melbourne every year from 1979 until last November.
Now back to Giles, who is continuing the tertiary study he began while attending the University of Southern California (where he achieved two-time All-American status while studying business administration), stemmed from a desire to not become bogged down by the suitcase-and-hotel life of a touring professional. He’ll complete the current phase of his degree at the end of the year before taking a specialised route. The 2006 World Junior and ’13 Victorian
Open champion says he still practises while studying and plays pro-ams when time permits, but exactly where his degree might take him remains an uncharted course.
“I just wanted to do something in addition to golf,” Giles says. “I’ve got my status here in Australia and I’m still planning on playing all the bigger events, but obviously our schedule is fairly spread out throughout the year. You’ve got events on at the start of the year and then events at the end, but then you’ve got that midpoint where unless you’re travelling overseas you can do other things. So I just wanted to do some other stuff … Having an outlet away from golf has been really good.
“I’m very passionate about sports, I’d love to work in the sporting industry in some capacity. I’m good with numbers, so maybe the finance route, but I honestly don’t know.”
While Giles says he’s “more than content playing ten events a year” and seeing where academia takes him, he wouldn’t turn down a tour exemption outside Australasia. “It just comes down to what accessibility you have and what exemptions you have. If you played well … at the Aussie PGA, one of those co-sanctioned events, and you happened to have a card [in Europe], then obviously I’d play, of course. If I got back onto a tour like that, then so be it, but it’s nice having normality and waking up in the same bed in Sydney over a period of time. This is my seventh year as a pro and I’ve seen a lot of airplanes, a lot of hotel rooms and it’s nice to just have a little bit of a break from that.”
Giles’ situation raises the question that confronts many talented players once they reach elite status at home: “Where to from here?” In some respects, pro golfers in Australia are similar to actors in that if you’re any good at your craft, vastly greater riches await elsewhere even though a decent living is achievable here. Our line of golf “exports” is long and distinguished, dating back to the trailblazing Norman von Nida and on, beyond the other Norman who built a multi-faceted global business empire that stemmed from a cavalier golf career.
While the world of golf is far better for Australia’s input, why is Australian golf not in better shape? It’s a pastime that’s not changing as quickly as the society around it, says Peter O’Malley, the current chairman of the PGA of Australia and an eight-time tournament winner on two circuits during a career that’s spanned Greg Norman’s heyday and Tiger Woods’ dominance. “It’s changing and we have to be prepared to change with it,” O’Malley tells Inside Sport. “Time is a big factor and the demographic has changed. People who would previously have joined traditional golf clubs are instead joining social golf clubs. Playing numbers are not down but
“THE WORLD OF GOLF IS FAR BETTER FOR AUSTRALIA’S INPUT. WHY IS AUSTRALIAN GOLF NOT IN BETTER SHAPE?”
membership numbers are. We need to ask: what do people who want to play golf require?”
Like many in the know, the man known universally as “Pom” says developing new formats and shorter versions of the game so that it doesn’t soak up as much time is a key to raising interest levels. Six- or nine-hole events, perhaps with a barbecue at the club afterwards, can operate alongside 18-hole rounds for the diehards. Think of it like cricket, where Test aficionados can still get their fill each summer alongside the Twenty20 crowd.
As for the local golf circuit, there is no such magic bullet. “We’re going down a line where we have to be aligned with other tours,” O’Malley says. “We have some of the best golfers and golf courses in the world and I think the rest of the world knows that. It’s a matter of embracing it. The hard thing is financing it. We have some grand plans but we don’t have the companies out there with the millions of dollars willing to back them.”
And what of the Giles route? “It’s a very valid point,” O’Malley says. “The overseas tours are getting more and more competitive and it’s getting harder to find a way onto them. By doing something like Matt is doing, you can play golf when the tournaments are on and give yourself a secondary income stream when they’re not. A lot more players should look at it as an option.”
Still hungover from Sydney 2000
There’s a flip side to the “where to from here?” quandary. When Australia’s best golfers come home, what are they coming home to? The local circuit has regressed in recent years from 13 annual tournaments in 1999-2000 to effectively just a handful, one of which – the Australian Masters – is on life support. Blame for some of the decline falls to the 2000 Olympics, with more than one figure in golf lamenting the drain on available sponsorship money the Sydney Games created that grew from a short-term trickle into a gushing torrent. The primary tournaments to survive, the Australian Open, PGA and, for now, Masters have done so thanks to the backing of state-based tourism bodies. (Remember the Victorian Government kicking in $3 million to bring Tiger Woods to Melbourne in 2009?)
Government input secured the immediate future of these events but had the residual effect of putting up walls between the tournaments. New South Wales sunk its teeth into the Australian Open, bringing it to Sydney but locking the national championship there for the past ten years; the Masters remained in its traditional home of Melbourne but broke its long-standing tradition of staying at Huntingdale Golf Club to instead roam all of the city’s world-class Sandbelt courses; Queensland, meanwhile, has been home to the Australian PGA every year since 2000. Tournaments have graced Perth intermittently but, suffice to say, if you’re a golf fan living in South Australia
or Tasmania, getting to see top-notch tournament action has been as rare as rocking-horse excrement.
And it gets worse. Our top tournaments becoming state- or tourism body-based constructs created an exclusion zone around the overseas marquee players brought in to drive spectator interest. There is now a ludicrous situation in golf whereby imported superstars can’t usually contest multiple events because one state “owns” them at the expense of the rest. So while former world No.1 Jordan Spieth’s visits to Sydney the past three years have bolstered the Australian Open, his only venture away from the Harbour City on these trips were clandestine social rounds in Melbourne to sate his Sandbelt curiosity. Perversely, Spieth was playing golf at Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath last November at the same time as the Australian Masters was taking place down the road at Huntingdale.
Yet this is the kind of cannibalism rife in Australian golf. The game is over-administrated, overly fragmented and suffering as a result. The quantity of tournaments is down, golf club membership numbers are falling even if overall participation isn’t, and clubs feeling the financial pinch are either selling off land, merging or closing. Overall, the game is in a period of consolidation at best, embarking on a slow decline in real terms or, according to the doomsayers, facing an apocalypse.
Each corner of the local golf industry is feeling this pressure, although it is reasonable to expect the ardent nature of most golfers is such that, even in a timepoor society, the game will always have some kind of place – and likely a significant one – in our sporting lexicon.
But for general sports fans who perhaps care for golf only when events are on here, what can we realistically expect on the
“PERVERSELY, SPIETH WAS PLAYING GOLF DOWN THE ROAD AT THE SAME TIME AS THE AUSTRALIAN MASTERS WAS TAKING PLACE AT HUNTINGDALE.”
Australian tournament scene in the future? Should the aim be to sustain three to four middling tournaments as we do now, or pool our resources and defragment the pieces to aim for one big event with a large prizemoney purse on a great course that will attract all the best players? We will never compete with the 47-event behemoth that is the PGA Tour in the United States. And we already have an ally in the European Tour, which co-sanctions the Australian PGA, Fiji International and the World Super 6 Perth (a new replacement for the Perth International next February).
With the right date in the world calendar, the foundations are there to attract or create a large, permanent tournament, if we want to play down that particular fairway. Globally, golf will never be like cricket, where the contests at home mean far more than away series do, but the opening is there to take more of a stance as Australian tennis does and try to foster a few smaller events – such as the current state Opens and PGAs – around one huge, globally significant championship.
‘Golf slaps you around a bit’
Jason Day will end 2016 as the world’s No.1-ranked golfer, authoring a neat bit of symmetry as fellow Queenslander Greg Norman sat atop the ranking at the close of 1986 and again in 1996 (no one in golf could come close to Tiger as 2006 morphed into 2007). Day follows the lead taken by Adam Scott in winning a major, multiple World Golf Championship events and reaching the summit of the world ranking. Seven years Scott’s junior at age 29, if healthy, Day can become our most successful male golfer ever.
That two lads from Queensland could win a Masters and a US PGA between them, both reaching world No.1 along the way, is an exceptional achievement for a country of our population. But perhaps not so amazing considering the favourable climate and array of fine courses that Australian golfers enjoy, plus the breadth and depth of highcalibre coaching available here.
Behind Day and Scott are the likes of Marc Leishman, Matt Jones, John Senden and a youth brigade headed by Cameron Smith, who finished fourth on his major debut at last year’s US Open, and Nathan Holman, the reigning Australian PGA champion. And the talent pipeline directly behind them is in full flow.
Curtis Luck this year compiled one of the great seasons in amateur golf. In August, the iconoclastic 20yearold from Perth became just the third Australian to claim the prestigious US Amateur title. A month later, he joined Cameron Davis and Harrison Endycott in lifting the premier amateur team event, the Eisenhower Trophy, for Australia for the first time in 20 years, winning in Mexico by 19 strokes. Then in October, Luck captured the prestigious AsiaPacific Amateur Championship, which grants its victor a place in the Masters at Augusta National (for which Luck had already qualified by virtue of his US Amateur victory). In the space of 50 days, he’d gone from a decent prospect to amassing one of the great amateur golf careers in modern times. Although when he turns pro, most likely in mid2017, Luck will almost certainly experience one of the stark realities in golf: there are no guarantees in the playforpay ranks for even the best amateurs.
“It is daunting. It’s very realistic, golf. It slaps you around a bit. Unfortunately, the percentage of players that make it is quite low,” Luck, who has already won in the pro ranks by claiming the WA Open in May, told a West Australian newspaper in October. “You have just kind of got to forget about that. You can’t get stuck on that sort of thing. You’ve just got to be confident and believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s plenty of reasons why you can’t make it and there’s plenty of reasons why you can. You’ve just got to think about the people who did make it and use that as inspiration.”
It’s a fitting sentiment and keenly astute coming from a player who’s yet to reach the paid ranks. Still, it is Luck’s generation that golf’s baton will soon fall to. Maybe possessing youth gives him a perspective that’s not weighed down by the difficulties golf has faced here in its recent past, as his fresh, positive but tempered outlook is eerily relevant for golf amid its current funk. And if the pro game doesn’t work out, there are always plenty of jobs on offer – and maybe still within golf – for someone holding a Master of Commerce degree.
Takes more than fortune: amateur champ Curtis Luck is yet another example of the talent in the everflowing Aussie golf pipeline.
Matt Giles, playing an Aussie Tour event ... in Fiji. When the eyes of the golf world were last on Kingston Heath, as Tiger Woods brought out Masters masses.