Grant Waite is playing in his hometown at the Lawnmaster Horizon Golf NZPGA Championship.
What’s even better is that the player many regard as the best the club ever produced, Grant Waite, will make a special return trip to his hometown and be the tournament’s star attraction and special guest.
Waite, now 52, was born and raised in Palmerston North. He left for Oklahoma University in 1982 and has hardly lived in New Zealand since.
He graduated from OU in 1987, turned pro the same year and became, at the time, just the third New Zealander after Sir Bob Charles and John Lister to win on the US PGA Tour – at the 1993 Kemper Open.
His mother Rae still lives in Palmerston North and Grant is delighted to make a homecoming for such a significant event at the place where he learnt the game in the 1970s.
The tree lined Hokowhitu course, on the banks of the Manawatu River, has been the home of the city’s premier golf club since 1895. Over the years the course has hosted five New Zealand Opens and four NZ PGA Championships, the most recent when the late, great Kel Nagle won in 1957.
The NZ PGA Championship has had a topsy – turvey recent history. For a time it was part of the Web. com Tour with a million dollar purse. Steven Alker’s win in 2009 at Clearwater remains one of his most treasured moments.
Since then though, it’s reverted to being part of the Australasian tour first as a Tier 1 event at The Hills in a Pro-Am format but more recently as a tier 2 $125,000 event played for the last two years at Remuera in Auckland.
But the inability to maintain sponsorship in Auckland – despite attendances being on a par with both the New Zealand Opens – meant that the tournament was up for grabs again.
Enter Michael Williams, an ambitious 31-year-old who’s been the General Manager at Hokowhitu for the last six years. Williams knew that the club had a proud history with national events and had successfully run a Charles Tour event, the Lawnmaster Classic since, 2013.
“So we went to our sponsors and community to see what support we’d get for a $125,000 tournament instead of $50,000 event.
“It’s “We like the idea of showcasing golf in the regions” says Sainsbury. The reality is that while club membership is reasonably strong in Auckland, we’d really like to see clubs in the provinces increase their numbers.”
“We're delighted to say that Lawnmaster, the Horizon Trust, Palmerston North City Council and Sport Manawatu's Events Fund were all happy to go to the next level” says Williams.
For the NZPGA's General Manager Dominic Sainsbury, the move fits really well with their ambitions.
“We like the idea of showcasing golf in the regions” says Sainsbury.
“The reality is that while club membership is reasonably strong in Auckland, we'd really like to see clubs in the provinces increase their numbers.”
“We think having so many players of this quality in Palmerston North for a week will really help boost the profile of the game in the area.”
But a conflict of scheduling means the winner of the last two Lawnmaster Classics, Mike Hendry, won't be at Hokowhitu to attempt a hatrick.
Hendry's second placing on the Australasian Tour Order of Merit last year qualifies him for a start in the $US9.7 million World Golf Championship Mexico Open. There's no cut and last place in the limited field wins around $50,000. It's understandable where Hendry has to be!
But the NZPGA defending champion from last year at Remuera, Australian Brad Kennedy will be there along with many of what we might call the second level of New Zealand pros – Josh Geary, Mark Brown, Gareth Paddison and last year's Order of Merit winner Keiran Muir.
With the New Zealand Open on the following week in Queenstown, there's also hope that some of the Japanese players headed to Millbrook might acclimatise themselves to New Zealand conditions with a start in the NZ PGA.
The call went out from Manawatu GC and the NZPGA to have the other two favourite sons of Hokowhitu – Tim Wilkinson and Craig Perks – play as well.
But Wilkinson at the time of writing was hanging on rather precariously to a place in the top 125 of the Fedex Cup and needs every start in the early part of the year to consolidate his playing status on the US PGA Tour.
Perks, the famous winner of the 2002 Players Championship, has completely retired from competitive golf and only brings his clubs out now for social rounds.
But the role call of these names shows just how important Manawatu GC has been to the evolution of the game in this country.
Waite was the trendsetter. Many suggest he might have been an absolute world beater if his putting matched the quality of his ball striking.
Although a tournament winner in 1993, his best year was 2000 when he looked odds-on to at least be in a playoff at the Canadian Open.
Then a fellow called Tiger Woods nailed a six iron to the fringe of the 18th green from a bunker 218 yards away on the other side of a lake. Woods regards it as one of the best shots of his career. Waite finished a shot behind in second place. (Craig Perks was 4th.)
The Palmerstonian has been campaigning with some success on the Champions Tour since he turned 50 winning over $US600,000 so far, including third place at the 2015 US Senior Open.
He's also highly regarded as a coach and was mentioned in several media stories back in 2014 when Woods was looking for a new mentor before the 14 time major champion settled on Chris Como.
Hokowhitu, at 6055 metres from the back tees, is very short by modern championship standards. As on numerous occasions over the last 122 years at the course, the main defence will be the wind. If it doesn't blow, and in March you'd expect some idyllic weather, the 61 posted by Hendry in the first round last year could be threatened again.
Grant Waite probably won't be the one to shoot it, but like thousands of others in the Manawatu golf community, he'll be delighted to see the venerable old NZPGA Championship back on his home course for the first time in 60 years.
Grant Waite during the Insperity Championship at The Woodlands Country Club Texas.
Manawatu Golf Club.
Michael Hendry at the Manawatu Golf Club.
Josh Geary during the 2016 Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines Resort on December 2, 2016 in Gold Coast, Australia.