COOLUM, Australia — Not since the heady days of regular appearances by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer have so many top players decided to travel Down Under to play in three Australasian PGA tour events spread over six weeks.
Credit the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in mid-November for having a large part to do with it. The challenge for Australian golf officials will be to find a way to entice stars like Tiger Woods, British Open champion Darren Clarke and top-ranked Luke Donald to return next year.
The Australian Open at Sydney from Nov. 10-13, in particular, reaped the benefit of players who wanted to arrive a week ahead of the Nov. 17-20 Presidents Cup to get over jet lag and familiarize themselves with Australian conditions.
Captain’s pick Woods and his U.S. teammates Matt Kuchar, David Toms, Nick Watney and Hunter Mahan are among the Australian Open entries at The Lakes, along with U.S. captain Fred Couples, his International counterpart Greg Norman, defending champion and International team member Geoff Ogilvy and Adam Scott.
“Our field is the best we’ve ever had,” Stephen Pitt, chief executive officer of Golf Australia, which has direct responsibility for the Australian Open, told The Associated Press. “It’s not so much all the great players, but the depth, and they’re all in terrific form.”
Also scheduled to play at The Lakes are U.S. Presidents Cup teammates Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and U.S. Tour Championship winner Bill Haas and International team members Jason Day and captain’s pick Robert Allenby of Australia. That’s eight of 12 American team members and all five Australians in the International team, including two-time Australian Open champion Aaron Baddeley.
The Australian PGA on the Hyatt Regency resort course at Coolum from Nov. 24-27, the week after the Presidents Cup, will feature Day, Watson, Y.E. Yang, Norman, Ogilvy and Scott, to be joined by Northern Irishman Clarke and American Rickie Fowler.
Even the Australian Masters, which Woods won in 2009 and will be played Dec. 15-18 in Melbourne, has managed to attract a strong field despite its closeness to the holiday season.
U.S. PGA Tour money title winner Donald, who won Sunday’s Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Italian teenager Matteo Manassero and Ian Poulter will be at Victoria Golf Club with defending Australian Masters champion Stuart Appleby.
Only three of the top 10-ranked players won’t make it Down Under — Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, who play regularly on the European Tour, which still has five tournaments remaining this year. Phil Mickelson, a member of the U.S. Presidents Cup team, is playing in Singapore the week before the Royal Melbourne event, as is International team member Yang.
The star power is a welcome sign — the Australasian Tour has been in decline over the past decade, losing several tournaments due to lack of sponsorship and watching prize money fall behind most events in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The Australian Open and Australian PGA each offer total prize money of $1.5 million this year, with the winner getting $270,000. Most U.S PGA tour events offer purses of at least of $5 million, with the winner often collecting a million dollars.
Pitt says the influx of top golfers is an opportunity for the Australian tour to showcase its world-class courses and hospitality, regardless of the lack of prize money.
“The bar is very clearly being raised for us, and the challenge will be to maintain some sort of growth to follow on from this year,” Pitt said.
“The feedback we get from players is that they’ve always wanted to play the Australian Open in particular, and that’s recognition of the status of the tournament. Now we’ve got to tap into that, give the players a really good experience, and get them to come back.”
The biggest attraction of the past five years was Woods at the 2009 Australian Masters, which he won after being paid $3 million in appearance money, half of that paid by the Victoria state government.
Weeks later, news of his infidelities surfaced, followed by a divorce, injuries and swing changes, leaving his win at Kingston Heath in Melbourne his last tour victory anywhere. He returned to Melbourne a year later to unsuccessfully defend his Masters title when it was played at the Victoria layout.
Tim Clark of South Africa won the Australian Open in 2008, but the last non-Australian winner before that was Westwood in 1997.
That’s a big difference from Player’s seven Australian Open titles beginning in 1958 and ending in 1974, Nicklaus’ six, including four in the 1970s, and Norman’s five, the first in 1980 and the last in 1996. Palmer won his only Australian Open title in 1966 while five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson has three of his native Open trophies.
Even in 1966, the Australian Open offered a relatively small purse. When Palmer won at Royal Queensland in Brisbane, his first-place prize money of $1,600 was part of a $6,000 total purse. Nicklaus and Player won the Australian Open the previous two years, so the big three then apparently didn’t come Down Under for the money.
The Australian PGA has had mostly homegrown and two New Zealand winners since Seve Ballesteros won in 1981. The exceptions were Scotland’s Andrew Coltart in 1994 and 1997 and England’s David Howell in 1998.
Peter Heiniger, the head professional at the Coolum course, says the PGA entry list will have its best international field since the days when Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and other top players made their way from Europe to Australia.
“There is no doubt about it, the profile will be greatly influenced by this summer of golf,” Heiniger says. “I think the sponsors will want to jump on board over the next few months. Hopefully, this year will provide a bonus for the years to come.”