By John Huggan Almost uniquely amongst the world&aposs premier championships, the Australian Open has maintained a significant amateur presence into the 21st century. No fewer than 29 members of the 144-strong starting field this week were ineligible for prize money. That startling figure proved to be justified though; as many as 10 amateurs performed well enough to survive the 36-hole cut that fell at nine-over-par. A more than one-in-three survival rate is commendable indeed. Perhaps even more encouraging has been the combined play of Golf Australia&aposs 2007 National Squad. Nine of the 12 new members teed up on Thursday morning, five made it safely through to the weekend and all will have gained invaluable experience playing high-pressure golf in front of large crowds on a course set up to test the very best that Australia has to offer – amateur or professional. No one, it is safe to say, however, will have enjoyed himself more than Rick Kulacz did in his third round. Paired with two-time Open champion, long-time world No.1 and sporting icon, Greg Norman, the 20-year old from Western Australia stayed cool enough to break par. His one-under 71 for an overall total of 223, seven-over-par, could and should have been better, however. Out in a five-under-the-card 31 shots, his four birdies and an eagle more than compensating for a long outward bogey, the newly-crowned New South Wales Open champion stumbled somewhat over the closing holes to be home in 40. Indeed, it was a disappointing finish for the promising youngster. Still four-under for the day after a birdie at the 403-metre 15th hole, a badly pulled lay-up at the long 16th forced him to scramble for his par-5. Then a pushed tee shot at the 202-metre 17th cost him a shot, although his brave attempt for par lipped out. That was bad enough, but a hooked drive at the last, followed by a pitch-out up the fairway and an overly strong third shot led to a double-bogey six. At the close of play though, he could still raise a smile, the lingering memory of playing with the man who is arguably Australia&aposs best-ever golfer far outweighing the hitting of a couple of poor shots. “While I would have obviously liked to finish better, this was a great experience,” he said. “Playing with Greg (who managed a 68 himself) made this a day I will not easily forget.” Further, albeit meagre, consolation for Rick would come from the fact that he was hardly alone in finding Royal Sydney&aposs finishing stretch more than demanding. One-under-par for the day with three holes to play, Ireland&aposs European Amateur champion Rory McIlroy dropped five shots and shot 76 to be eight-over-par for the week. Elsewhere, the leading amateur at the end of day three turned out to be another national squad member, Queenslander Andrew Dodt. Like Kulacz, the 20-year-old made a flying start, a brace of opening birdies taking him to one-over-par for the tournament. Three more dips under-par followed – and three bogeys – but a round of 70 and a total of one-over-par for 54 holes lifted Dodt into the top-20 (he is tied for 14th) by the end of what turned out to be a fascinating day&aposs play. Perhaps more importantly, Dodt is four shots clear of Eisenhower Trophy player Stephen Dartnall, who shot 74 on day three, in the race to be leading amateur. All of which is enormously encouraging for a national squad program that has already produced the likes of Adam Scott, Brett Rumford, Aaron Baddeley (who twice won this championship as an amateur), Scott Gardiner, Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby, Greg Chalmers, Stephen Leaney, Brendan Jones, Nick Flanagan, Marcus Fraser, Mathew Goggin and Michael Sim, each of whom have gone on to make their marks in the professional ranks. More, it is safe to assume, are already well on their respective ways to doing more of the same. Australia&aposs golfing future is assuredly in safe hands.
Author: John Huggan