The Australian Interstate Championship always stirs up passions – perhaps few more so than next week’s 2016 edition.
Top-flite amateur golf is cyclical almost by definition and there’s little doubt Victoria’s unprecedented 2015 domination – across all junior and open divisions – sparked several states into redemption mode.
Throw in the drama and tension of the recent junior series in Tasmania, and the stage is set for a memorable battle as Australia’s best amateur men and women do battle at The Brisbane and Royal Queensland Golf Clubs, respectively.
The might of New South Wales has already come to the fore with victory in the girls and a shared triumph with South Australia in the boys three weeks ago.
But it’s the Blues’ senior teams that, arguably, were hit hardest by Victoria’s 2015 domination and are desperate to make amends without a win in the women’s since 2009 or men’s since 2012.
NSW national coach Dean Kinney has left no stone unturned in the state’s quest to bounce back, adding highly regarded pro turned coach John Serhan to oversee the men’s team.
“Our focus has been on emulating the `Big V’ from last year and we are using it for fuel in our lead-up training,” Kinney said.
“John has brought many fresh ideas and has been great for me to be able to focus on the women’s team specifically.
“We have done some interesting team-bonding exercises to get the players out of their comfort zones, work as a team and hopefully gain some new skills in dealing with fear and adversity.
“We even went to a tree-top adventure park with both teams in Wyong, just north of Sydney, which was awesome and, indeed, achieved those things.”
Kinney is confident of both teams’ chances, but says the women face their acid test straight up against the hosts.
“Queensland has the strongest team on paper by a long way and, on their home turf, will be a challenge, especially first game up for us,” Kinney said.
“WA will also be strong, but the course will be very different to what they are used to. If we can get past Queensland, we will have a good chance.”
Either way, Kinney is confident his women will leave the Interstate better for the experience.
“I’d like them to feel more confident and develop as people and golfers,” he said.
“I expect them to do a good job of being the best they can be at all times; I hope this relates to them winning some matches and that is good enough for the series.”
The NSW men, however, justifiably enter full of confidence and with the favourite tag firmly in place.
“I have made sure the guys are not complacent being the favourites and we have clearly the strongest team on paper,” Kinney said.
“Match play can be fickle, but I expect the guys to perform at their best and if they do that, we will be very hard to beat.”
The biggest thing working for the NSW men’s team is depth, with all eight men capable of playing in any position.
“Our preparation has been terrific and our players are all firing. We really could play the team in any order and they would be equally as strong.”
So just how far has NSW gone to ensure they’re ready?
“We have been practising on 328 greens (grass surface) the past month, but it is still always a little unfamiliar for the guys … that will be our challenge.”
And it’s that home-turf advantage that Queensland national coach Tony Meyer says will be a major asset for his young Maroons.
“It's always a big advantage being able to compete on your home courses,” Meyer said.
“With the majority of both teams having played the courses a number of times and being familiar with the Queensland conditions, our teams feel confident they can finish on top.
“Both men's and women's teams have good depth which is important at the Interstate Series.”
This depth, however, is not only to be found up the eastern seaboard, as clearly evidenced by the staggering achievement of the West Australian men’s team with, remarkably, all eight of its team members making the cut at the weekend’s WA Open.
“Amateur golf is extremely strong at the moment and the results last week in Perth showed this,” Meyer said.
“A number of the WA and NSW players are playing great and the Victorian teams are always strong at the Interstate Series.
“So every match-up this year is going to be tough and our teams will need to have their minds on the job throughout the week.”
Both WA teams are on distinct rolls, although the women’s team takes on a different look without long-time state player Hayley Bettencourt who has turned pro.
But with Australian No.1 Hannah Green and the rapidly emerging Kathryn Norris, they should not be overlooked.
The WA men’s team, however, is another star-studded at every turn. WA Open champion Curtis Luck heads a squad with great flexibility for manager Barry Price.
It has a great mix of youth and experience, but even the younger players, national squad member Min Woo Lee, 17, WA Amateur champion Fred Lee, 16, and the ultra-promising Ben Ferguson, 17, are capable of mixing it in any company.
Highlighting the overall depth of amateur golf around the country, no fewer than six of the top 16 at the West Australian Golf Club weren’t playing for money.
“It shows where Australian golf is at the moment and that the programs are producing the goods with all these amateurs coming through who are able to perform at a professional level,” said Luck, who’s prepared to put his great relationships with his peers on hold next week, particularly the reigning champions.
“I think the WA boys are ready to take the title and I couldn’t think of anything better than to take it out of Victoria’s grasp,” he said with a smile.
The Victorian teams look vastly different to those that won at Huntingdale and Royal Melbourne last year with no fewer than four of the men’s squad having taken the pro plunge.
Three of the Victorian women’s team are aged 16 or younger, but the steely focus of Olivia Kline and Stephanie Bunque will complement Interstate Series veteran and captain Joanna Charlton.
But Victorian national coach Marty Joyce says while the teams have plenty of new faces, the intent — and desire — remains the same.
"We've obviously had a big turnover of players, particularly the men's, but we remain very confident of competing hard and retaining both trophies," Joyce said.
"Victorian teams always love competing and next week will be no different. All in and around the team have been working really hard on our title defence and we're pretty keen on keeping them both."
Tasmania brings two teams with high talent and hopes despite the annual battle with depth.
Men's team coach Nick White said both men's and women's teams were full of experience, "with many of the players having multiple interstate series under their belts".
"We tend to perform competitively against the top teams (but) consistency is usually our downfall.
"Our main stumbling block will be whether or not we can keep the pressure on all week. All players have been looking forward to the series and anticipating the competitiveness."
South Australia will field a women’s team with a great mix of youth and experience, but will need things to go right to mix it with the more populous states.
The same could probably be said for the men’s team of the Northern Territory which, while capable of beating anyone on its day, appears to not have the depth of players to realistically threaten the title.
However, the South Australian men shape as a wildcard of much interest.
The state’s golfers continue to punch above their weight on a regular basis and the boys’ recent title triumph in Tasmania was proof of something special brewing.
A great team bond exists among the SA men and with rising Glenelg duo Lachlan Barker and Ben Layton full of confidence, it would be foolish to underestimate a team also containing Matthew Lisk, Williams Somerfield and Sam Earl.