Only in Australia would the lingering smoke from bushfires too near to the city give a big golf event a somewhat odd feel, but it is the eerie sense, at least early in the week at The Australian Golf Club.
Not far from the heart of Sydney, the club has established itself since 1975 (the year the state-by-state rotation of the Australian Open ceased) as the semi-permanent home of the most important championship in the country. It is a brilliant venue with all the necessary infrastructure to host a big event and a course presented beautifully, even for players now accustomed to perfection of condition. Bad lies, at least on the fairway, are a thing of the past.
The field is better than last year with next week’s Presidents Cup attracting a few ‘Internationals' looking to acclimatise to our conditions. Happily there will be no smoke haze in Melbourne but they will find the greens this week tamer — both slower and softer — than the feared surfaces they are certain to face at Royal Melbourne.
Mind you, every tournament in the world has greens slower and softer than Royal Melbourne and it would be silly to be in any way critical of the presentation of the greens this week.
Louis Oosthuizen, the brilliant South African, is playing for the first time on the east coast of Australia and if Geoff Ogilvy’s assessment of him is any guide he is the player to watch.
“The first time I played with him, I wasn't watching him swing,’’ said Ogilvy. “I was getting something out of my bag and not really paying any attention when I heard the sound of his impact for the first time. You don’t hear such a pure and powerful sound very often, but Louis has it.”
The great Sam Snead once likened it to a Rolls Royce door closing.
With Adam Scott Sergio Garcia and even the ageing Ernie Els, the Open has at least four players likely to have impressed Snead, the master swinger and striker of a generation long past, but still revered by those familiar with his uncommon talent. Els' long, languid swing is still a thing of beauty and likely the closest thing to Snead we have seen since well, Snead.
All the best Australians are here with the sad exception of Jason Day. His absence has attracted much comment and there is little doubt, except from the most cynical, he has an injury making playing his best golf out of the question.
It’s a pity, and one assumes he needs to find a technique less stressful on his back or a doctor with a cure.
Either way, we have seen far too little of him in the almost 15 years he has been a pro, and perhaps he will be at Kingston Heath next year, but it’s no certainty. Is it even time to question whether we will ever see Day play in Australia again?
There is so much money rolling around in professional golf these days that players don’t need to play as often as generations past, and whilst Snead only dreamed of playing for a million and a half dollars a week (a year even) it is an insignificant amount when the American tour averages 10 million of our dollars every week.
Rolex, the famous watchmakers, put up almost the same amount for more than a handful of big events on the European Tour and even they can’t attract a field of the superstar Europeans seemingly focused on the four major championships and having every scheduling decision based around them. A few weeks in Australia late in the year however never seemed to do too much harm to the chances of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player or Severiano Ballesteros at Augusta the following year and there is no better preparation for Augusta than Royal Melbourne.
Or perhaps a better way to put it is there is no better preparation for Royal Melbourne than Augusta.
The Australian, though, is the test this week and whilst the fire fighters and the farmers hope for rain, it is the wind in Sydney which ensures the golf is not only difficult but really interesting.