Few golf tournaments have been reinvented as often as the Victorian Open. The first, in 1957, was played as Australian golf was entering an era of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity. Peter Thomson had won three of his five Open Championships and was one of the best players in the world. Kel Nagle, the 37-year-old former club pro was about to break out and establish himself as a wonderful player.
Bruce Devlin, the champion in 1963, was coming up as was golf’s sternest man, the brilliant Bruce Crampton.
Ossie Pickworth won in 1957 and despite a who’s-who of Australian champions winning, by 1972 the organisers had decided something more exciting was required. Tony Charlton was hired to promote it, and at Commonwealth he bought marching bands, skydivers, Isao Aoki before anyone outside of Japan had heard of Isao Aoki and George Bell.
George was one of the longest hitters in the game and the local newspapers heralded his power hitting. Those looking for some early week novelty came to watch but the fairways were so narrow Bell barely hit more than a two iron off the tee.
Charlton did a miraculous job with the tournament and in 1977 he hit the jackpot when he lured the Open Champion Johnny Miller to Yarra Yarra to take on Greg Norman, the new young gun who, only three months earlier, had won his first professional tournament.
Arnold Palmer came to Metropolitan in 1978. Gary Player lost a playoff to Rodger Davis at Kingston Heath in 1979 and Ben Crenshaw was the hired star the following year followed by Curtis Strange and Lee Trevino. Norman, Graham Marsh, David Graham and Bob Shearer were the ever-present ‘back-up’ stars and the crowds loved their state Open.
The Australian Masters started in 1979 and was a pale imitation played the following week but its arrangers bought Palmer in 1982 then Severiano Ballesteros the following year and paired him with Norman.
By 1985 Channel 7 were televising The Masters all the sponsorship money headed to Huntingdale. In almost no time the Open was relegated to a supporting role.
The Masters, such a great tournament and a staple of the local tour is now long-gone, the victim of moneymen who couldn’t see enough profit for all the effort.
The Vic Open, with the support of the state government, went through another transformation. It came to 13th Beach, a 36-hole course able to host full fields of men and women. They alternated groups, and the organisers, understanding golf is best watched from behind as opposed to the side, allowed the galleries back on the fairways.
The locals embraced the tournament. Karrie Webb and Laura Davies came to play as did young stars Minjee Lee, Su Oh and Matt Griffin. They weren’t Trevino, Palmer, Seve or Norman but no one seemed to mind too much because the golf was good. So to were the courses, especially the Beach, a dune course good enough to be ranked inside the top 15 or 20 in the country
An event not reliant on one or two stars to give it legitimacy is a rare thing in Australian golf.
People seemed to come to watch the golf and the competition and not so much who was playing it.
This year is another significant step as it’s now co-sanctioned by the LPGA and the European Tours. Rory McIlroy isn’t here and nor are Sung-Hyun Park or Lexi Thompson.
No matter. Where else can you watch Geoff Ogilvy, Ryo Ishikawa, Paula Creamer, Karrie Webb, Nicolas Colsaerts, Minjee Lee, Charley Hull, Georgia Hall, Pernilla Lindberg or Victor Dubuisson playing the same tournament?
The real question is whether following the path of a mixed and wildly eclectic field of players from all corners of the globe is the way forward for the Australian Open.
In some ways this is still an experiment and like all experiments it mightn’t be perfect, but for the first time in Australia we have a tournament where the event is bigger than who is playing in it. With the biggest stars in the game demanding a million dollars or more to turn up (and places like Saudi Arabia willing to buy the services of mercenaries) the economics and the way forward seem to be pretty clear.