Date: February 13, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

FEATURE: Adelaide and the Open, a perfect fit

Adelaide’s hold on the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open as host venue will have run to six years by the time the new agreement with Golf Australia, announced yesterday, is complete.

It was an arrangement that originally caused some eyebrow-raising, since it necessitated pulling the event away from Melbourne, home of the Open for seven of the previous eight years before The Grange in Adelaide hosted the 2016 tournament. But it has proven to be a delightful marriage from that first day at The Grange when thousands of spectators lined the fairways to watch the best players in the world.

The Women’s Open in Adelaide just works.  Just as the Vic Open has found its spiritual home at 13th Beach on the west coast of Victoria, the South Australian capital embraced the national women’s championship of golf with a voracity that virtually guaranteed the event would remain here. Record crowds have come to each of the two events, and more than 32,000 at Royal Adelaide last year.

“We haven’t looked at anyone else,’’ said Golf Australia’s chief executive Stephen Pitt at today’s announcement. “We’ve been so happy with how the event has been run here and how it’s worked and how the city and state has embraced it that we wanted to make sure we were here.’’

There are mutual benefits at work here. From Golf Australia’s point of view, the Open needed to find a venue that embraced it totally. From Adelaide’s point of view, it wanted to showcase its great cluster of sandbelt golf courses in the western suburbs, between the ocean and city, with the potential for tourism growth.

As a golfing city, Adelaide is regarded by good judges as being second only to Melbourne among Australia’s capitals. The Grange, Royal Adelaide, Kooyonga and Glenelg are just four of the world-class courses that sit in the heart of the town. But not enough people knew that fact, and it had been 10 years since a big professional tournament was held in the city.

When GA’s commercial director Kent Boorman presented to Events South Australia’s executive director Hitaf Rasheed four years ago, he hammered home the results of a 2014 Golf Industry Council survey that showed Adelaide as the 16th favourite of 16 regions in Australia for golf tourism. “South Australia was last,’’ he said this week. “I think Tasmania was No.1. I presented it to them: ‘How do you turn it around using the Open to underpin that?’ Golf tourists want good climate, good things to do outside of golf, good golfing asset and value for money. If you look at what Adelaide’s got here, they’ve got it in spades.’’

When GA brought the Open to Adelaide for the first time in 2016 part of the logic was also based on the success of the 2013 Open at Royal Canberra. Starved of big-time sport, Canberra loved having the event, with crowds to match. Then the Open went back to Melbourne for two years in 2014 and 2015, but crowds were small at Royal Melbourne in the second of those years, when the Kiwi wunderkind Lydia Ko was triumphant.

The theory is that a smaller city will embrace the tournament as it should be. In Melbourne, awash with big sporting events, the Open was getting lost. Albeit that the event itself is top class, aligned with the LPGA Tour in the United States and boasting a better list of players on rankings than Australia’s male tournaments can gather. In Adelaide, with fewer marquee events, it stands out.

Originally, it was a Grange thing, driven by Barry Linke, that club’s general manager in the years after it hosted the Eisenhower Cup teams event in 2008 with Royal Adelaide. Linke believed Adelaide had been denied big-time golf for too long, and he hammered away through his friendship with Trevor Herden, Golf Australia’s championships director, who ran that Eisenhower Cup that year.

But when an approach was made to South Australia’s Sports Minister, Leon Bignell, the minister wanted it to be a broader attack, drawing in some of the other great clubs of the Adelaide sandbelt – Royal Adelaide and Kooyonga. Glenelg Golf Club was involved in the push as well, but has been advised that its land size was too small to cope with the infrastructure required.

Ultimately Linke and some others introduced Greg Norman to Bignell, and the Shark uttered: “Leon, we’d like to get a tournament here. How much money have you got?’’ This is where Events South Australia, the government’s tourism arm, came into play through Rasheed.

The SA Government has a Women in Sport strategy and the tournament fits with that.  “That’s appealing to us, but it’s also appealing to have an event of this calibre,’’ said Rasheed this week. “It’s the best of the best, to start with, an international event with worldwide interest.’’

Said Stephen Pitt: “We’ve got a Government that cares deeply about women’s sport, and that’s really important to us as we continue to grow this event.’’

The Open brings $7 million in economic benefits to South Australia. After The Grange hosted in 2016, it has reached record membership levels. Moreover, the event feels like it belongs.

“It’s been something we wanted to bring to South Australia for many years and it hasn’t disappointed,’’ said Rasheed. “There were no questions for us.’’

Now it is Kooyonga’s turn to step on to the stage. “It’s exciting,’’ said club general manager Brett Lewis, who has been with the club for three years after previously running Mt Lawley in Perth and working at The Grange before that. “When I got to the club the committee were very keen to work with Golf Australia. They felt like we hadn’t as a club tried to present ourselves as somewhere that a major event could be held at.’’