Date: February 19, 2016
Author: Martin Blake

FEATURE: How SA extracted the Open

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The story of how Adelaide procured the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open for at least three years is one of persistence, optimism, and the fervant desire to break the drought of big-time golf in South Australia's capital. 

It dates back to 2008, when The Grange Golf Club and Royal Adelaide jointly hosted the World Amateur Teams Championships, the Eisenhower Trophy for men and the Espirito Santo Trophy for women.

The success of that tournament put a seed in the mind of Barry Linke, a lifelong golf administrator who runs The Grange, a near 100-year-old sandbelt course in Adelaide's west.  It is Linke, Grange's general manager for the past 26 years, who has done most to drive the move of the Open from Melbourne, where it was held for seven of the past eight years, to Adelaide.

Linke knew Trevor Herden, Golf Australia's tournaments director and the man who headed up the world teams tournament, quite well, and he would not let Herden come to town without extracting something from him. He recalls: "That (the world teams) was a big event, and at the time we joked 'there'll be some reward for hosting this event'. As the years went on, I never let Trevor forget that. He just said: 'You never know'!''

Barry Linke, who previously managed golf clubs at Naracoorte and in Melbourne at Northern and Churchill Park before returning to Adelaide, thought that it had been too long since a big Australian professional tournament had come to his city. The men's Australian Open last visited in 1998 (at Royal Adelaide), and the women's Open had not been here since 1994 when a young Annika Sorenstam won her first professional tournament, while the West Lakes Classic was played in Adelaide from 1975 to 1980 before it folded. It was crazy because in terms of courses, there is an argument to suggest Adelaide is Australia's second-best golf city behind Melbourne.

Fundamentally, it was a drought. Linke felt that it was the women's Open that would work best; it was a realistic target for SA. "We knew that it would be really difficult to get the men's Open out of the eastern states. Even Melbourne can't get it from Sydney,'' he said.

In 2011 when Royal Melbourne hosted the Presidents Cup, Linke took then Grange president Kerry McGorm to Melbourne and they visited Herden and Golf Australia chief executive Stephen Pitt, and their original feeling was one of pessimism. "Basically Stephen said to us that the women's was a growing event, it was in the Melbourne sandbelt and it wasn't co-sanctioned with the LPGA then, but they had plans for that. The clubs were happy to host it and it was rotating around the sandbelt, so in the forseeable future there wasn't much hope! Steve will remember that. So Kerry and I enjoyed our weekend over there.''

But the South Australians kept hammering away at the Golf Australia door. In 2014 GA brought the Australian Amateur to The Grange, which has plenty of room for the logistics that come with an Open because it has two courses. In that week, Linke also emailed Leon Bignell, a former sports journalist who is the South Australian minister for sport, seeking support for a bid to get the Open to Adelaide.

Linke knew Bignell. He had been present at The Grange in the minister's early days in government when Greg Norman, designer of the east course, came to town. "We did a media event, Leon was brand new in the minister's job and we sat in the room, and Norman says: 'Leon, we'd like to get a tournament here. How much money have you got?' Leon says: 'I've only been sports minister for two weeks'!''

Bignell is a scrappy left-handed golfer with a big slice, but he knew the game. He has told the story against himself of how, covering a tournament in Queensland many years earlier, he approached the Shark with pen and paper poised, seeking an interview about his round. Norman grabbed the paper and pen, signed his autograph, and walked away.

Said Linke: "I knew that the contract was up after 2015 in Melbourne and if there was going to be an opportunity, now was the time. Leon replied and said: 'We can meet'.''

Trevor Herden and Stephen Pitt came to the meeting, and now the government's tourism arm, Events South Australia, was involved through its general manager, Hitaf Rasheed, a former media manager of Port Adelaide in the AFL. Importantly, the government was prepared to tip in the cash required to get the event to Adelaide. Lincke sensed positive vibes all around. "Our board was positive. I think they saw the bigger picture here. Adelaide's been so starved of big tournament golf.''

At this point, it was The Grange only that was pushing, but Bignell had a broader idea. He wanted the Open to come to a cluster of Adelaide's beautiful sandbelt clubs on the western side of town.

"Leon said: 'Barry, this is not all about Grange, this is about South Australia'. I said: 'Of course it's not, I'm about golf in South Australia'. Our view was that if we were one out of three or four was better than none out of three or four'.''

So Royal Adelaide, through its general manager Andrew Gay, came on board, as well as Kooyonga and Glenelg, the 'big four' of South Australian golf. At Golf Australia level, commercial director Kent Boorman was an enthusiast. Boorman could see that the corporate opportunities would be plentiful in Adelaide, and he became a key driver out of Melbourne.

Golf Australia held discussions with the Victorian government, which was separately in the process of drawing the World Cup of Golf, and the Presidents Cup, to Melbourne. Late in 2015, GA announced that the South Australian bid had been accepted on a three-year deal, with the Open to be played at The Grange, Royal Adelaide (in 2017) and Kooyonga (2018). Stephen Pitt says that if the Open continues in Adelaide beyond the current three-year deal, then Glenelg could certainly come under consideration as a host venue.

"There's no doubt that the event coming to Adelaide was driven by the passion of the host clubs, the four potential host clubs because Glenelg had a role as well,'' said Pitt. "They persevered, they made sure that Government was involved, they helped corporately with opportunities to grow the event, with contacts, media, suppliers, they were just good in driving the process. We always thought the event would do really good here, and we're at the start of the week but already the vibe is very good. You can feel a high interest, the cocktail party was excellent, we had feedback that it was the best people had been to, the course is excellent.''

As the crowds flocked to The Grange today, nobody would have been prouder than Barry Linke. "I used to say to Trevor and Stephen, in Melbourne the women's Open got lost because there are so many events. Whereas bringing it to Adelaide it can create waves.''

And create waves, it duly has.