Date: November 15, 2018
Author: John Huggan @ The Lakes

HUGGAN: Finding out who can play

This was the sort of afternoon when you find out who can really play. The sun wasn’t shining. It wasn’t flat calm —  far from it. And it was raining off and on. In short, the post-lunch wave of players competing in the opening round of the 103rd Australian Open at The Lakes got the wrong end of the draw.

So this was a time to keep the head down – normally the worst advice in golf — focus on scoring rather than swinging and simply survive well enough to fight another day. It’s one of the game’s hoariest cliches, but it is so for a reason: you cannot win the tournament on Thursday, but you can certainly lose it.

Given all of the above, the eye was drawn to the 12.40 tee-time and the threesome of Peter Senior, Peter O’Malley and Matt Griffin. Two of Australian golf’s most respected veterans – neither of whom is eligible for what Lee Trevino christened the “flat-bellies” tour – alongside one of the nation’s most consistent performers. All in all, a group that looked like it could teach a keen spectator a thing or two.

And that spectator would have been correct. Over the course of the opening nine-holes, a variety of lessons were there to be learned.

Walking off the first green, Senior — Australian Open champion here in 2012, the last time the event came calling — was already four-over par. The opening tee-shot had veered left into water. The second effort was way right and found a wicked lie on a sand hill. Eventually, it all added up to an eight on the par-4. But, other than a slight acceleration in his rolling gait, it was impossible to detect even a hint of what Senior had just endured.

But the turn, the 59-year old Queenslander was six-over the card. But it could have been worse. A lot worse. A 40-foot putt for par disappeared at the fifth. He needed two shots to escape another ghastly lie in the bunker left of the sixth green – but made the putt for bogey. A couple of decent second putts for pars also found the bottom of the cup.

The lesson: Never give-up, even when it might be easier to shrug and think of better times to come.

Then there was O’Malley. Long known for the consistency and accuracy of his long game and, sadly, a propensity to struggle from short range on the greens, the former Scottish Open champion has switched to the long putter in an effort to beat the dreaded heebie-jeebies. And it seems to have helped.

Courtesy of a deft chip from just short of the opening green, O’Malley saved par. Bogeys at the third and fourth set him back but a brace of birdies balanced the books. Yes, a short one was missed for what would have been a third birdie on the 8th. But a tee-shot to a foot on the next green – strangely greeted with almost complete indifference by the spectators behind the putting surface – took the 53-year old New South Welshman to the turn in even par.

That all sounds good but hardly exceptional. But as one of the shorter-hitters in the game, the soft conditions underfoot only exacerbated the obvious thought that the course O’Malley was playing differed hugely from that being played by the long-hitting Nicolas Colsaerts in the group ahead. Take the 490-yard third hole. Where the Belgian was home in two with a drive and a mid-iron, his Aussie counterpart came up short with two woods. Level par after nine-holes was therefore a more than noble effort.

The lesson: In rough weather striking the ball properly is at least as important as hitting it far.

Sadly, in deteriorating conditions the back-nine was less kind to O’Malley. Two bogeys preceded an unscheduled visit to the lake fronting the par-5 14th green that led to a double-bogey. In the end, he subsided to a 77, four shots better than Senior.

Griffin, not surprisingly, fared better than either of his companions. The Japan Tour regular and former New Zealand Open champion, a solid striker in any weather, made three birdies and four bogeys enroute to a one-over par round of 73 that has him six-shots off the lead. Not great, but certainly not bad on a tough afternoon.

The lesson: Pay attention to even the most obvious golfing cliches. The 35-year old Victorian may not win come Sunday, but neither did he lose anything on a wet and windy Thursday.