A brief history of the Australian Open and what to expect this week

The Australian Open returns to the Lakes Golf Club and golf tragic Scott Warren takes us on a brief tour of the history of this prestigious event and gives us a preview of what to expect this week.

Gary Player wins the Stonehaven Cup in 1974 at Lake Karrinyup in WA. (Photo courtesy of Golf Australia).

Words by Scott Warren

While the Australian Open no longer draws a deep “who’s who” of world golf as it did through the 1960s and ‘70s, it has experienced a resurgence in recent years to present fields sprinkled with stars, playing on at times very good courses bathed in summer sunshine at a time of year when much of the Northern Hemisphere has put the clubs away for winter.

And haven’t you heard the 2014 Australian Open was the making of Jordan Spieth as a golfer?!

Here’s a potted history of the event and what to expect from this year’s tournament at The Lakes GC in Sydney from 15-18 November.

THE ORIGINAL FIFTH MAJOR

Before talk of The Players Championship being golf’s fifth major, there was a consensus fifth-biggest deal in world golf.

Between 1958 and 1978, The Australian Open was won seven times by Gary Player, on six occasions by Jack Nicklaus, twice by Peter Thomson and once each by major champions Arnold Palmer, Kel Nagle and David Graham.

It was Nicklaus himself who referred to it as “the fifth major”, taking his count to 24, I suppose, and catapulting Player past Tiger Woods to 16, so I’m sure Gary would also abide.

When Greg Norman lifted The Stonehaven Cup for the fifth and final time in 1996, he enthused: “To see whether a championship has credibility, you look at the past champions and the difficulty of the courses. On this trophy we have the names of Nicklaus, Player, Thomson, Nagle, Elkington. That says a lot.”

I’m not sure whether it’s more notable that he left out Arnie or that he didn’t name-check himself.

THE DARK YEARS

To look at the list of champions soon after Norman won his last Australian Open evidences the relative decline of the championship.

Greg Chalmers, Aaron Baddeley twice as an amateur, Stuart Appleby, Stephen Allen, Peter Lonard, Robert Allenby, John Senden, Craig Parry – the mainstays of the Australian contingent on the US and European tours came home for Christmas and took turns to bank some beer money in the form of an AU$270,000 first prize. Remarkably, that’s AU$45,000 plus inflation more than the winner has received since 2012.

It was also during these lean years that organisers instituted a Party Hole, copying the infamous 16th at the Phoenix Open – never mind that this was a national open and that Australians don’t require a designated area to get drunk and rowdy in. What could possibly go wrong? Unsurprisingly, it was short-lived. It was scrapped after well-lubricated fans sledged Robert Allenby about his dying mother. Classy.

It’s no surprise of course, that as US tournament purses skyrocketed in the late ‘90s and into the 2000s on the back of Tiger Woods’ emergence, there was less reason for the weary – and now impossibly wealthy – top American pros to make the journey to Australia in November to play for a winner’s cheque that was the equivalent of a minor-placing at the now-defunct BC Open.

SHOW ME THE MONEY – THE STARS RETURN

What was worth coming for, however, were the increasingly lucrative appearance fees. With the tournament bankrolled by the New South Wales state government during the past decade, the top players found they could earn the equivalent of two major wins just by turning up in the Aussie summer when it’s cold back home.

And so the fields, while still generally lacking for bulk, began to wield some foreign star power once more. Not such a bad thing when the best possible result for the promoters is for the overseas attraction to go home with the trophy.

Rory McIlroy did that at Royal Sydney in 2013 before Jordan Spieth went 1st, T2nd, 1st from 2014-2016 to guarantee that for the rest of his days, an Australian voice will regularly pipe up towards the end of his tournament press conferences and ask, “Jordan, you famously broke through with a win at The Australian Open in 2014, do you reckon your career would have panned out like it has without that?”

Of course, this inquiry conveniently overlooks that by the time he shot that Sunday 63 at The Australian GC to win by six, he had already won on the PGA TOUR, finished second at The Masters, played in a President’s Cup and Ryder Cup and rocketed into the top 15 players in the world.

“But still, Jordan, mate, your 2015 season, two majors and so close in the two others, three other PGA TOUR wins, FedEx Cup champion, could you have achieved all that without the confidence you took from that commanding win over Rod Pampling in Sydney?!”

NATURALLY, THERE’S A JOHN DALY STORY

The notable exception to the modern one-or-two-foreign-headliners formula came in 2011 at The Lakes, with the tournament benefitting from being the week before the President’s Cup in Melbourne and attracting a field featuring Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Fred Couples, Nick Watney, Bill Haas, David Toms.

And John Daly.

Despite that assembly of major champions, Greg Chalmers won by a shot from John Senden and with that the tournament was destined to be remembered for John Daly doing John Daly things in the first round.

Having double-bogeyed the short par three ninth and copped a two-shot penalty for accidentally hitting a range ball in a greenside bunker at the 10th, Daly got the red mist happening when he rinsed his approach shot at the par five 11th.

He proceeded to pump about two sleeves of balls short right of the green into the water (genuinely, no one seems to know for sure if it was five, six or seven), prompting one punter to despair as Daly reached for yet another ball from his caddie, “go left, you dick!”.

Having gone full Tin Cup, and with his ball supply reportedly exhausted, Daly walked off the golf course.

Tournament organisers tut-tutted like they didn’t secretly hope something like this might happen when they signed him up to play in the event and declared he would never be welcome back.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2018

If recent Aussie Opens have been Hollywood blockbusters starring a leading man who only needs his first name to identify him, this year is more like a minor-studio ensemble cast effort where you kind of recognise everyone, don’t totally recognise anyone, but reckon you might have seen that guy in a rom-com 10 years ago that you seem to remember was pretty good.

No Rory or Jordan, who have performed strongly both on and off the course from 2013 to 2017 as draw cards. Spieth is getting married the next week, as is Dustin Johnson’s caddie brother Austin – the two guest lists wiping out most of the world top 10 from both this tournament and the World Cup in Melbourne next week.

No Adam Scott (a starter in nine of the past 12 Opens) or Geoff Ogilvy (11 of the past 12) who have done more than their fair share of heavy lifting to support the tournament and the Aussie tour more generally in the past decade.

No Jason Day, obviously. For the record, a no-show in 2018 makes it just 3 of 13 Aussie Opens Jason Day has played in since turning professional in 2006 (2011 T4th, 2013 T6th, 2017 5th).

The Race to Dubai concludes the same weekend, keeping the European Tour’s stars away. One of the biggest casualties of that is young Aussie Lucas Herbert, who is understandably taking advantage of a breakthrough year that has seen him move from 278th in the world at the end of 2017 to 84th this week.

Such was his determination to support the game at home despite of missing the Aussie Open, he flew to Melbourne after the British Masters to play in the three-day Eynesham Pro-Am before returning to duty for European Tour events in South Africa and Dubai.

SO WHO IS IN THE FIELD?

Cameron Smith and Cameron Davis lead the home contingent. While you might recall Davis as the defending champion and a recent graduate from the Web.com to the PGA TOUR, you probably best remember him for this video of him striping the ball both right and left-handed. Freak.

Of the Aussie mainstays, you can look forward to following Marcus Fraser, Craig Parry, Robert Allenby, Peter Fowler, Jon Senden, Peter Senior, Greg Chalmers, Peter Lonard, Stephen Allan, Peter O’Malley, Nick O’Hern and Rod Pampling.

The foreign names you should recognise in this year’s field are Nicolas Colsaerts, Matt Kuchar, Keegan Bradley, Byeong Hun An, Brandt Snedeker and Brendan Steele.

Adding further interest are the likes of emerging Mexican Abraham Ancer, Kiwi Danny Lee and India’s Anirban Lahiri.

What that group lacks in big name pulling power, it makes up for in form: Kuchar last weekend notched his first PGA TOUR win in more than four years in a field where Lee finished second, Lahiri was tied for 10th and Ancer contended before fading to finish tied 21st after top five finishes in Malaysia and Las Vegas.

Check out the full Australian Open field.

WHAT’S THE COURSE LIKE?

If you’re someone who’s interest in pro golf is at all tied to the quality of the courses they play on, this is a week to tune in or set the recorder.

The Lakes is part of Sydney’s recent rotation of Australian Open venues, also hosting when Geoff Ogilvy won his first and only Open in 2010, when Greg Chalmers beat that star-studded field (and John Daly, though in fairness Daly really beat himself) in 2011, and when Peter Senior prevailed in 2012 aged 52.

Before that it played host for Steve Elkington (1992), Greg Norman (1980) and Jack Nicklaus (1964) victories, though the course doesn’t much resemble the one on which those tournaments were played.

The course had amassed a mixed architectural pedigree over the years, with Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge redesigning the original layout in 1970 after a motorway was ploughed through the middle of the property to service the neighbouring airport. Then Jack Newton and Peter Thomson’s design firms each made some changes, as the 1980s’ and 1990s’ design and maintenance fads came and went.

Cue Mike Clayton’s design firm (then Mike Clayton Golf Design, now OCCM Golf, named for principals Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Clayton, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead) carrying out a complete rebuild in 2007-2008 that retained the hole corridors but totally re-imagined their playability, aesthetic and strategic merit.

So good was their work that a too-small wedge of land between a motorway and an airport is now home to one of the best stretches of golf anywhere in Australia, just be sure to replay your shot if your ball happens to strike the belly of a passing A380.

A view of the first hole at The Lakes Golf club showing before (top) and after (bottom) the redesign.

Gone were the forests that narrowed holes and in some cases separated the waterways the course is named after from the holes themselves. Instead sandy wastes separate the holes without infringing on the width that provides the interest and options that are now hallmarks of the course.

That same width ensures that while water is a feature on eight holes, it’s a hazard to be taken on if you want to gain a benefit, but can be generally be avoided if you prefer. Only twice – at the short par five 14th and 17th holes, is the golfer forced to hit over water.

The quality of the kikuyu surfaces under the care of course superintendent Anthony Mills deserves particular mention. The combination of the firm sandy soil and tight green surrounds at The Lakes brings more recovery options into play than you would expect on a kikuyu course. Fans of PGA TOUR stop Riviera in Los Angeles may scoff, but for my vote The Lakes possesses the best kikuyu of any golf course anywhere in the world.

And while the greensites can be wild, generally large and many raised up above their surroundings, the putting surfaces are largely divided into a series of small bowls with not too much trickery at play for those who can place their approach in the same segment as the flag.

Wind can also play a major role in the defences of the course — the 2010-2012 Opens were won with scores of -19, -13 and -4. No prizes for guessing when it blew the strongest and notable that such conditions allowed a 52-year-old to prevail.

Got five hours to kill and want to get intimate with the course? Here’s the full final day’s coverage from 2011:

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