Down and under: Australian Open, PGA Championship get the axe due to Covid-19

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October 18, 2020 5:00 AM

Pro golfers rely on the Australian Open, Australian PGA Championship—the biggest official money spinners

Adam Scott will be defending his Australian Open title in 2021Adam Scott will be defending his Australian Open title in 2021

The Australian Open and PGA Championships 2020 get the axe. Funnily enough, I learnt more about the Australian Open and PGA Championships when they were cancelled this year. My ignorance about the oldest championships in Australia (both events were first played in 1905) was somewhat dispelled when I read that it was only the first time since the Second World War that the Australian Open was being cancelled.

The governing bodies which sanction the events decided there was no point in trying to hold a truncated-field tourney in cities that are still very much under lockdown.

While I’d be lying if I said that news of the event felt like a body blow, (say like the postponement of the Open Championship this year to July 2021), it did make me think about pro golfers in Australia who rely on that tour to make a living. The Australian Open, and the Australian PGA Championship are the biggest official money spinners on the Australasian Tour, with a combined purse of nearly three million Australian dollars. To get a sense of the monies that pros, who ply their trade on this tour make, consider that the order of merit winner last year-Ryan Fox-pocketed 307,000 (AUD) in the 2019 season. In comparison Jazz Janewattananond, who topped the OOM on the Asian Tour in that season made just over a million dollars (USD)-about five times more than Fox. No surprise then that players from Australia and New Zealand try and play multiple tours to make a living.

This piece of news also got me thinking about golf in Australia. For the longest time, the continent was synonymous with Greg Norman—the legendary golfer known more for his unfortunate losses than his two Major championship wins. There was a time in the 1990s when owning a ‘Shark’ golf tee was quite the statement; with a clothing and accessories line, equipment and a smorgasbord of diversified business holdings, Norman the businessman has been at least as successful as Norman the golfer. No small compliment considering that Norman, a world golf hall of fame inductee, was the world’s top-ranked player for a (then) record 331 weeks, finished seven seasons on top of the world golf rankings, and won the PGA Tour of Australia’s Order of Merit six times.

When I think of the ‘Shark’ I remember shots of him alighting from his chopper at PGA Tour events, when most players flew commercial airlines, or even took the road. But more than business acumen, it was Norman’s upright golf swing that really made an impression; from a 27-handicap as a 15-year-old, Norman went to scratch in 18 months and embarked on a career as one of the greatest drivers in the game. Those interested in the golf swing of yesteryears, should watch ‘The Long Game,’ — an astonishingly simple instructional video in which Norman elaborates on his swing technique. Norman also played with his own version of the interlock that he called the ‘intermesh.’ I can only say that unlike many of the modern players who struggle with injury, Norman continues to have a real lash at the ball. There’s got to be something said for longevity of a golf swing.

The next great player from Australia to capture international attention was Adam Scott. The tall man’s copybook setup continues to be a poster for the ‘matchstick men,’ angles that coaches talk about. The 40-year-old’s career appeared to be on the wane until he won the Genesis Open on the PGA Tour in February this year. Scott’s two-shot triumph at Riviera Country Club, in a field that included nine of the world’s top 10 players, gave him his 14th official PGA Tour title. More importantly the win brought Scott-who hadn’t won for over four years-a three-year-exemption and 1.6 million dollars (USD) in prize money. It also catapulted the Australian to a world ranking of number seven-the first time he had been in the Top-10 since June 2017. Like all the Australian players of his generation, Scott idolises Norman and will be hoping to overhaul his hero’s career title tally of 20 events on the PGA Tour.

While Norman’s tally is a fair way off, Scott’s priority would be to join the Australian great as a two-times major winner. He contended in three of the four big ones last year. Even though he didn’t win on the USPGA Tour over the past few seasons, Scott found his mojo in December 2019 when he won the Australian PGA Championship. He’ll now have the bittersweet distinction of being the defending champion for another year. The Coronavirus-related postponement and cancellations are expected to make things harder for all of sport in Australia but especially for professional golf. PGA of Australia chief executive Gavin Kirkman, ALPG chief executive Karen Lunn and Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland confirmed that besides the Australian Open and PGA Championship, the Women’s Australian Open won’t proceed because of the global pandemic. “We have collectively spent months in exhaustive consultation with all relevant authorities and our sanctioning partners to try to find a way to stage all three events safely and at that world-class level to which we’ve all become accustomed. But even with multiple contingency plans, it has reached a point where decisions have to be made and this, regrettably, is the one we’ve had to take,” Kirkman said. A string of measures that included players being isolated in a hub and competing while serving a strict quarantine period, as well as restricting crowd numbers and movement, were considered but eventually discarded as being unviable.

Even more worryingly, Emirates, the longtime sponsor of the Australian Open is, like most airlines around the world, in deep financial stress. It’s a moot point that the brand will be clamping down on its international sponsorships to cut costs; just the three-year deal for the Australian Open, signed in 2018, will save the carrier 5.5 million dollars (AUD) if it’s not renewed. The bright spot, for a change, is that the sponsor of the women’s event-ISPS Handa, a Japanese non-profit organisation that focuses singularly on promoting sport around the world-is not expected to follow suit. But the organisation could use a corporate helping hand. As could all of professional sport in Australia.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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