A significant change in Australian golf’s biggest tournament occurred in 2021 without much fanfare or notice. But it has significant repercussions and possibly signals a very different men’s Australian Open in the future.
It is widely known that the game’s chief amateur governing body, Golf Australia (not associated with this publication), owns and runs the men’s and women’s Australian Open tournaments.
Cancellations due to Covid, previous focuses on big name players to drive event interest and locked in state government deals seeing the Open not played on our best courses, drawing criticism for Golf Australia from far corners.
Yet, there was an underlying element to how the Australian Open was put together that meant it was not just in the hands of Golf Australia, and now CEO James Sutherland.
In 2009 World Sport Group was named the promoter of the Australian Open for six years, a deal that spawned extensions with what became Lagardere and most recently SPORTFIVE. The current deal set to run out in 2023, that end date brought forward, Golf Australia now having greater control over its showpiece event.
“We have had a long relationship with SPORTFIVE and predecessor organisations that have played this role of being the promoter and manager of the Australian Open for a long time,” James Sutherland exclusively told Golf Australia magazine.
“Having cancelled the 2020 event and then in the middle of last year having a lot of uncertainty about whether 2021 would go ahead, we were having conversations sort of explaining where things were up to and it just felt in those discussions that the time was right to maybe think about what the future was.
“In my own mind, I had a view that I would like to have seen us have the rights going forward to that event. We had a couple of years to run, just the unusual circumstances of the pandemic meant that we both found ourselves on fertile ground and it was very much a mutual decision to work through that and it didn’t happen without a sense of immense gratitude for the job they had done.”
Under Sutherland’s tenure at Golf Australia, which began in mid-2020, there has not been an Australian Open, and while admitting he is still wrapping his head around the vagaries of golf tournaments, the former Cricket Australia boss admits control over the event was something he had on his radar upon taking the top job.
“I mean big picture there is a lot of ideas floating around. Our aspiration is certainly to continue to be the pinnacle event of the Australian summer ..." - James Sutherland.
“Personally, it is one of the things that we do as an organisation that I guess we are well known for,” he said of running the Australian Open. “And to that end, I guess it goes hand-in-hand with the development of a national strategy and that was on our mind. We were in the midst of a strategy and there were some emerging themes that were coming out of that around developing a summer of golf.
“While we hadn’t moved to the same office (as the PGA), we knew that was going to happen, so there a whole lot of things that I guess pointed to us both from operational sense being more in control of our destiny with that event, but also giving ourselves more flexibility and optionality as we develop our relationship with the PGA.”
Having another party exerting some control of your main tournament was questioned by some in the sport. One high profile Tour player noting to this reporter that it felt as though the Australian Open had been sold and such a situation would never happen with The Open or U.S. Open.
RIGHT: The existing promotional contract for the Australian Open is one of a number of unique elements in golf that Sutherland has encountered since arriving in golf. PHOTO: Scott Barbour/Getty Images.
The details of the deal and how it operated in real time are not exactly known, but Sutherland does acknowledge it was a unique situation to walk into from a sport where the pinnacle product, The Ashes, would likely never leave the control of CA.
“Look, a little bit and that’s not taking away anything from the roll they did. Clearly there was a specific service agreement of what we were asking of them and what they provided in return. And what our obligations were under that arrangement,” he said of the unique nature of the deal.
“For it to go on for as long as it had, everyone was very comfortable and happy with that. But it was different to what I might of experienced. One of the challenges for golf as a sport and industry in Australia is it is quite fragmented in its leadership and operational management. As a sport if we can declutter a little bit and not just align behind a purpose and a strategy, but also work much closer together, then it follows that a sport can benefit from that.
Added Sutherland of the criticisms of the past: “I don’t know all the background and it goes back a long way, so there will have been reasons for it then, there will have been reasons for why that agreement has been rolled over through that period. I am a novice when it comes to golf administration and golf tournaments and events, and in my time sadly we haven’t yet hosted an Australian Open.
"So I don’t understand all of that detail to the history, but I also don’t necessarily understand or underestimate the challenges and complexity of putting on a major event. Golf Australia is not rich in resources to put on these events and we are taking a deep breath in taking this challenge on. But we are also at the same time optimistic.”
Obviously, Sutherland is unlikely to take pot shots at his predecessors that put the promotional deal in place, nor take aim at SPORTFIVE who remain an important player in the world of golf through its player management among other elements of its business. But he is clearly excited about what is ahead for the Aussie Open.
But what exactly is the future for the men’s Australian Open?
“I mean big picture there is a lot of ideas floating around. Our aspiration is certainly to continue to be the pinnacle event of the Australian summer, we don’t want that to be independent of others and other organisations, like the PGA and WPGA. We want it to be complimentary.
“There are certainly big aspirations, you can’t just flick a switch and make that happen, you have to sort of step that through.”
One possible road that has been widely suggested is following the Vic Open model of playing men’s and women’s events concurrently. A concept Sutherland saw in person for the first time in February and was suitably impressed.
"One of the challenges for golf as a sport and industry in Australia is it is quite fragmented in its leadership and operational management." - James Sutherland.
Concurrent Australian Opens are certainly one of the many avenues being considered by Sutherland and co. But like many others, he doesn’t appear to subscribe to the one size fits all in terms of tournament golf in Australia.
“Yeah that’s a chance. I think it is one of many ideas that is floating out there and in some ways many of us in sport, in cricket, footy, golf, or whatever, we look at the Australian Open tennis and think what a great event that is. It’s a men’s and women’s event, sure it is a grand slam and we aren’t unfortunately, but at the same time it is a great event and celebration of tennis.”
Looking externally to other sports is positive news for Australian golf, with simply following the mould of what has come before or what is done overseas having not helped to elevate a tournament that was once considered just below the majors in terms of importance.
“I think we are open to all sorts of ideas. Ultimately by having the rights to manage and promote this event, it offers us the flexibility and the luxury to think about these sorts of things,” Sutherland said. “Everything is on the table now, where previously we had a service agreement with someone who had the management rights. So whilst there was some flexibility, we didn’t have ultimate flexibility and now we do, we can be open to anything.
“We are going to try things and do things differently and maybe not everything will work. But we are determined to invest in the event and help it grow and make sure it is a celebration of golf and a complimentary part of a great summer of golf, which we want to continue to service the players and fans, and create a pathway for players so they have opportunities to develop their game and ideally go on to bigger and better things overseas.”
The mention of overseas from Sutherland when discussing the Australian Open will send many thoughts to the chasing of overseas talent, and overseas based Aussies like that has been something of a hot button issue in the past.
Attracting a high quality field remains at the core of the Australian Open, and having our best peg it up is part of its history. But again, the added freedom to do that without needing to consult, or even intrust, another party hopefully makes this process smoother.
Hopefully even less fraught with missteps as was occasionally the case when appearance fees made their way to golfers that didn’t truly garner the attention the tournament so richly craved.
Sutherland acknowledging the positive outcomes of the 2021/22 summer of golf without the big name overseas players, both in terms of results and ratings.
“Yeah that’s a chance. I think it is one of many ideas that is floating out there." - Sutherland on concurrent men's and women's Australian Opens.
“It still has been a good summer, and all credit to the PGA and WPGA for their initiative for getting their Championships away, I thought it was a fantastic event and there have been other successes,” he said. “TPS series is going well, Vic Open was good and there were some things that came out of the Vic Open that we learnt.
“It wasn’t sanctioned by the LPGA or DP World Tour, but that didn’t seem to have a significant impact on television ratings or the crowd and the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the players. So there was some positives out of that to say we can still put on great events, we want to attract the best players in the world, or as many as possible, but we have got a lot of very, very talented golfers here that can still put on a great show.”
Co-sanctioning is yet another of the constant discussion points around the Australian Open, with the PGA Tour of Australasia expanding its strategic alignment with the DP World Tour and pre-Covid two co-sanctioned events with the LPGA Tour run by the WPGA Tour of Australasia.
Sutherland acknowledges the benefits these arrangements have provided to the respective organisations and admits that if the potential co-sanctioning of the men’s Open was to come up it would be strongly considered.
“Yeah, I could be convinced of that,” he joked at the mention of a co-sanctioned Australian Open. “We will weigh that up and ultimately my view is that we are not servicing golf around the world, our first priority is to service golfers and the golf fans around Australia. And if we believe that co-sanctioning is good for our golf fans and golfers, then we will fully explore that.”
"You can have big ambitions and aspirations, but the next thing is to deliver and continue to improve. And deliver on people’s hopes and aspirations for the game.” - James Sutherland.
Servicing golfers around Australia with the Australian Open has been something of a misnomer in recent years, with the tournament solely held in Sydney since 2006 as part of deals made with the New South Wales state government.
Government deals are something of a necessary evil for the Australian Open without a huge broadcast deal to prop up the occasional down year commercially and through ticketing.
Although that may continue to be the case, Sutherland is taking a wait and see approach to what those deals look like and indeed a future list of potential host venues for a tournament that hasn’t been played in Western Australia or Tasmania (and once in South Australia) since before Tiger Woods was born.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said when asked about government contracts moving forward. “We as a national governing body want to share premium golf content around the country. So that is a high level philosophical or even policy position that we take. But then it is obviously that it is also couched in the context in how do we make ends meet.”
Although the exact detail of what comes next for the storied Australian Open that was first played in 1904 is scarce, seemingly the decision to take full control of the tournament and do away with a long standing, and sometimes controversial, promotional deal appears a positive one. But of course, the proof will be in the pudding, with the first test to come later this year when the Australian Open finally returns to the golfing calendar.
And as for his own future in the job and vision moving forward having made what feels a monumental decision shaping golf in this country, Sutherland gives little credo to discussion that he might be out as quick as he came in.
“I am not here to keep a seat warm for anyone,” Sutherland told this publication. “My record in cricket is that we were constantly on the move and trying to get better, and I’m passionate about golf, I am learning more about the business of golf and coming to understand what works and what doesn’t. But I am passionate about golf and the view that as a sport, both on the participation side and the commercial and consumer side, that we have as a sport so much potential and so much opportunity to get better and a significant part of that is collaboration and working together.
“It is one thing to put a strategy together, it is another thing to walk the walk. You can have big ambitions and aspirations, but the next thing is to deliver and continue to improve. And deliver on people’s hopes and aspirations for the game.”
Those hopes and aspirations for the Australian Open have long been high for the entirety of the Australian golf community. Here’s hoping this move helps deliver some of them and sees the sparkle return to the Stonehaven Cup after more than two years sitting on the shelf.