Growing up in Melbourne, I was always told that the Australian Open was golf’s ‘fifth major’. It had such a great history, so the case was persuasive. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player had all regularly come down to play and all three had won the event. So I was sold.
But, looking back now, that our Open was hailed as the fifth most important event in the game is hard to imagine. We believed it then though, because Greg Norman played every year and so did so many other iconic names of that era.
It all made sense. The Australian Open, after all, was the biggest event in a country that has produced so many good and great golfers. It was one of the tournaments everyone wanted to win. It might not have carried the biggest purse in the game, but, along with other national Opens around the world, it was really important. I mean, who doesn’t want to win something called, say, ‘The Scottish Open?’ A title like that carries with it great history and prestige.
I speak from experience. When I won the Australian Open at The Lakes back in 2010 I was competing around the world at the highest level. So that victory wasn’t the most important thing for me at the time. Back then, my head was full of the money and the exemptions and the notoriety that comes with winning anything. And the Australian Open didn’t provide much in any of those departments.
But as the years go by, that victory is more and more a source of great pride for me. By the time I am done playing, it will represent the second-biggest win of my career after the 2006 US Open. Bigger than any of my three World Golf Championship wins.
The Stonehaven Cup is just a really cool thing to have on my mantelpiece. Over time it will mean a lot more to me than, say, the Buick Invitational on the PGA Tour. I’m not really going to remember that too well in my old age. But I’m never going to forget the 2010 Australian Open. The passage of time makes it more and more important. And that is what ultimately proves it is a great tournament.
Given that fact, the Australian Open is the one tournament in this country that has a real chance to get really big, which is not to say that making it really big is going to be easy. The economic clout of the PGA Tour has done much to ‘ruin’ so many events held outside the United States. Only those in the Middle East and maybe the HSBC event in China have been able to compete financially. You need substantial corporate backing if you want to hang with those running $10m tournaments.
Money is just one of the problems facing the Australian Open today. Maybe 25 years ago the prize fund was competitive. But that is no longer the case. In fact, we are now playing the Australian Open for less money than when I turned professional two decades ago. It was a big tournament back then. Played towards the end of the northern hemisphere summer it was surrounded by a few other big events. So players from elsewhere could bring their families and make the long trip worthwhile. It made sense.
Now it makes less sense. The tournament date is an issue. This year, for example, the Australian Open clashes with the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, the season-ending event on the European Tour. So there is no possibility of any of the top-60 players on the world’s second-biggest circuit teeing-up at The Lakes. It also clashes with the biggest event on the Japanese Tour, the Dunlop Phoenix, which means the Aussies plying their trade on that Tour will be there and not at The Lakes.
“Imagine if the US Open sold itself to one city. What a waste of resources that would be. And the same is true of Australia.” – Geoff Ogilvy
Plus, for every foreign visitor, there is a tax issue in Australia. There is tax everywhere, of course. But in Australia we have a 48 percent withholding tax. So every player loses half of their prize money. They could win, say, $100,000 in the tournament, only get $50,000 and then have to pay their expenses on top. So maybe they take home around $30,000. That’s a lot of money, but the same players could go to a ‘Silly Season’ event in the United States, make the same money and stay at home.
Logistically, the Australian Open has been squeezed into a box that is difficult to escape from. No one did anything wrong to create that part of this scenario. It’s just what has happened. But plenty of mistakes have also been made along the way. Moving almost exclusively to Sydney was a great deal financially. But it has changed the identity of the Australian Open. Today, it is just a ‘normal’ tournament that happens to be played in Sydney. We’re not playing our national Open on a rota of our best courses.
Which is not to say that The Lakes, The Australian and Royal Sydney are not part of that rota. But we need to be showing the world what we have. And to almost shut out the likes of Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Royal Adelaide and New South Wales is a mistake. A golf tournament in many ways is an advertisement for the host country and we are not showing ourselves to our best advantage. Imagine if the US Open sold itself to one city. What a waste of resources that would be. And the same is true of Australia.
Another consequence of past decisions is that, logistically, the tournament is being run so poorly. So much doesn’t work too well … little things that make a difference. Parking. The roping-off of the fairways. I hate to say this, but the Australian Open feels like a second-second-rate tournament now. I’m sure it is run in the same way it was 30 years ago. But tournaments elsewhere have progressed so much. And the differences show.
That is true when you compare the Australian Open with other big sporting events in this country. The Open tennis, the Melbourne Cup, the Grand Prix and the AFL Grand Final are all miles better than the golf. They are massive events. And the Australian Open golf should be in that sort of conversation. But it has fallen behind all of those other sports.
There is an obvious solution.
The biggest success story in golf is the Masters at Augusta National. It is the only tournament that never talks about money. They don’t advertise or market themselves. They just go out of their way to run the best tournament they can. They want the best tees, the best fairways, the best ropes, the best food, the best parking – all to provide the best experience for everyone inside the gate. And, over the years, that constant attention to detail has created the world’s best golf tournament (the other three majors are championships), one that everyone wants to see.
That is a great example for the Australian Open.
The aim should be to run the best golf tournament in Australia. Do that and the money will come. How do I know that? There is a perfect example much closer to home than the state of Georgia in the US.
The Australian Open needs to follow the example of the Victorian Open. The Australian Open needs to make itself a better product. Forget about the money and just run a great tournament. Build it and the people will come. The Vic Open is living proof of that. Armed with a great concept – combining men and women’s events – and an interesting venue it has, in four or five years, gone from being a largely irrelevant state Open to a European Tour and Ladies European Tour event. It is now maybe the second-biggest event in the country.
All of which has been achieved by just running a nice tournament. Money was tight, so they clearly decided just to be the best tournament they could be. The result is that many of the best women players now come and play. The men too – and there will be more than ever of them next February. Proof that a quality tournament – run well – doesn’t have to chase the cash. As I said, get it right and the money will eventually come.
Think about it. Over the past few years the Vic Open has been widely talked about as the best event in the country. And now they are being rewarded for that. Next year it will offer more prizemoney than the Australian Open. Which is ridiculous. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. And shows how possible it is to create a big event by doing all the little things well.
“Over the past few years the Vic Open has been widely talked about as the best event in the country … Next year it will offer more prizemoney than the Australian Open. Which is ridiculous.” – Geoff Ogilvy
Sadly, the Australian Open seems to be heading in the opposite direction. For example, this year the event will not offer (as it has done in recent years) on-course radio coverage to spectators and, through the internet, golf fans worldwide. That is a mistake. Golf Australia should be employing youngsters to go out on the course so that they can tweet and Instagram everything they see and hear. Little things like that promote the event brilliantly. We need to tell the world how much fun you can have at the golf. Make it a cool thing to do. Get that message out there. Via the internet, the potential market is seven billion. Via Australian television the market is a proportion of 24 million.
Other things would obviously help. The Australian Open would overnight be a bigger deal if all of our best players were in the field. Every player who anyone has ever heard of needs to be competing. But the situation we have now – Jason Day, Marc Leishman and Adam Scott will all be missing this year – is not the fault of the players. It is the fault of the tournament.
A better job needs to be done with player liaison. Questions need to be asked. What do you want? Why aren’t you coming? Let’s fix it.
This might sound odd, but nearly everyone would want to play, even in a low-purse Australian Open. All we have to do is make it a little bit easier for them to come. I am absolutely certain that, with the exception of the top-dozen players, if you gave just about any PGA Tour player a first-class ticket – do a deal with Qantas if that is what it takes – booked them a nice hotel room and fed them for a week, many of them would play in the Australian Open. In the big scheme of things, that is not too expensive.
In the medium-term, a structure needs to be created where the Australian Open bounces around the country a bit more. Going to Melbourne in two of the next few years is not good enough. Governments shouldn’t own the national Open; the golfers should. I’m not sure what club members across the country would think of this idea, but here goes.
“Going to Melbourne in two of the next few years is not good enough. Governments shouldn’t own the national Open; the golfers should.” – Geoff Ogilvy
One way to raise money to operate the Australian Open would be to charge every golf club member, say $5. Or maybe a small percentage of whatever dues every member pays. In our annual fees we already pay insurance and some other little things. So why not an ‘Australian Open’ fee? Let’s say we have 500,000 registered golfers giving $10, that’s $5m and the total budget for the event.
For that gesture, every golf club member could get a discounted Australian Open ticket, all for contributing in a small way to the tournament fund. In other words, give every club member ownership in the tournament. Make it their event. Create some loyalty. And give them credit during the coverage. Tell them it is through their generosity that the tournament exists. Now come and see what you have done.
If some version of all of the above comes to pass, there is no reason why the Australian Open cannot compete with our other great sporting events – at least in terms of quality. No, it might not – at least in the short-term – engender the same respect worldwide. But give it time.