The Australian footprint in the top 100 of the men’s world ranking isn’t as large as it once was, laments Australasian Tour Tournament Director Andrew Langford-Jones. Here, he examines why our numbers have been in decline over the past dozen years.
It was 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. The weather was beautiful and the PGA Tour of Australasia had assembled for the Fiji International at the majestic Natadola Bay Golf Course. As part of my daily check, I stopped by the practice range and to my surprise, there were only two players there with a third – an up and coming Aussie – packing up. I stopped my cart and enquired:
“Are you finished for the day?”
He replied: “Yep I’ve hit my 150 balls, time to get some rest.”
“150”, I said with tongue in cheek, “in the old days, the guys would hit up to 500 a day”. His reply flattened me.
“That was the old days, nowadays with the aid of Trackman we can achieve the same results much quicker. Besides my sports psych tells me that if I want longevity in the game, 150 balls a day is plenty.”
Looking at the remaining two players on the range, who had obviously chosen the old route to success, I responded sarcastically.
“It must be a hard decision for you young guys, five years at the top of the pile and risk burnout, against 20 years of mediocrity.”
RIGHT: Long range sessions during tournaments are now a thing of the past. PHOTO: Getty Images.
The two players still on the range were Vijay Singh – a former World No.1 – now aged 56 and about to hit his 1000th ball for the day and Ryan Fox – the New Zealander – who had just risen to No.65 in the world at the time. My sarcasm obviously fell on deaf ears as the youngster disappeared towards the car park.
Maybe I was harsh on him because perhaps the better question was: Where were the other 141 players who were playing that week?
Still, when you look at the raw numbers it makes you think.
In 2007, there were 11 Australian male Tour players ranked in the world’s top 60. In 2019, there are only four in that bracket.
Which begs the question…
WHY THE DROP OFF?
Is it the structure developing our young talent? Is it the lack of dedication and the lack of hard work by today’s aspiring champions? Is it the pathway they choose? Or has the rest of the world become better, thereby making it harder to reach the top?
The answer is probably partly a combination of all four factors.
Many senior players believe the current structure engaged by Golf Australia is not preparing the next crop of talent in the right way. Many believe we are producing clones with the same swing and mind set. The program’s critics would argue that everyone has a different body shape and a different swing as a result. Yet all, with the aid of Trackman and sports psychologists, are encouraged to perfect the same swing, pre-shot routine and setup. They claim it just doesn’t work. Not enough time and effort is being put into “just getting the ball into the hole for a lesser number.”
The other criticism involves the coaches Golf Australia has engaged. Similar to the AFL, many believe it’s hard to coach at the top level if you have never played there yourself. Similarly, unless you have played at the top level on the Tour, they say it is hard to understand what’s required to be successful.
Australia’s most successful modern coaching team – Steve Bann, Dale Lynch and Dennis McDade – each had several years on Tour. Their graduates include Geoff Ogilvy, Robert Allenby, Aaron Baddeley, Mat Goggin, K.J.Choi, Stuart Appleby and Marc Leishman among many others including Marcus Fraser and Matt Griffin, who they claim are successful proof of this theory.
The other criticism of the program is that all coaches in all states are teaching the same programs and are not tailoring to the individual needs of the players. The question often asked is: would Jim Furyk be selected in a Golf Australia High Performance Squad given his unusual swing? Or, for that matter, even our own Peter Senior?
The latest generation of Australian players, whether in the chase for fame or money, or the influence of parents and/or misguided managers, largely have chosen to head straight to the US PGA Tour. In the past, the likes of Norman, Ogilvy, Adam Scott, Allenby and others chose to hone their craft in Europe before trying their hands on the world’s toughest Tour.
They matured not only as players but also as people before taking the final step up. The challenge of playing different types of golf courses, visiting different countries and cultures and learning the crucial art of surviving on their own, all stood them in good stead before tackling the world’s biggest Tour.
“There are a few youngsters who seem happy to ply their trade elsewhere and learn the global lessons.”
There are a few youngsters, primarily Lucas Herbert in Europe and the likes of Anthony Quayle in Japan and Zach Murray in Asia, who seem happy to ply their trade elsewhere and learn the global lessons.
But the overwhelming sentiment amongst the next wave is, “which way to the US of A?”
Even for those who get close, the last step is often brutal without the fall back knowledge – just ask Oliver Goss. He was runner-up at the US Amateur in 2013 and was low amateur at the Masters the following year. He turned professional after the US Open that year. After four years of trying to make it to the big show through the Web.com Tour he came home to Western Australia and is working at becoming a golf coach.
I do have to acknowledge here, that some are whisked away by the often-misleading claims some money-grubbing managers make in order to land a new client, without thinking of their individual backgrounds and needs. This is a fundamental problem with the riches available in the United States and emerging players would do well to remember that very few achieve the big bucks some of the less scrupulous managers theoretically wave before their eyes.
DEDICATION & WORK ETHIC
Recently, I took Brad James, head of Golf Australia’s High Performance team, to visit the new facility of the St Kilda AFL club.
It opened our eyes as to exactly what is required to reach the top of any professional sport. Even though St Kilda has admittedly struggled in recent years, it’s not for a lack of effort nor professionalism.
From the amazing training facilities to the professional help that is available to the players, nothing is left to chance.
Aside from the medical, coaching and player welfare available to every player, each player has a seven-day work program specifically designed for their role within the club. They start at 7.30am and finish at 5.30pm each day. They take in stretching sessions, yoga classes, weigh-ins, dietary sessions, weights, individual skill sessions, team training and separate sessions with their relevant line coaches, before finally a meeting with a welfare officer to make sure all was good away from the club before actual team training commences.
Brad and I looked at each other and acknowledged that golfers have a long way to go to be near as professional in their preparation.
I then reflected back to the range at Natadola – and more recently, the Victorian Open at Thirteenth Beach, where once again it was Tuesday afternoon at 4pm. There were 38 players on the putting green – 36 women and two men: Peter Senior and Peter O’Malley. They were probably the only two who didn’t need to be there, both now aged on the wrong side of 50. Where was everyone else?
I thought back to when I started with the Tour. The range was full. Norman, Senior, Peter Fowler, Craig Parry and Peter Lonard hit thousands of balls each day.
The game has changed dramatically.
The players of today are doubtlessly fitter, stronger and certainly eat much better. But, because of Trackman and the sports psych, way fewer balls are now hit on the range. Is it a better use of time or a different work ethic to the former champions? Who is to say?
I do remember Peter Fowler saying at a dinner: “The life of a professional golfer should be no different to any other job. At the course at 8:30 each morning, leave the course at 5:30 each night. And I’m not talking tournament weeks.”
I guess the philosophy has worked for him because, at 58, he is still making cuts in the “flat belly” events and dominates the Legends Tour, along with Senior and Mike Harwood.
GROWTH OF THE GAME WORLDWIDE
There is no doubt global competition has improved in the past three decades. Who would have believed The Open Champion would be an Italian and that Korea and China would be as influential in the world game as they are today?
It is less than 20 years ago since our Tour had as many as three events co-sanctioned with the secondary US Nationwide Tour – now the Korn Ferry Tour.
As these three events were the largest prizemoney events on that Tour, if an Australian did well he was a big chance of playing the following year on the main US PGA Tour. This opportunity no longer exists as the Americans closed that door years ago.
Today a similar opportunity exists with the European Tour. The Australasian Tour currently has four co-sanctioned events with Europe and, if you play well in those events, the money will take you a long way towards securing a card on the European Tour. Two recent examples are Lucas Herbert and Jason Norris, yet still most of our young hopefuls want to head straight to the US.
The growth of the game worldwide is undeniable and I have no doubt it is harder to get on a world Tour than in the past. But the fact remains that if a player shoots four rounds of 68, he will go close to winning on any Tour.
The hard truth is that, apart from Jason Day and Cameron Smith, we have not produced a world-class player – to me someone who has won either twice in Europe or twice in the US – aged under 35 in the past 15 years.
We need to start producing winners – Scott, Leishman, Day and Smith cannot carry the Aussie game much longer.
In 2003, 18 Australasian PGA Tour members played in The Open Championship. In 2019, we might have seven or eight. So what has happened? Where is our next Jason Day?
Heroes encourage kids to play. Kids become golf club members. Members keep the golf clubs alive and buy equipment and take lessons, which in turn keeps the PGA professionals happy and the game prospers. Each spoke in the wheel keeps the game healthy.
We need some new heroes.
So come on Herbert, Min Woo Lee, Harrison Endycott and Zach Murray! Let’s go Ryan Ruffels, Curtis Luck, Cameron Davis and Brett Coletta ... These are just some of the impressive youngsters I have seen in the past couple of years. I just hope that they and their many peers take the next step to flying the Aussie flag back where it belongs in world golf.
Where is the next Greg Norman?