Pro-am format may set fun tone for NZ Open

MATT RICHENS IN ARROWTOWN
Last updated 13:32 26/02/2014

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Leading Kiwi golfers are hopeful the New Zealand Open's more casual pro-am format will help take the pressure off breaking an 11-year winless drought.

Mahal Pearce became the 21st and last New Zealand winner of the tournament back in 2003 and each year without a Kiwi winner, the pressure builds.

The professionals this year play alongside amateurs who have paid to play and it's hoped that will keep the fun factor up and the pressure down.

There is also a change of location from Christchurch to Arrowtown where the players play on both The Hills and Millbrook resort courses.

The Hills was the home of the New Zealand PGA Championship where Kiwi No 1 and world No 214 Michael Hendry won in both 2012 and 2013 - another confidence booster for the locals.

And although the title of New Zealand Open champion is up for grabs, the recent NZ PGA tournament at The Hills means there's a feel of familiarity around.

This is the first national open to play under the format made famous by the European Tour's Alfred Dunhill Links played across three courses, including St Andrews in Scotland and the PGA Tour's Pebble Beach pro-am in California.

"I like it. I've played the Dunhill links a couple of times in Scotland. It's always a good fun event and it's good to have the amateurs around to lighten the mood a bit," said Josh Geary, who has been the top Kiwi at four of the last five New Zealand Opens.

Mark Brown wasn't so convinced a tournament of the New Zealand Open's importance and history should be played under the format, though he did enjoy it.

"I love the event. The NZ PGA was a real boutique, unique tournament," he said. "Combining with the open, I'm neutral towards it. Whatever it takes to get a tournament across the line commercially, and the fact is we're playing for more prizemoney now and it's a bigger tournament. For that I'm grateful.

"For your national open, preferably not, but that's what it takes and we do so much of it now I actually really enjoy the format."

He said any worries players had about the format would be shelved on the course.

"You're still playing for the national title."

Ryan Fox also enjoyed playing alongside amateurs, but he has the added advantage of familiarity; he's playing with the same partner he's had for both NZ PGA events at The Hills.

"It makes it a bit more relaxed and fun. It might make it a bit slower but we've all played enough pro-ams to deal with that.

"It still feels like PGA which we enjoyed, but having the New Zealand Open tag to it just makes it more prestigious."

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Playing alongside everyday hackers doesn't always make things easier for the pros, though, as 2001 New Zealand Open champion David Smail, one of eight previous winners in the field, found out at the Dunhill Links.

"I played with a guy and decided he liked the way I marked my ball after the first day so he came out the next day with exactly the same mark as I had," he said.

"We hit it down the 10th hole at St Andrews - he was down the left and I was down the right, but it was an undulating fairway and the balls crossed. I ended up hitting his ball and he hit mine. I learnt from that," he added, smiling.

Chances are he might not be smiling if it happens again this week, but all the Kiwi golfers will be smiling if it's one of them with their name on the Brodie Breeze trophy come Sunday night.

AUSSIES ON A ROLL

Australians are dominating world golf at the moment. Adam Scott is the world No 2, Jason Day just won the WGC Accenture Matchplay and there are 12 Aussies in the top 200. None of them are at the New Zealand Open, but here's a look at the more interesting of our neighbours on show.

RHEIN GIBSON (Victoria)
World No 511

Gibson has a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for shooting the lowest round by a professional golfer - a 16-under par 55 - at Oklahoma's River Oaks Golf Club in 2012. He'd rather not only be known for that and he can play; Gibson is off to the Open Championship this year after qualifying courtesy of his fourth equal at last year's Australian Open.

KURT BARNES (New South Wales)
World No 429

Barnes is a country boy from Muswellbrook, NSW and the 2003 New Zealand Amateur Stroke Play Championship winner. Last year in a search to keep his Japan Tour card he missed most of the Tour of Australasia. So he's now relying on tournament invites to get a start and if he wants to play in Australia's big three tournaments, he's going to need to win.

MICHAEL SIM (Western Australia)
World No 1505

This former world No 1 amateur is a seriously good golfer who earned a spot on the PGA Tour only to lose it through injury. He's played in five majors including the 2009 US Open when he finished tied for 18th and played the final round with Tiger Woods.

DANIEL POPOVIC (Victoria)
World No 546

Went wire to wire to win the 2012 Australasian PGA Championship by four shots and upset a number of more fancied and very talented golfers including Geoff Ogilvy who went on to become his mentor. He's good mates with Ricky Ponting who caddied for him at the Victorian Open. He struggled with form last year, but is fighting fit after training with the North Melbourne AFL team.

JACK WILSON (Victoria)
World No 389

Qualified as a teaching professional and picked up a couple of starts through that only to win the Western Australian PGA tournament last year - becoming the first professional to do so. That qualified him into a number of bigger tournaments and he went on to finish third at last year's Australian PGA behind Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler. Scott then said Wilson could go on to be one of Australia's best.

BRYDEN MACPHERSON (Victoria)
World No 506

Like Gibson, Macpherson has qualified for the Open Championship. It will be his second bid for Claret Jug after playing in that and the Masters as an amateur after he won the British Amateur. Represented Australia in the 2010 Eisenhower Trophy and the year before won both the Australian and New Zealand amateur stroke play events.

- Fairfax Media

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