NZ Open: Plenty of ticks, but needs tinkering

FRED WOODCOCK IN ARROWTOWN
Last updated 05:00 04/03/2014
Michael Hill
Photosport
ATTENTION: Michael Hill and his organising lieutenants dressed as Dad's Army at the New Zealand Open at Arrowtown.

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The format is good, the venue is stunning, but there needs to be some tinkering before the New Zealand Open as we now know it gets to where it wants to be.

That's the overall impression after the national men's golf open was played, for the first time worldwide, under a pro-am format, which saw 132 amateurs paired with the 132 professionals for the PGA Tour of Australasia event.

Doubling the field meant for plenty of logistical adjustments, most notably the need to play the first two rounds across two world class Arrowtown courses - The Hills and Millbrook Resort.

The tournament also returned to The Hills for the first time since 2011; the last two versions were at Christchurch's Clearwater club but Michael Hill, whose golf team assumed the running of the tournament from New Zealand Golf this year, wants his 500-acre (202 hectares) oasis to be the permanent host.

That seems a given. The courses are immaculate, the location shows off the best of New Zealand, Hill spares no expense and the crowds this week - about 18,000 - were up on recent years despite what could be deemed a remote location.

Tournament director Michael Glading, the former boss of New Zealand Football, acknowledged there were plenty of questions heading into the week but he was "over the moon" with what transpired.

"Where this thing could have failed terribly would have been if people couldn't get from one course to the other, or couldn't get from the hotel to here. Looking after 260-odd competitors has been quite a challenge from a logistics point of view," he said.

"But we haven't really had any major problems. We haven't had any complaints from players though we know these courses do create some challenges.

"The Hills is a fabulous course but wasn't necessarily designed with a tournament in mind, in terms of facilities. The practice range is miles away and the 10th tee is miles away."

Most of the professionals welcome the new pro-am format though some preferred that a national open be played in the traditional sense.

"We had a player briefing and [tournament chairman] John Hart reinforced why we're doing what we're doing," Glading said.

"There were 70 amateurs playing $10,000 each [to enter]. That's a significant source of funding which allows us to get prize money to $900,000 total.

"I think the players bought into it. I'm not going to say all 132 players think it's the greatest format they've ever played in."

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It's understood a handful of amateurs said their pro partners didn't treat them well, but these are professional sportsmen competing for a lot of money and the NZ Open title.

Glading said they had tried where possible to make sure the amateurs had some golfing ability, though there were times during the past four days where, as a spectator, you could only cringe. Once again, that's always going to happen in this format, unless a low handicap cut-off is enforced.

Friday's weather was brutally cold, wet and windy, with reports of snow falling at Millbrook Resort during the second round. That won't have helped the coffers.

But Glading still expected they would meet their objective of breaking even.

As for the "celebrity group" on the final day, which saw Prime Minister John Key play alongside Bob Charles and Rocco Mediate, the jury was still out, though the fans seemed to enjoy it.

"It's a tough one," Glading said.

"I still personally believe the last day should be about the Mark Browns and the Richard Lees fighting it out for a win.

"But celebrity golfers give you a lot of social media, another angle, and ties in with the overall concept that this is an event. You can't invalidate the core of what we deliver, though, and that's a national golf open."

As reported before the tournament, securing live television coverage - a cost of about $600,000 - is a priority for next year, not only for sports fans but so they can reach an international audience.

"The world is changing. We had live streaming for these four days and it's amazing what [graphics guru] Ian Taylor has done with short notice and limited resources.

"But live TV, especially for international markets, is really important. A focus for us is to do it in a cost-effective manner."

Hill told Fairfax Media that he wanted the government to chip in for coverage given the tourism and other benefits the country could potentially receive.

- Fairfax Media

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