Claret Jug hits Wellington as chase for Open berth gets real for NZ's top golfers
There were double takes and a few whispered questions at Wellington's Midland Park on a Friday lunchtime.
Yes, indeed it was The Masters trophy and the Claret Jug, famed prize for golf's Open Championship, perched in glass cases and drawing curious, sometimes awestruck glances. Fresh off a long haul flight from the UK, the Claret Jug arrived in Wellington early Friday.
Beaming Royal Wellington officials looked on, notably club captain Andrew Harcourt and president Marty Scott whose club host the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship from October 26-29.
For a field of 120 of the best amateurs from the region, notably Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand and New Zealand - who get 10 entries as host nation - that's the winning prize. The golden ticket of amateur golf: direct entry to The Masters at Augusta and the Open Championship at Carnoustie for the winner of the 72-hole strokeplay event.
"It's hard to believe it's nearly here, after a couple of years of planning and re-investing in the club and the course to get it to tournament standard," Harcourt said.
"It's very hard for us to describe the enormity of this event and the infrastructure surrounding it. Having seen it in Korea last year, it's as big as any PGA Tour event, even though it's an amateur tournament."
Money talks, and this tournament has high-profile backing from The Masters who invest millions and will send many green jacketed members from Augusta. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club are on board, too, for the ninth edition of this annual tournament being hosted by New Zealand for the first time. Luke Toomey's third placing behind Australians Curtis Luck and Brett Coletta a year ago was the country's equal-best finish.
Direct entry to The Masters has always been the prize, but for the first time it's a double whammy with the Open Championship granting a spot in their field, too. The catch-phrase is "creating heroes" and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama was the poster boy, winning it in 2010 and 2011 before kicking on to a glittering pro career.
Royal Wellington bid for the tournament three years ago and had two years to prepare, having last hosted a big tournament at the 1995 New Zealand Open. It was redesigned to championship standard by Greg Turner and Scott Macpherson, a facelift which cost $6.5 million, of which nearly $4 million was funded by members.
"The list of things to given to us by The Masters is quite extensive and prescriptive. We're working through that and we'll have it presented in top order," said Harcourt, whose club hands over the course and historic clubhouse to organisers next Friday.
"We've come out of the worst 18 months of rain conditions that I can recall so we've been battling that, but I think we're on top of that and the course is looking fantastic. All we need is 2-3 days of sun and a bit of breeze and it'll harden up."
The club's target of 250 volunteers had been surpassed and they hoped for big crowds, with the tournament being televised and beamed around the world.
"People are starting to talk about it and there's the curiosity factor from outside clubs who have heard us talk about it. It's huge for Wellington, and Royal Wellington, and for New Zealand Golf, particularly golf tourism and will put us on the map."
The trophies will be on display at Paraparaumu Beach on Saturday and Boulcott's Farm Heritage on Sunday, before settling in at their temporary home at Royal Wellington till the end of the tournament.
- The Dominion Post