Kiwi golfers roll out the green carpet for Aussie guns chasing Masters berth in Wellington
It was the ultimate show of Anzac spirit on a cold spring weekend.
With beanie firmly applied, Australia's top amateur golfer Travis Smyth and his five compatriots got a warm reception, verging on red carpet treatment from their Kiwi mates at Royal Wellington.
In just over six weeks, the half-dozen Australians, 10 New Zealanders and the best from Japan, China, Korea and Thailand will tee off at leafy Heretaunga for amateur golf's biggest prize: direct entry to next year's Masters Tournament at Augusta and the Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Smyth, 22, had never set foot in New Zealand till last Friday. Ranked 15th in the world, a US Amateur quarterfinalist and fresh from victory against the pros in the Northern Territory PGA Championship, he's the early favourite for the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
More so now, after the Australians got the guided tour in a weekend camp with half the New Zealand team: Wellington reps Daniel Hillier and Kerry Mountcastle, along with Ryan Chisnall, Mark Hutson and Luke Brown.
"We feel very fortunate that they want to do that. By the same token we have Golf Australia camps and events which these guys get access to. We've got a good relationship with the guys and it's a lot of fun," Smyth said.
A year ago in Incheon, South Korea, Australia went one-two with US Amateur champion Curtis Luck beating compatriot Brett Coletta, with New Zealand's Luke Toomey third in the 118-strong field. All three have since turned pro, with Luck finishing second amateur at The Masters in April.
This time the Aussies have four in the world's top-40, with Smyth (15), Harrison Endycott (24), Dylan Perry (35) and Min Woo Lee (37). US-based Nick Voke (46) is the highest-ranked New Zealander, with Chisnall (82) and Hillier (98) the others inside the top-100.
As host nation, New Zealand get 10 spots and their familiarity with the Greg Turner-redesigned course gives them a generous leg-up. As does the weather.
Said Smyth, who hails from Wollongong south of Sydney: "It's a lot colder than what we thought, that's for sure. Just rug up and try to get used to wearing three or four layers and just playing golf. We go the UK, we've all experienced cold weather and rain and wind.
"To be honest I like the idea of it being cold and windy because I feel like the harder it is, the less people have a chance of winning, and the more I'll like it."
With trans-Tasman officials having mapped the greens 11 months ago, before the players had two rounds at Heretaunga on Sunday and Monday, the Anzacs will be the only ones with prior knowledge before the full field assembles for the October 26-29 tournament. It's the big show: run like a PGA Tour event and heavily backed by the Masters and Royal and Ancient Golf Club (who run the Open Championship).
"This, the US Amateur and the British Amateur are the three majors of amateur golf. We all feel like the Asia-Pacific is probably our best chance of playing at The Masters. We've got a strong team and we get to play these amazing golf courses, and a lot of the Asia-Pacific countries don't get exposed to this kind of weather. We're very happy that we're here a month early," Smyth said.
Chisnall, who'll play his third APAC, said there was no question of helping their Aussie mates who do the same when they cross the Tasman for big tournaments.
"The boys have been going really well; Trav winning an Australasian Tour event, Dylan Perry has been playing really well. Their whole team, they're going to be hard to beat. They've been dominating the Australasian side of things for the last few years. It'd be nice to get one up on them," Chisnall said.