Australasian Tour moves East for NZ Open
BY Bruce Young | Australasian PGA Tour | 2006 New Zealand Open | Preview | 29 Nov 2006
The Blue Chip New Zealand Open gets underway on Thursday at the Robert Trent Jones jr designed Gulf Harbour Golf Club on the Whangaparoa Peninsula north of Auckland with the relative merits of co-sanctioning an ongoing issue.
In theory the concept should work as it has offered the chance for the New Zealand Open to move from the lowly status it has held as an Australasian Tour in recent years to the lofty heights of the European Tour but the jury is still out on the success or otherwise of the concept. The issue is as much about timing as it is the concept or the location as many players have played in north Asia leading into the past two weeks and those who gained their cards at Tour School probably had too much of a rush to make plans to head south from Spain, especially after the final stage of Tour School was delayed.
65 places were available to European Tour members but only around 35 will line up this week. Only 41 were at Huntingdale last week for the MasterCard Masters. There are also several European Tour players who gain starts here via their Australasian Tour status. The co-sanctioning of both events is only in its early stages but there are concerns regarding the lack of support for what appears on the surface to be a good marriage.
The exposed Gulf Harbour layout will be buffeted by strong winds on the opening days and the scores are expected to be a lot higher than the 22 under that the joint playoff contenders produced in early 2005. Reinforcing that is the fact that the par five 6th hole has been reduced to a par four this year reducing the overall par to 71.
This week the favourite is the local hero Michael Campbell who plays in New Zealand for the first time since his US Open victory eighteen months ago. He arrives here after missing the cut last week in Melbourne and with a long list of commitments off course to add the scrutiny and expectation he carries as the leading New Zealand player. It is difficult therefore to see Campbell being a force in terms of the leaderboard this week. He has expressed his dislike for the Gulf Harbour layout previously, and missed the cut when he played the event in early 2005.
The only other New Zealander who would be considered any sort of chance this week – if he was here – is David Smail who by finishing second last week at the Casio World Open gained a start at this week’s Nippon Series or the Japan Golf Tour Championship and as a consequence will play there instead of in his National Open.
Richard Green is the best performed player in the field in previous events at Gulf Harbour. He partnered Peter O’Malley to a top ten finish at the World Cup of Golf in 1998 and, in early 2005, at a time when he was in particularly good form, he finished third behind Niclas Fasth and Miles Tunnicliff at the Holden New Zealand Open. His joint runner up placing last week in Melbourne behind Justin Rose tells the story about his current form.
Nathan Green and Peter O’Malley are two Australians who have an affinity with New Zealand golf. Green is nearing the end of a long and demanding year but he was keen to play here to ensure that he played the minimum of four Australasian Tour events in order to keep his card and because he has often played well in New Zealand previously especially as an amateur.
As a long time leader of the recent Australian Open at Royal Sydney and as a played who earned more then US$1.7 million in the US in his rookie season he deserves respect as a likely contender. That he was beaten by Tiger Woods in a playoff in just his second USPGA Tour event at Torrey Pines in February perhaps places his credentials for success in this event in perspective.
O’Malley has won a New Zealand Amateur, a New Zealand Open and a New Zealand PGA Championship and enjoys this country. He had a reasonable week last week in Melbourne when 14th and played nicely when last at Gulf Harbour two years ago. He partnered Richard Green to a top ten at the World Cup of Golf at Gulf Harbour in 1998 after they were very much in the thick of things with a few holes to go. Like Richard Green therefore he has a lot of Gulf Harbour experience.
Greg Chalmers produced a form reversal last week when he contended right to the finish at the MasterCard Masters. He has had a poor year in the US this season but he has clearly found something and could be a factor.
Gavin Coles won the New Zealand PGA in Christchurch two years ago in atrocious conditions and it might be that he may face similar buffeting winds this week. Having recently graduated to the USPGA Tour he has the credentials and capabilities to win an event such as this.
Craig Parry has not had a good year in 2006 but last week at Huntingdale things appeared to turn the corner. He was very much in the mix until a last round 76 but the 2002 New Zealand Open winner could well endure the expected tough conditions better than most.
Kevin Stadler won the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth in February and still leads the Australasian Tour Order of Merit. He missed the cut last week in Melbourne but the two time winner on the Nationwide Tour in 2006 is a much better player than that and could atone with an improved effort this week.
The lack of European Tour players, not to mention their stars, provides a great opportunity for a young player without status to leapfrog onto the European Tour with a surprise victory. Clearly there are many in that category but it will be a significant surprise if the winner does not come from one of the more experienced players in this field.
Photo – Anthony Powter