The Wellington region has been out of the major tournament loop for many years with the last significant event played in the area 15 years ago. The 2002 New Zealand Open featured none other than Tiger Woods when that event was played at Paraparaumu Beach Links about 40 minutes north of the city.
This month, however, Royal Wellington Golf Club in the Upper Hutt will play host to what is now one of the leading amateur championships in world golf. The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship makes its New Zealand debut in late October and what a debut it promises to be.
Having been involved in a commentary role in each of the past five years at this increasingly prestigious event, I can tell New Zealand golf fans they are in for a special treat. The joint venture between the Masters Tournament, The R&A and Asia Pacific Golf Confederation is a jewel on the world’s amateur calendar.
My first exposure to the Asia-Pacific Amateur came in 2012 when I expressed an interest in an on-course commentary role for the championship to be held in Thailand. I had watched delayed coverage of its three earlier events in China, Japan and Singapore. In 2012 a decision was made to expand the coverage to include an on-course commentator to supplement the role of two booth commentators. Thankfully, I was engaged for that tournament held at Amata Spring Country Club outside of Bangkok.
In that first year I joined the highly regarded hosting duo of American Bill Macatee and New Zealand’s own Frank Nobilo. We were blessed to witness what must still be considered the tournament’s greatest victory when a 14-year-old Chinese youngster, Guan Tianlang, held off the now PGA Tour player C.T Pan of Taipei by one shot.
While Guan’s win was impressive for one so young, just five months later he would capture the imagination of a much wider audience when he made the cut – still as a 14-year-old – at The Masters.
That’s a major reason the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship has grown in stature. The winner earns an invitation to play at Augusta National the following year. And for the first time in 2017, the winner will also receive a spot in the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Most were expecting Guan to be overawed by the occasion of his first visit to Augusta and overcome by a course that would stretch his relatively immature game beyond its limits. Guan not only made the cut on the number, bettering some of the game’s most significant names, but his performance was made even more remarkable as he incurred a one-shot penalty for slow play during the second round.
In my opinion, that effort remains one of golf’s best-ever performances from a historical perspective. It is perhaps still under-rated when talk of the game’s greatest moments are considered. Guan will actually play in his sixth Asia-Pacific Amateur in Wellington at the ripe old age of 19.
Other notable victories over the past eight years include those of two-time winner Hideki Matsuyama. He won in 2010 and 2011 and made the cut at Augusta on the two occasions he played the Masters as an amateur. The Japanese star now appears on track to become his country’s first Major champion given he has now reached No.2 on the Official World Golf Ranking and finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka at this year’s US Open.
The other standout victory from the Asia-Pacific Amateur came in 2016 when Australia’s Curtis Luck, who had just been crowned US Amateur champion, triumphed at Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon near Seoul after trailing by seven strokes at the start of the final round. Luck, too, would go on to make the cut at this year’s Masters, further cementing the credentials of the 21-year-old from Perth. The following week Luck turned professional and is now in the process of trying to secure a US PGA Tour card via the Web.Com Tour Finals.
Matsuyama (twice), Guan and Luck are the only three winners to have won the Asia-Pacific Amateur and made the cut at Augusta National. But you can imagine the opportunity to tee it up with the world’s best on one of golf’s great stages offers a huge incentive to budding stars of the game.
While a New Zealander is yet to win the Asia-Pacific title, there have been several close calls. Peter Spearman Burn tied for third in the inaugural staging of the event in 2009; Ben Campbell was third and fourth in 2010 and 2011 respectively; while Luke Toomey stormed home with a final round 66 to finish third behind Luck and another Australian, Brett Coletta, last year.
This year New Zealand has what could be considered its greatest chance of victory. Not only has it ‘home ground’ advantage at Royal Wellington, but also as host nation it is afforded 10 invites into the event compared with a maximum of six from every other nation.
An indication of just how much this favours the host nation was no better illustrated than in 2014 when Australia’s Anthony Murdaca was the 10th invitee from the host nation. Murdaca produced an outstanding performance and cruised to a seven-shot victory at Royal Melbourne.
Of the New Zealanders in this year’s field, Nick Voke, Ryan Chisnall, Daniel Hillier and Luke Brown will benefit from the experience of playing the event previously.
Voke will play the event for the fourth occasion and, judging by his form in amateur events in the US this year, looms as a good possibility of a breakthrough New Zealand victory. The Iowa State graduate from the Manukau Golf Club (now Windross Farm Golf Course) in Auckland contended in Hong Kong two years ago before finishing 19th. He was 11th in Korea last year but has shown greater promise in the US at the Western and Sunnehanna Amateur events.
Hillier won the New Zealand Amateur as a 15-year-old and is a Wellington golfer. So he has something that few others in this field enjoy, namely a keen awareness and experience of Royal Wellington’s parkland-style layout.
Several of the New Zealand competitors will have had the benefit of playing tournaments on the Charles Tour as part of their preparation. The competition provided by those 72-hole strokeplay events against professionals is likely to become apparent as they tackle the most important event of their careers to date. Chisnall falls into that category. With two Asia-Pacific tournaments behind him, he has the experience in professional events on the Charles Tour to stand him in good stead.
The live telecast of the Asia-Pacific Amateur has become very much part of the event’s success. The championship is broadcast to more than 160 countries, making it the most televised amateur golf tournament in the world. Not only are Macatee, Nobilo and, dare I say it, ‘yours truly’ now regulars on the commentary team, the coverage is produced by CBS’ Sellers Shy with European Tour Productions’ Mike Crowe sitting in the director’s chair. The outstanding Dottie Pepper, a former LPGA player, has been on the commentary team the past two years. But as she is unable to make it to Wellington, Australian tour professional Paul Gow will stand in as her replacement.
With a player catchment that spreads from Lebanon in the west to The Cook Islands in the east, the event has a huge reach geographically as well as a massive television audience through ESPN in North America.
Golf is still an emerging sport in many nations involved in the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation – some participating countries have just a single nine-hole course. However, the exposure from the Asia-Pacific Amateur and ongoing success that some participants are achieving will help to grow the game in the regions being reached.
It’s possible because some of the revenue from the Masters and the Open Championship is redistributed in order to bring the Asia-Pacific Amateur to fruition. Every T is crossed and every I is dotted by the organisers, which have strong commercial support from the likes of AT&T, Mercedes-Benz, Samsung, UPS, Zurich and 3M.
For elite amateurs across the Asia-Pacific, this tournament has become their ‘must play’ experience before turning to the paid ranks. They are treated like golfing superstars during the event and some may well become just that.
Don’t be surprised if the winner at Royal Wellington goes on to become one of the game’s more significant players in the years ahead. Let’s hope it can be a New Zealander so local golf fans can see their first amateur compete in a Masters and the Open Championship next year.