Feature image: Gary Lisbon
Eight years after its bold gamble to bring male and female professionals together, the rest of the golf world is finally catching on to the power of opportunity presented by the ISPS Handa Vic Open.
The topic of conversation was as obvious as it was instant: why don’t we do this more often?
Twelve months after the women’s Victorian Open was resurrected after a 20-year hiatus and played as a 54-hole event held concurrently with the men’s edition at Woodlands and Spring Valley golf clubs on Melbourne’s famed Sandbelt, both tournaments shifted to the 36-hole Thirteenth Beach Golf Links on the Bellarine Peninsula in 2013. It did what no other professional golf tournament had ever done before; it put both male and female pros at the same venue playing for the same prizemoney. For those men and women in the respective fields, it sparked an immediate exchange.
“It definitely felt different,” explains Stacey Peters, the Female Pathway Manager for Golf Australia and 2013 Vic Open champion.
“It was awesome the previous year when we played the final day together at Spring Valley with the boys, but to go down to Thirteenth and share the same clubhouse for the same week was a different vibe again. It felt like we were more together and playing with the boys.
“As much as we’ve got guys playing on tour and girls playing on tour, we don’t ever cross. We don’t ever see each other. Unless you are friends in some other way, you don’t ever associate with the boys. It was an opportunity to chat and catch up and talk about the ideas of it going forward. And yes, it definitely sparked conversations around the idea of, ‘Why don’t we do this more often? This just makes sense.’”
Two years after Peters and Matthew Giles won the first Vic Opens played at Thirteenth Beach, the event gained even greater traction when the almost unthinkable happened and Richard Green and his fiancée Marianne Skarpnord captured their respective titles. The pair had fallen in love with the area when they first played the event in 2013 and not long after moving into their new home had two additional pieces of silverware to adorn the mantelpiece.
“I’d just got back from two weeks in Dubai and the Middle East and was in good form, Marianne was in good form,” Green tells Australian Golf Digest. “She was practising out there with me. We’d moved into the house so it was just all good feels for the week.
“As that week went on we’d just say things like, ‘Go and do your best and see you at the end of the day.’ I don’t really remember talking too much about golf over dinner other than a particularly difficult hole and asking how we each played it.”
A similar storyline is in play this year with recently crowned Greg Norman Medal winner Hannah Green and her boyfriend Jarryd Felton both confirmed starters, while two-time winner Minjee Lee and her brother Min Woo could etch their names into a unique slice of history if they managed the double. As our latest Major champion, Green admits there is an enhanced sense of competition between herself and Felton when they arrive at Thirteenth Beach each year.
“I really enjoy the event because my boyfriend Jarryd is also playing. We stay together and actually get to play a tournament together,” Green says. “We’ve both had some good results there, which is cool. We try not to be too competitive but we both are, so it’s hard.”
But while deep down they are both competitors, Felton knows Green well enough to understand when to steer their post-round chats away from the happenings on the golf course.
“You kind of know how each other went. When you walk off the course with a happy face it’s a good score and if it’s a sad face, especially for me, it’s a bit more noticeable,” Felton tells Australian Golf Digest. “She knows if I’ve played well and I know if she’s played bad.
“We try to keep it not as much golf when we’re off the course, just try to keep it as normal as we can. We’re just supportive of each other and what we’re trying to do.”
An Equal Opportunity
As the popularity of the Vic Open has grown so has golf’s embrace of dual-gender tournaments. Last year the Jordan Mixed Open featured players from the Challenge Tour, Ladies European Tour and Staysure European Seniors Tour while former One Direction member Niall Horan and his Modest! Golf Management company added their considerable star power to the ISPS Handa World Invitational that mirrored the format of the Vic Open in Ireland.
The GolfSixes Cascais and Trophee Hassan II tournaments both boast female inclusion, and in June the European Tour will conduct the inaugural Scandinavian Mixed Hosted by Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam. It’s an event that will pit men and women against each other on the one course competing for a share of the €1.5 million prize pool.
Richard Green is in the unique position of having played with Skarpnord in the events in Jordan and Ireland last year and says the hunger for such events in Europe shows no signs of abating.
“There’s a big appetite for it. People with a bit of imagination and a bit of innovation for golf are grabbing hold of that format because it seems to be popular,” he says. “Everyone wants to see the girls play along the same lines as seeing the guys play. The more the merrier.”
“Everyone wants to see the girls play along the same lines as seeing the guys play. The more the merrier.” – Richard Green
As the interest in such formats grows internationally, so does the opportunity at home. Before announcing its new venue at Pelican Waters this month, the Queensland Open was touted as the next state open looking to follow Victoria’s lead, while South Australia (The Grange) and Western Australia (The Vines) are both blessed with 36-hole facilities capable of replicating the atmosphere created at Thirteenth Beach.
“Obviously I always want the Vic Open to stay at Thirteenth Beach because I’ve got a soft spot for down there, but I at least hope it always stays at a place that has one clubhouse, two courses,” Peters explains, the revamped Peninsula-Kingswood Golf Club another course touted as a potential Vic Open host venue.
“It’s just a totally different vibe. You share the players’ area, the dining area, you’re sharing everything. You’re on the driving range with the guys – that side of it you won’t get if you have separate courses.
“I’d heard the same thing about Queensland as well, but obviously that hasn’t happened, which I think more than anything was down to timing. I do think that it is going to be happening moving forward. I don’t know that from a Golf Australia perspective – that’s just my opinion – but I really do.
“There have been places around the world that have to tried to replicate [the Vic Open] and at the start back in 2013 it definitely sparked those types of conversations. Hopefully it can grow and work anywhere around the world.”
Vic Open Timeline
1957: First men’s Victorian Open is played at Riversdale Golf Club and won by Ossie Pickworth.
1988: First women’s Victorian Open is played at Commonwealth Golf Club and won by Helen Hopkins.
1992: Women’s Vic Open played at Yarra Yarra Golf Club before undergoing a 20-year hiatus.
2012: Women’s Vic Open returns as 54-hole tournament played in conjunction with men’s event played at Woodlands and Spring Valley golf clubs. Final round of both tournaments played concurrently at Spring Valley.
2013: Vic Open moves to 36-hole Thirteenth Beach Golf Links. Women play first 36 holes on the Creek course before linking up with men on the Beach course for the final two rounds. Prizemoney for each tournament is $150,000.
2017: Vic Open becomes a co-sanctioned event with the Ladies European Tour.
2018: A second cut is introduced after the third round, allowing the top-35 players plus ties of both the men’s and women’s events to proceed in a single ‘wave’ of tee-times on the final day on the Beach course.
2019: Vic Open enters into co-sanctioning agreements with both the European and LPGA tours. The combined $3 million in prizemoney represents the richest week on the Australian golf calendar.
For more information on a Golfing Great head to Visit Victoria.