Golf-Australasia tour expands after COVID struggles
The Australian Open, the regional circuit's most prestigious event, returns in Melbourne at yearend as an integrated men's and women's tournament after being cancelled twice during the pandemic. The Dec. 1-4 event, to be held at Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath, is one of two events co-sanctioned by the DP World Tour, the other being the Australian PGA Championship in Brisbane held the previous week.
The PGA Tour of Australasia will expand to 16 events in 2022/23, offering struggling Australian and New Zealand golfers more chances to make a living from the sport after the ruinous impact of COVID-19. The Australian Open, the regional circuit's most prestigious event, returns in Melbourne at yearend as an integrated men's and women's tournament after being cancelled twice during the pandemic.
The Dec. 1-4 event, to be held at Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath, is one of two events co-sanctioned by the DP World Tour, the other being the Australian PGA Championship in Brisbane held the previous week. The back-to-back events, along with the New Zealand Open at Millbrook Resort in February-March, will each have prize money of over A$1.5 million ($1.04 million), the Tour said in a statement on Thursday.
"We've worked hard to build the schedule back after COVID knocked everyone around in the tournament space, and having the Australian Open and the New Zealand Open back stronger than ever really makes a difference," PGA of Australia Chief Executive Gavin Kirkman said. "Overall, it's a fantastic 2023 schedule with room for even more tournaments in the future, and we can't wait for it to get underway later this year."
The Tour was effectively wiped out in 2020 as Australia and New Zealand closed their borders to international arrivals and implemented strict quarantine controls to try to prevent the spread of COVID. Players without overseas Tour cards or other means to compete abroad were left with nowhere to play, forcing many to shelve their clubs and take odd jobs.
The circuit returned last year but lockdowns and social distancing restrictions continued to wreak havoc with the schedule. Most Australian states reopened by late last year but New Zealand maintained inbound travel restrictions until last week.
"From where we were with COVID it's great to be on the other side of it - and growing," Melbourne professional Matt Griffin, who survived on sponsorship income and government welfare during local golf's lockdown, told Reuters. The Tour will hope the strengthened schedule can lure back the region's biggest names, including British Open champion Cameron Smith and women's world number two Minjee Lee, to draw fans to the marquee events.
It may face a new challenge, though, from the Saudi-backed LIV Series which is expanding to Australia in 2023. World number two Smith is set to join LIV after signing a $100 million-plus deal, Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Though the DP World Tour has banned some players from events for joining LIV, the Australasia Tour is unlikely to follow suit. Griffin said it was better for Australia to have its top players competing in local events where possible. "They're decisions for other people," he said.
"Regardless of where players are playing, we always want the best players we can get playing in Australia." ($1 = 1.4378 Australian dollars)
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