NZPGA - A chance to star

Go on admit it. I bet nearly everyone of you keen golfers have fantasised what it must be like to be in contention over the closing stages of a significant professional event.

The pressure, the potential rewards, the accolades of the crowd and the chance to test every aspect of your game and your character under the greatest of scrutiny is a tantalising prospect.

Then of course you snap out of it telling yourself it is nothing but a dream. Nice thought admittedly but after all, how on earth could you experience golfing fantasy along those lines?

Well - there are now increasing opportunities to find yourself, even as an amateur, amongst the heat of the battle in professional tournament golf. Even if you may not play a starring role, just being up close and personal with those who are, provides a whole new dynamic to - and understanding of - the game, along with one of its great experiences.

One such opportunity presents itself at the revamped $NZ 600,000 New Zealand PGA Championship which, for the first time in 2012, had professionals and amateurs joining forces over the closing 36 holes rather than prior to the event.

Typically in most professional events, amateurs get the chance to mix it with the professionals in the casual atmosphere of a pre tournament pro am before the 'real' tournament gets underway. The new look New Zealand PGA Championship however allows for invited and paying amateurs to play the final 36 holes with one of the professionals who have made the cut.

After playing a 'seeding' event at a nearby venue the day prior to the third round of the tournament to determine just who they might play with when the heat goes on, the amateur field then heads to the tournament venue to play the final two rounds.

The concept is not totally unique. It was first tried with success at the New South Wales Open at the Vintage Golf Club in the Hunter Valley and variations on the theme at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and the AT&T National Pro Am have proven highly popular.

The format used at the New Zealand PGA Championship though gives all amateur participants the chance to play with the professionals when it matters most.

Queenstown, in the Central Otago region of New Zealand's South Island, is one of the great holiday playgrounds of the world. In more recent years it has developed into an outstanding golfing destination with the three world class golfing facilities within 20 minutes drive of Queenstown, now key drivers of tourism to the area.

It is also now regarded as one of the top three wine growing regions of New Zealand providing another excuse to be in the region in late February of 2013 or in future years.

Jack's Point and Millbrook, both support venues for the week, are high end facilities and while it would be fair to say that any golf course in this region is enhanced by the stunning backdrop of the Wakatipu Basin, they are fine tests in their own right.

It is the high profile Hills Golf Club alongside of the historic mining town of Arrowtown however which plays host to the New Zealand PGA Championship. Part of the profile the course has generated has been because of its ownership by one of the great entrepreneurs of Australasia, Sir Michael Hill, but it has gained further accolades as the venue of three New Zealand Opens and now the New Zealand PGA Championship.

Hill built his layout on a deer farm he owned, the facility now considered by many to be one of the best in New Zealand and in some people's eyes - the best. One of the great features of the course is that each hole is unique and remains etched in the mind of a golfer long after a round is completed.

Tournament organisers have made it clear that their intention is to grow the event into one that will rival the Dunhill Links and the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro Am and while those are indeed lofty goals, the highly successful inaugural staging of the event in March of 2012 gave every indication such vision was no pipedream.

The inaugural staging of the revamped event in 2012 saw the emerging talent of New Zealander Mike Hendry claim the title in a dramatic finish. Hendry birdied his opening five holes on the final day and when he birdied the 13th, 14th and 15th a little later he had moved four shots clear.

Hendry would however quadruple-bogey the 16th and when former Australian Amateur Champion Andrew Martin birdied the 15th in the group behind he had regained the lead. Hendry bounced back however to win the title and further confirm his growing status in Australasian golf.

While of course the title was significant, the week was as much about the entertainment and the establishment of the event and its concept. There is little doubt that both were achieved.

The list of celebrities who would play as partners to the professionals extended from the almost obligatory list of All Blacks (it was after all New Zealand), cricketers, stars of other sports, rugby players from across the Tasman including Nick Farr Jones, politicians, entertainment industry personalities and even highly succesful golfers from outside the current professional arena including world number one female amateur Lydia Ko and New Zealand's greatest ever, Sir Bob Charles.

The amateurs competed on the Friday over 18 holes at the magnificent Jack's Point to determine just who they would partner over the weekend.

Jack's Point, some 14 kilometres from the Hills, was at her pristine best that day, a cloudless calm providing an almost surreal backdrop to a day where celebrities and amateurs rubbed shoulders as they vied for a high ranking professional partner the following day.

Back at the Hills, the second round of the PGA Championship proper was being played but such was the brilliance of the day at Jack's Point that the worries of the professionals were far from the mind of those relishing the grandeur provided by the backdrop of Lake Wakatipu on which Jack's Point is located.

Even New Zealand's Prime Minister, John Key, joined the likes of American actor Don Cheadle that day, enjoying each other's company in this most idyllic of settings. Key was so taken by the day and the potential of what the event can do to further promote the region that he has expressed a desire to play the tournament proper himself in 2013.

The New Zealand Government has continued to support the event financially in 2013 and with golfing great Hale Irwin agreeing to take part and a significantly stronger professional field already expressing interest in being involved then there is little doubt that the 2013 version will even exceed the outstanding success of 2012.

Already for 2013 the highly successful Australian golfer Brendan Jones has promised to return and this time he wants to bring his family. Jones said after the event last year that it was the most enjoyable event he had ever played in.

Jones has played a key role in supporting the event and has already been instrumental in securing one of Japan's leading players Toshinori Muto to play the event. As this article is being written tournament organisers are currently targeting other leading players from Australasia and Asia.

With functions to attend on several of the evenings there is never a dull moment and the chance to enjoy the attractions of Queenstown and its surrounds offers another incentive - if indeed one is needed - to be part of the week.

The long term aim for the event is for it to extend to three courses along the lines of the Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland where St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns are used in rotation before the final round of four is played at St Andrews.

The New Zealand PGA 's long term goal for its flagship event is to build its current model to a point where the Hills would remain the host course but where both Jack's Point and the nearby Millbrook would be included in the rota of courses for the event itself.

In 2013, however, the format utilised in its inaugural staging in will again be adopted as the event looks to consolidate on the success of the first year. This year the adjacent Millbrook will be used as the venue to determine the seeding for day three of the main event when the amateurs join in.

Also in 2013, the celebrity list is to be extended with Sir Ian Botham and Wallaby rugby legends George Gregan and the returning Nick Farr Jones already agreeing to join the likes of Sir Bob Charles, Lydia Ko and others in playing the event.

What a combination for a golfing holiday. Two, possibly three, great courses in one of the world's outstanding holiday playgrounds, the chance to play and mingle with celebrities, the opportunity to witness at the closest possible quarters a professional attempting to perhaps win the New Zealand PGA Championship and five star treatment as a participant.

Dependant on how you look at these things the cost of being involved as an amateur (NZ$10,000) is not insignificant but when you analyse just what is on offer for a place in the Pro Am field then it is worth investigating further.

If you are anything like those that played the event in 2012 then there is every likelihood that you will walk away from your week in the Queenstown region with lifelong memories of great golf, great times, great camaraderie and a desire to return.

The New Zealand PGA Championship is to be played from February 28th - March 3rd and any information on claiming one of the few remaining places in the field for 2013 or perhaps in the years ahead can be gained by "clicking here":


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Bruce Young
About The Author : Bruce Young

A multi-award winning golf journalist, Bruce's extensive knowledge of and background in the game of golf comes from several years caddying the tournament circuits of the world, marketing a successful golf course design company and as one of Australia's leading golf journalists and commentators.

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