NZPGA tests waters of new format

The New Zealand PGA Pro-Am Championship begins tomorrow at the Hills Golf Club near Queenstown in Central Otago, the new look tournament, which incorporates the time honoured title of the New Zealand PGA, breaking new ground in tournament golf in this part of the world.

While the NSW Open has in recent years utilised a similar format, namely to have the amateurs play with the professionals over the final two days of a 72 hole professional event rather than earlier in the week, tournament organisers for this week's event are hoping to build the New Zealand event into a tournament to match the likes of the Dunhill Links in St Andrews and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Ams.

The goals are lofty but as has been the case with the aforementioned events, the venue alone provides the catalyst for the growth.

Queenstown has been one of the great tourist playgrounds of the world for decades. In the past fifteen years, however, the region has seen the creation of three high class golfing facilities, including this week's venue, the Hills Golf Club, the Millbrook Resort and Jacks Point, all considered to be not only great tests of golf but amongst the most visually stunning golf courses anywhere.

All four rounds of the professional title will be played at the Michael Hill owned Hills Golf Club adjacent to the picturesque former gold mining town, Arrowtown.

For the purposes of "˜seeding' the amateurs for their involvement over the weekend, they will play 18 holes on Friday at the nearby Jacks Point situated on Lake Wakatipu. They will then join the professionals at The Hills over the final 36 holes.

Several celebrities are included in the amateur field including the American actor and producer Don Cheadle, famous for his role in films such as Traffic and Oceans Eleven and Hotel Rwanda. Cheadle, though, is a keen golfer and regularly plays Pro Am events in the US where celebrities are involved.

In addition to Cheadle an array of Australasian sporting stars will tee it up including New Zealand All Black and Cricket representative Jeff Wilson, former Wallabies captain and halfback Nick Farr Jones and another former All Black and now commentator Justin Marshall,

Also playing as celebrity invitees are the current world number one female amateur Lydia Ko and the man who four years ago created history at the Hills when, at the age of 71, he became the oldest player ever to make the cut in a professional tournament on a recognised tour, Sir Bob Charles .

So what about the professional side of things?

Australian golfer Brendan Jones, who successfully plies his trade on the Japan Tour where he has won ten career titles, is the leading world ranked player in the field. From the moment he stepped foot in Queenstown on Sunday Jones has fallen in love with the place.

"I'm really excited to be here," said Jones on the eve of the event. "It is my first event of the year and could not think of a better place to do it. I am already thinking about coming back next year dependant on how the date fits with my schedule but would love to bring my family back. It is a beautiful place"

"Visually it's spectacular (but) I think if the wind gets up it can be very difficult," added Jones referring to the Hills course. "There are not a lot of driver holes, that I've found anyway. For me, it's all about positioning the ball, giving myself the best chance not to make bogeys on a few of those holes out there."

Jones is also happy with the new Pro-Am format. He says the prospect of playing the last two days with an amateur partner is of no concern, having had experience in the format in the past.

"I think it's great. We're still playing a professional tournament so we're still playing with the pros but it's nice for the amateurs to get involved. I have played Pebble Beach a couple of times and that's a lot of fun for everybody."

David Smail has been one of New Zealand's most successful players over the past twelve or so years, more especially in Japan. Last week Smail finished runner-up at the OneAsia Tour's Indonesian Open after earlier winning a Pro-Am in his hometown of Hamilton in New Zealand's Waikato district.

"The first two rounds last week I played really well which surprised me a bit," said Smail. "The weekend was not quite so good and the swing did not feel quite as good. Sunday was a pretty tough day but had three under on the back nine so was pretty happy with the way I finished."

Smail has come off a long break, perhaps longer than in other off seasons for him. "It was good to have a good break and recharge the batteries and start fresh."

Smail and Jones will be amongst the more favoured players but there are a host of other chances including the winner in Indonesia last week Nick Cullen. Cullen is from South Australia and in recent months has been putting together a series of good finishes in PGA Tour of Australasia events and others.

The win last week was a career altering one for the Cullen and opens up a number of doors for his career in addition to ensuring he can fund his ongoing campaign. He won US$172,000 for his victory.

Former Japan Open winner Paul Sheehan is in the field as are South African David Frost a ten time PGA Tour winner and now successful Champions Tour player, former New Zealand PGA Champion Peter O'Malley and former New Zealand Open winner Craig Parry.

The tournament is a departure from the norm, but many of the ingredients are already in place to allow it to grow into something that could eventually rival some of the more significant pro-am events of the world.

The decision to take this direction with the tournament was a bold initiative by those involved. Getting new tournaments in this part of the world up and running in the current economic climate is never an easy task and in the short eight months since the concept was first mooted a lot has been achieved.

By Sunday we will have a clearer understanding of just how much more can be achieved in the years ahead. If the first few days of tournament week are anything to go by then the future looks promising.


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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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