The 2010 Michael Hill New Zealand Open

Sport is never predictable, that is its enthralling charm, and golf is perhaps one of the most unpredictable of sports. The winner in a four day golf tournament is never a foregone conclusion and unlike other sports the best player in the world generally losses more tournaments than they win. Rare exceptions would be Tiger Woods at his incredible best and Ben Hogan in the latter half of his career when he played in only a handful of events each year winning a substantial percentage. Such approaches to perfect dominance in golf are rare.

Whilst golf is far from predictable it is also the case that the record book, the cold hard facts as to who won and who came second, is a very one dimensional reflection of what happened at the event. It may be the true record of who won but frequently it misses the most important story of the event. One only has to think about last year’s majors, Kenny Perry is recorded as having lost in a playoff, so coming second, but needing only a par and a bogey to win over the final two holes he managed to finish bogey, bogey. The record may say he finished second but there was so much more to it than that, he’s remembered as having choked but the two birdies on 15 and 16 are forgotten. This kind of back story happens often and no one who loves golf will ever forget the back story of the 2009 British Open. It should have been a fairy tale with Tom Watson winning his sixth, and record equalling, British open. It didn’t happen; he came second after losing a play off. The record books will show that Stewart Cink won the championship but none of Watson’s heartache. The back stories can be as important a part of the fabric of a championship as the final result.

The New Zealand Open has undergone many changes over the last ten years, not only has it moved between Auckland and Wellington it has also been affiliated to both the Nationwide Tour and the European Tour at various times in addition to The Australasian PGA Tour. Prior to its move to the Hills in 2007 it would be fair to say that the event was struggling. It was seeing The New Zealand Open in such disarray that prompted Christchurch lawyer, Geoff Saunders, a fine golfer who was briefly a professional player in his teens, to make his experience and passion for both golf and the business of golf available to the board of New Zealand Golf. He became chairman of the Championship Organising Committee and what followed was the most remarkable transformation of the event as it moved to the South Island for the first time in more than two decades to Michael Hill’s brand new course.

The successful transformation was most apparent in the enthusiasm of the volunteers, so vital for the success of any major event. At the last Open in Auckland it was hoped that 300 volunteers would be available, in the event fewer than half that number came forward. Contrast this with the current situation at The Michael Hill New Zealand Open. Sue McFarlane from TA Golf coordinates all the volunteers and for the 2010 event she had a waiting list of up to fifty volunteers after ‘employing’ 425. That people from all over New Zealand are prepared to give up four days to be a part of the event, in return for a tee shirt, cap, packed lunch and a round of golf, is testament to the wonderful spirit that is embodied in the event and the eminent sense in moving it to such a desirable and beautiful destination.

The 2010 Michael hill New Zealand continued and built on the success and momentum of the last two events at The Hills. The course was immaculately presented, Jim Duncan, Tournament Director of the Nationwide Tour, commented that the course was as good as any he had ever seen, and the overall atmosphere was as enthusiastic and positive as any golf tournament anywhere. The event began bathed in glorious Central Otago sunshine, quite a contrast to the bleak temperatures and winds that greeted the players last year.

With the temperature soaring and the wind benign the players responded. Within the first couple of hours more than half the starters were under par and by the end of the day 109 players were at par or better with the average score more than half a shot below par.

The headlines the first day belonged to New Zealander David Smail who, teeing off early, produced a bogey free round of 65 and Robert Gates of the US and Australian Andrew Dodt who both teed off towards the end of the day and also shot 65’s.

Smail entered the tournament announcing that he was unsure of his form but whatever he was unsure of evaporated fast. Starting on the back nine, he birdied five of his first eight holes before finally signing for his 65. For Gates this was his first event on the Nationwide Tour and what a start it was, he eagled his first ever hole on tour before suffering something of a roller coaster round that contained two bogeys but finished with three straight birdies. He briefly thought he may have holed out for an ace on 16 but ended up 6 inches away, he then two putted from 50 feet on 17 before closing his round with a curving, left to right, slick thirty footer on the eighteenth.

If Gates’ finish was strong then Dodt’s was incredible with birdies on 15, 16, 17 before  hitting the flag on the 18th with his second shot that led to a fourth birdie in a row.

There were other remarkable, and surprising, performances and comments that provided the colour in the first round.

Jason Gore, from the US, having attracted much of the media attention ahead of the event as a previous winner on the US PGA Tour, disappointed with his early form, slumping to four over after seven holes. After making the turn he was transformed playing the first six holes of his back nine (he started on ten) with six straight birdies, briefly threatening to challenge the fifteen year old record on the Nationwide Tour of nine. He finally signed for a very respectable 70.

D. J. Brigman from the US and a former PGA Tour player, played with Smail for the first two rounds and in round one the pair ripped into the course with Brigman adding another seven birdies to Smail’s seven before finally signing for a first round 66. He lists Queenstown as his favourite city to visit and went hang gliding the day before the tournament began. This was perhaps a little less extreme than the three bungee jumps that he made last year when he missed the cut by one stroke. Echoing the sentiment of many of the American visitors to the event, both players and officials, he described Queenstown as “the prettiest place he’s ever seen” and went on to comment that “nothing in the US can compare!” High praise indeed and it perfectly reflected the spirit of enjoyment, optimism and enthusiasm that surrounded the start of the 2010 Michael Hill New Zealand Open.

After the first round only three Kiwis, Smail (-7), Tataurangi (-3) and Geary (-3) were in the top 43. This compared to 21 Australians and 16 Americans.

The second day of the tournament began in much the same manner as the first, glorious weather and great scoring. The best score of the day was 66 and there were three of them. Martin Piller of the US, who finished second last year followed his opening round 71 with a six under round to move into joint sixth; Kevin Chappell, also of the US, shot 66 to lie one better at eight under and tied for fourth, but most remarkable was James Hahn of Korea. He may have finished the second day only tied for thirty ninth but his 66 was an incredible nine shot improvement on his first round effort. This was the best recovery in a day that saw very few of those that struggled on day one show enough improvement to make the cut. Those that scored well on day one mostly followed up on day two. Unfortunately there were a few exceptions, David Smail finished poorly dropping shots on both 17 and 18 to slip to a 74 after his opening 65 and three others, all Australians, Stephen Leaney, Andrew Bonhomme and Bronson La’Cassie, also found the course nine strokes harder than the previous day. Sadly Paul Sheehan of the US went one worse following up his solid opening 69 with a bogey filled round of 79.

Amongst the amateurs in the field Matt Jager from Western Australia and the current New Zealand Amateur Champion secured the Bledisloe cup for leading amateur by being the sole survivor of the cut after rounds of 68 and 73.

At the end of ‘moving day’, with the exception of Smail most of the leaders had consolidated their positions. Gates was leading (65, 67) followed by Dodt (65, 68) and Brigman (66, 69). Five Kiwis made the cut; Phil Tautarangi (-7), Josh Geary (-6), Bradley Iles (-6) and Gareth Paddison on the cut line of -2.

If there were going to be a Tom Watsonesque back story then it would have required a remarkable performance from Peter Senior. Senior recently won the PGA Champion’s Tour Qualifying School, the first Australian to achieve this feat, and also qualified for the British Open. The result is that in 2010 Senior will figure in the tour statistics on the Nationwide Tour, the PGA Tour (courtesy of the British Open) the European Senior and main tours, the Australasian Tour and the of course the Champion’s Tour. Unfortunately, rounds of 75 and 71 ruled out any reprise of Watson’s achievement.

Day three began with a front moving through and rain briefly falling before the sun reasserted itself as the leaders began to tee off. The early scores were as good as had been recorded on either of the previous days, however, as the day progressed the conditions became more challenging as the temperature soared but so too did the wind speed.

The story of the day was the incredibly mature play by the leader and Nationwide Tour rookie Robert Gates. A very strong back nine, including four birdies in a row, resulted in a 68 and saw him extend his lead to three over Dodt despite a disappointing dropped shot on his last hole of the day.

In the main the rest of the leaders played solid but unspectacular golf shooting two or three under par. Only Mark Hensby of Australia, once ranked 27 in the world and a Presidents Cup team member, made real progress. Hensby signed for a third round 66 after narrowly missing a twenty footer on the last for a 65. This left him at 9 under and in fourth place going into the final round.

The sole amateur survivor, Jager, who intends to turn pro after the Eisenhower cup this year, whether or not he makes the Australian team, further enhanced his growing reputation as he raced to three under for the day after just six holes. He turned at five under for the championship but unfortunately the putts kept sliding by on the back nine and he finally signed for a two under 70.

Unfortunately for the Kiwis, despite five of them making the cut, none made any lasting impression. Tataurangi threatened early but faded to a 71, the same score as Smail whilst Padisson improved slightly with a 70, Iles a 72 and Geary 73.

Sunday began with the same Central Otago sunshine that had adorned the tournament for all but Saturday morning, but once again the wind grew and became a stiffer challenge as the day progressed. Early scoring was somewhat disappointing with only Jim Carter from amongst the early starters mounting a challenge with seven birdies in his first 16 holes moving him into the top ten but never being a real threat. The quiet achiever of the first three and a half days was Jamie Lovemark of the US. He played on a sponsors invite in the five round Bop Hope Classic the previous week in California and with the event being delayed by one day due to weather and Lovemark making the cut he only just made it to Queenstown in time, arriving only 90 minutes prior to his tee time in Wednesday’s pro-am. Steady rounds of 70, 69 and 69 moved him into a tie for seventh and with two early birdies in the final round he moved up to fourth.

Gates began the day very steadily, displaying the maturity and nerve that he had shown throughout the event and after eight holes he had established a six stroke lead over Dodt and Michael Curtain but then came the first signs of nerves and the outcome became far from certain. Two further birdies from Lovemark brought him to within four and Dodt also picked up two birdies while Gates bogeyed ten and eleven and Gates’ lead was down to two. It was still two as the leaders began the last three holes, two of which, 16 and 18 had been the hardest two holes all week. On the very tricky par three 16th both Gates and Curtain found the water, after a drop Gates took a double bogey and after Dodt chipped and putted for a par the lead was shared at 14 under. The seventeenth had played as one of the easiest holes all week but proved challenging to both leaders as they pushed their tee shots right on the wind into the hazard, Dodt ended up with an ugly double bogey while Gates made a courageous par holing from ten feet. Gates’ par left him with a two stroke lead on the 18th tee. Dodt made a brave birdie on the 18th, holing from twenty feet, but Gates chipped from beyond the green to three feet and holed out for par and victory as solidly and calmly as he had played all week and became a deserving champion.  The headlines may say that Robert Gates won his first ever event on the Nationwide Tour, and having led since the second day it may have seemed straight forward, the back story was that there was so much more too it with a very dramatic last ten holes.

On the last day the course played close to two strokes harder and like most players the Kiwis struggled to make any progress with Josh Geary being the sole improver with an admirable 70 that would have been so much better if it weren’t for a triple bogey on the 17th.

The 2010 Michael Hill New Zealand Open was a remarkable success from the course and location through to the weather and the golf, added to this was the wonderfully optimistic attitude that seemed to pervade all aspects of the event

The only negative hanging over the week was the uncertainty of what the future of the New Zealand Open looks like. For the last two years it has been known that The Hills would host the event the next year, no such certainty exists now. On the Saturday of the event a press release and conference confirmed that the event will take place in 2011 but confirmation of where, when and as a part of what tour(s) will only be known after negotiations with a ‘number of parties’ over the next few months. The Hills is apparently one of those parties and many ‘older’ courses have been ruled out due to lack of required infrastructure. I’m sure the Hills will host future Opens but don’t be surprised if another South Island venue, that has hosted other major events, comes into the mix over coming months.

Kevin Armstrong

31st January 2010


Thursday 3,615

Friday 4,478

Saturday 6,912

Sunday  9,241

Overall up slightly on last year.