A few tweaks could add a fresh spark to the SA Open, the grand old dame of local golf.
The hype surrounding the US Open is fantastic; the USGA is responsible for taking the event around the country and for setting it up to play (really) tough. Some reckon the tougher the better; not that the players are climbing on board with that sentiment.
I’m not suggesting moving the SA Open away from Glendower. The course is a wonderful championship layout, it’s well-located and has given its best in setting the scene for some thrilling editions recently. But surely our national golf championship deserves the same buildup as its US counterpart?
If you followed the stories, you’d know how contentious the makeup of the field was. Ernie Els and Jim Furyk were given exemptions but the player who won at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, Retief Goosen, was ‘snubbed’ by the sponsors. Adam Scott was forced to go the way of qualifying – a 36-hole, one-day affair that tests even the most professional of players – to keep his streak of consecutive Majors played going. He manged to do enough and that was another story to be written, shared and commented on.
There were, of course, more South African angles than merely Ernie getting in and Retief being left out. As many as 10 South Africans signed up for the English leg of qualifying but only Dean Burmester prevailed and even then he needed to hold his nerve over the last 12 holes or so when he drifted on to the cut line. Burmester joined ‘Beef’ Johnston and Thorbjorn Olesen, a winner in Italy the day before, as high-profile pre-qualifiers. The US Open was exciting and full of stories and intrigue well before a ball had been struck.
The US media covering the event went mad about sectional qualifiers, or ‘the longest day in golf’ as they dubbed it – it’s good for the spectacle of the event. It’s a guarantee they will be even more frenzied next year. The qualifiers create hype, fill online pages and newspaper columns and they raise awareness of the game. It takes golf beyond the current section of fans and deeper into the sporting community.
Who doesn’t love a little bit of triumph over adversity?
There are other angles, too, that make the US Open so revered.
Ever heard of Matt Parziale? He’s the US Mid-Amateur champion and he’s played at The Masters and now US Open on the back of his 2017 win. His story is fascinating by all accounts. He’s a fireman by day and is described as a ‘blue-collar, rock-solid guy’, a ‘great dude’ and a ‘better person than he is a golfer’.
And have you ever heard of Garrett Rank? He’s 30 years old, from Canada, and played at the US Open after making it through qualifying. Rank is also a cancer survivor and a referee in the NHL. Another fascinating story brought to you by the US Open’s qualification process.
There’s a story that’s never been given the opportunity to be told in our country.
Derek Scullard – our would-be Parziale this year – doesn’t get automatic exemption into the SA Open. The US Open also provides a spot for their Senior Open champion. Mark McNulty would’ve played at the 2018 SA Open by virtue of his win – another missed opportunity to recall his achievements and lure a few more people into the game.
I’ve no doubt many of the pros in SA would hate my suggestion that the field’s automatic spots be limited, with regional qualifiers and the few exemptions mentioned making up the field. This year’s version was great, and of course Rory McIlroy’s attendance the year before was a breakthrough in its popularity. Els is doing a tremendous job, but surely there’s some wiggle room for a few adjustments and to increase the options for storylines?
If Kyle McClatchie, playing as an amateur in 2018, can handle himself alongside Charl Schwartzel, there’s every chance of a Scullard or a McNulty doing the same. I’ll confess to not knowing Scullard personally but I’m sure there’s a good story to be told of him or one of his mid-amateur predecessors. Until the makeup of the field is challenged and changed, we may be robbing the public of their glimpse into the wonderful world of (semi) professional golf.
Add those human-interest stories to those of local stars in the mould of players like Oliver Bekker, Justin Harding, JJ Senekal or Rourke van der Spuy having to play their way into the most prestigious event on our calendar, and there’s likely to be more public interest in the event.
It’s not quite a case of ‘why fix what ain’t broke’ but there’s always room for growth and innovation, at least from this vantage point.
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