GEELONG, Australia — This is an event for real golf fans. Or fans of real golf. Both really.
This week’s Vic Open in Australia—a ground-breaking collaboration of the European Tour, the LPGA Tour, the PGA of Australia and Australian Ladies Professional Golf—has men and women playing alongside each other on two golf courses at 13th Beach Golf Club on the picturesque Bellarine Peninsula and, here’s the big news, for equal prize money. No, not huge money by today’s standards—a $1.5 million total purse for each—a factor that has surely led to the absence of many star names across the gender divide. But the Vic Open remains a fascinating hint of a more enlightened future for professional golf.
“The guys and girls thing just makes sense. Two real tournaments played at the same time on the same courses makes sense,” argues former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, a native Victorian who will be playing in his home state Open for the first time in 21 years. “I wanted to be part of that. Everybody has been praising this event for the last four or five years. That’s all I’ve been hearing in the locker room.
“The people walking on the fairways, guys and girls at the same tournament, alternating groups, a cool venue, two different courses. It’s all great. They are ticking every box. And the field is getting better every year because of that.”
Indeed, backed by the state government, this latest version of the Vic Open—it has been around in various forms since 1957 and has been won by the likes of Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Bruce Devlin, Greg Norman, David Graham and Ian Baker-Finch—is in many ways a step back in time. To a better time.
As Ogilvy points out, in recognition of the fact that golf is best viewed from “down the line” rather than “face on,” spectators will walk behind the players rather than alongside them. And the fields contains much of interest to the true golf aficionado. The likes of Laura Davies, Karrie Webb, Minjee Lee, Paula Creamer, Georgia Hall and Catriona Matthew on the women’s side, and Ogilvy, Victor Dubuisson, Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero, Nicolas Colsaerts, Lucas Herbert and Bob Macintyre are all in attendance. It’s an eclectic mix of young and not-so young.
Indeed, the Vic Open has been so successful, Golf Australia—who run the men’s and women’s Opens Down Under—have taken note. While immediate contractual obligations make an imminent move unlikely, seeing the two championships together is a definite long-term possibility.
“There is no downside to this event,” confirms Matthew, who is making her Vic Open debut. “It really is an inventive initiative and a fun format. I’m enjoying the different vibe that comes with having the men alongside. The only depressing aspect is how far they all hit the ball [laughs]. But I’m all for anything that gets away from the normal 72-hole stroke play we see almost every week.”
Amid all of this giddiness, there have been one or two murmurings of discontent. Many of the women have noted the sight of several of their tees sitting either directly alongside or marginally ahead of those of the men. This, many argue, will lead to a wide disparity in the winning scores that will only support the chauvinistic notion that the men can play and the women can’t.
“It’s not that hard,” says one woman who asked not to be identified. “All they have to do is set the test up so that we are all hitting the same clubs into the greens. There are some holes out there where I’ll be going in with a hybrid and many of the men will be hitting short irons. To a tight pin, that’s just not fair.”
Still, perhaps the only real downside is the list of absentees. Symbolically at least, it is disappointing that only four of the world’s top 50 women have made the trip, especially when the Australian Women’s Open, also an LPGA event, will be played in Adelaide next week. (Which is not to say that the leading men have made any more of an effort to acknowledge this historic event).
“I haven’t explicitly said we should get the same money as the men,” says Englishwoman Meghan Maclaren, one of the more interesting voices in the women’s game (go to megmaclaren.com to read one of the most thought-provoking blogs out there). “I’m not sure we will ever get to the stage where that can happen. Because of the way the business and golf worlds have operated for so long. If you are bringing in more money for sponsors, it makes sense that you should be paid more. But if you bring it all back to its most basic level, we are doing the same things as the men.
“We are playing the game to the best of our ability. Which makes me think there is no reason why we shouldn’t start with equal pay. But it has never happened. And the gap is so vast, which is what should be getting more attention. It shouldn’t be as wide as it is. And it doesn’t need to be.
To that end, says Maclaren, the Vic Open is a big deal. “We are getting the chance to play for the same prize-money as the men, which is great,” she says. “Nowhere else in the world is doing this. This week we will end up with two different winners—and they will have played the courses completed differently.”
Exactly. Golf geeks of the world unite. This is a tournament(s) worth watching. And watching closely.