Open season in Arrowtown

Michael Hendry celebrates his New Zealand Open victory in 2017. Photo: Photosport
Michael Hendry celebrates his New Zealand Open victory in 2017. Photo: Photosport
It is entirely appropriate that a special New Zealand Open will this week be held at the place that saved the golf tournament.

The field of top-class professionals, and the 152 various celebrities, sport stars, hackers and whackers playing alongside them in the pro-am format, roaming The Hills and Millbrook over the next four days are marking a significant milestone.

It is the 100th Open, the premier event in New Zealand golf that has posted its share of bogies over the years but now seems to have found its place.

And what a place. Truly, there has never been as fitting a location in this country for the drama of tournament golf as the two premier courses in Arrowtown.

Challenging and memorable for the players, exciting and accessible for the spectators, exquisite and rewarding for the high-rollers, the two courses provide a marvellous stage for the tournament.

Golf can seem like an intimidating sport to those who do not know a pitching wedge from a 7-iron, but to be up close at a professional event is to get the chance to genuinely appreciate the skill it takes to drop little ball on to a 20-cent piece from 200m.

There are rules - spot the ''quiet please'' signs and the marshalls directing you where to walk - but there is a glorious sense of freedom at a major golf tournament. It is a good walk not often spoiled.

Best of all, a dramatic storyline is virtually guaranteed. Of all the sports, golf is the best at providing the unexpected. After all, it is virtually guaranteed that the highest-ranked player in the field will not win.

The New Zealand Open has had scandal (in 1937, Scottish professional Alex Murray was sensationally disqualified for practising his putting on the fringe of a green in the final round), early glimpses of greatness (New Zealand immortal Bob Charles won the 1954 tournament as an 18-year-old amateur), and Cinderella stories (Dunedin's Mahal Pearce came from nowhere to win it in 2003).

Occasionally, the Open has got a little big for its boots. Attracting world No 1 Tiger Woods to Paraparaumu in 2002 was designed to be a hole-in-one but ended up being a financial albatross around New Zealand Golf's neck for years.

The tournament was in big trouble before it was revived at Sir Michael Hill's incredible course in 2007.

Now, with a co-hosting arrangement with neighbouring Millbrook, a co-sanctioning deal with the Australasian and Asian tours, a partnership with the Japanese tour, and a potential expansion to a third course, Jacks Point, the tournament has a secure base, and it seems certain it will remain in Arrowtown for quite some time.

The format - where prominent people and business types and assorted other amateurs get to partner the professionals - is still not for everyone, but it has helped keep the Open in Otago, and ensure the event has a pull not only on sports fans but those who enjoy a week-long celebration at a beautiful party venue.

Gather round, golf fans. Time to tee off.

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