Min Woo Lee’s career continues to go from strength to strength after he captured one of the most prestigious titles in his home country at last week’s Australian PGA Championship. Sat in 2nd after the end of round one, Lee led at the completion of each of the next three rounds and ran out an eventually comfortable three-shot winner over Japan’s Rikuyu Hoshino.
Lee and many others in last week’s field now move on to Sydney for the 106th edition of the Australian Open.
The Australian Open was first staged in 1903 at this week’s main host course, The Australian Golf Club; an event won by English amateur, Michael Scott. With the exception of both World Wars and 2020/2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been held every year since.
2022 was a year of firsts for the tournament. It was not only the first year that the DP World Tour co-sanctioned the event with the PGA of Australia but for the first time in the event’s history, the Women’s Australian Open took place at the same on the same course(s), with each field playing for an equal share of the prize money. Something we will once again see this week.
This fine old tournament has a seriously impressive list of winners. Gary Player is the winning-most player in the history of the event, claiming seven titles between 1958 and 1974; just one more than one-time rival Jack Nicklaus, who won the event six times between 1964 and 1978.
Greg Norman and Ivo Whitton are the leading Australians with five wins apiece; five-time Open Championship winner, Peter Thomson has recorded three victories and amongst other legendary players to etch their name onto the trophy are Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Locke.
This tradition of world class Australian Open winners has continued into the present day with wins for Adam Scott (2009), Rory McIlroy (2013) and Jordan Spieth (2014, 2016).
The event returned last year following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, where we witnessed an emphatic five-shot win for Poland’s Adrian Meronk to claim his then second DPWT title. He is back to defend this week but he’ll have to conquer a different pair of venues to do so.
The Australian Open switched to a two-course setup last year to incorporate the large combined fields (240 players in total; 156 men and 84 women), taking place on the Melbourne Sandbelt courses of Victoria Golf Club and Kingston Heath Golf Club.
The event moves on to Sydney for this year’s renewal, taking in two of the oldest and most renowned courses in the country. Both sets of players will rotate between The Australian Golf Club -often attributed to being the oldest golf club in Australia – and The Lakes Golf Club over the opening two rounds, before the cut-makers return to The Australian for the third and fourth rounds. Between them, these two courses have played host to twenty-eight Australian Opens.
With three rounds taking place at The Australian, it will be with this historied venue that my primary focus will be on this week. A course which has hosted twenty-one editions of this event, most recently in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
The club was initially founded in 1882 and has seen many people play a hand in its development, including Augusta National architect, Dr Alister MacKenzie. However, it was Jack Nicklaus – who recorded three of his six Australian Open wins here – who redesigned the course to what we have today. He initially began work in 1976, completing it in 1980 and again renovating the venue as recently as 2013, turning it from a links-like course to a more American-style parkland setup.
This attractive course will this week play as a par 71, measuring 7228 yards, with the usual par 5 opening hole converted into a 488-yard par 4 for the tournament. It contains eleven par 4s (372-488 yards), four par 3s (188-217 yards) and three par 5s (517-605 yards).
There is plenty of room around this loosely tree-lined, undulating landscape. The fairways are narrow and sloped, protected by thick rough and strategic bunkering, some of with are rather vast and deep, with elevation changes from the tee commonplace.
The small, fast and firm greens are subtly undulating, predominantly elevated and often angled away from the player’s position in the fairway, enabling them to tuck some pins in behind the penal bunkering, punishing anything but the most precise approach play. If the ball-striking is off, be prepared to chip from some tight-lies around the greens.
With water in-play on eleven holes, there is danger lurking at every turn at The Australian Golf Club.
Averaging a winning score of -11.75 over the last four renewals, the venue has typically provided a demanding challenge. However, with likely receptive conditions due to plenty of rain prior to the start of the event, I suspect the scoring may be better than some of those previous renewals this week.
- SG: Approach
- SG: Off-the-Tee and/or Driving Accuracy
A quality tee-to-green game will be important this week but if conditions are indeed made receptive by the rainfall, I’d want high-class precision iron players firmly on side. They are the players best equipped to access the tighter pin positions and equally, avoid the threat around these small greens.
Having said that, such small greens that repel unprecise approach shots at their boundaries will be easy to miss, even in these conditions and with plenty of classy short-game players going well here in the past, players will need to display a solid scrambling ability.
Finally, quality off-the-tee will be needed. I don’t think you can afford to be too loose around here OTT; therefore wayward bomber types look best avoided. You’ll need to show some control with driver and it also feels like a week where more accuracy-dependent drivers can enjoy some success.
This event is a little tricky to correlate, due to the lack of prior DPWT-sanctioned events here and I don’t see many courses that offer up striking similarities.
If we go route one, and look at courses which share that combination of narrow fairways and small(ish) greens, we come to Emirates Golf Club, which hosts the Dubai Desert Classic and Galgorm Castle, host of the ISPS Handa World Invitational. Both of these courses possesses some of the lowest driving accuracy and greens-in-regulation percentages on tour.
There is forecast to be some heavy rain in the area in the days building up to the event which should make for receptive conditions. Though it looks clear for the four days of the actual tournament.
Wind shouldn’t be much of a factor over the opening few rounds but it is predicted to whip up a little on Sunday, with a constant 13mph breeze and gusts up to 30mph.
This week’s field is very similar to that of the Australian PGA last week, with a few interesting additions.
Cameron Smith is the top-ranked player in the field at #20 and one of five from inside the top 50, along with #38 and last week’s winner, Min Woo Lee; our 2017 winner here Cam Davis as the world #43; Adam Scott at #46 and defending Australian Open champion, Adrian Meronk at #48.
Two-time Australian Open winner – both of which came here at The Australian – Matt Jones, is also in attendance this week and a trio of Americans add further strength, in the shape of PGA Tour pros Nick Hardy and Patrick Rodgers, as well as soon-to-be PGA Tour player, Rico Hoey, who was promoted to the tour as the 4th-ranked player on the Korn Ferry Tour last season.
We have a trio of young Aussie stars heading the betting, with Min Woo Lee a 5/1 favourite and followed by Camerons: Smith and Davis at 6/1 and 8/1 respectively.
Just behind them is Adam Scott at 10/1 and after looking very good through 36 holes last week, continuing some encouraging performances over recent months, I’m taking this now elder-statesman of Aussie golf to break a lengthy winless streak at The Australian.
4 pts Adam Scott win only - 10/1
The 2009 Australian Open champion has had a solid year on tour in 2023. After a slow but steady start to the year, he switched his performances up a gear at the start of May, starting with a 5th-place finish at the Wells Fargo Championship.
Since then, he’s racked up a further six top 10s, including over his last two starts, when 5th in the Bermuda Championship three weeks ago on the PGA Tour and then finishing 6th last week in the Aussie PGA – an event in which he sat 2nd and just a shot behind eventual winner, Min Woo Lee at the halfway point.
Scott has done everything well at points this year, with his usually high-class and reliable ball-striking picking up as the year has developed. He ranks 2nd in this field in strokes-gained total over the last six months and 3rd over the last fifty rounds, gaining strokes in every area.
He did miss the cut here on his last visit in 2019, though on his prior two visits he recorded a finish of 5th in 2014 and was a close runner-up to Matt Jones here in 2015.
Scott finished 2nd in this event last year, rating as his best finish anywhere in over two years. He’s shown this season that he still has plenty to offer and I strongly fancy this classy operator to end his near four-year wait for a trophy this week.
2 pts Matt Jones each way (1/4 - 5 places) - 25/1
Despite his poor LIV results, Matt Jones has played well in ranking events this year. Much like Leishman last week, he could do with a world rankings boost and with form figures at The Australian that read 1-2-1 in his last three starts at the course, this looks an ideal place for him to make a leap up.
Jones has recorded just one top 10 in LIV this year, when 6th in Tuscon in March and just a further top 20 in thirteen starts in those limited 48-man fields.
However, he’s looked a different animal in the handful of events in which he’s teed it up in good fields on the Asian Tour, recording finishes of 7th, 4th and 2nd in four starts. The latter two efforts coming during his last four starts on any tour, showing his game to be in a good place.
The two-time PGA Tour winner has enjoyed a good career off the back of his superb short-game, whilst he is also strong off-the-tee. This skillset has taken him to two Australian Open wins at The Australian in 2015 and 2019, as well as a 2nd-place finish in 2017 and I’m taking him to relish this return home to put up another strong performance at the course this week.
1 pt Alex Fitzpatrick each way (1/4 - 5 places) - 50/1
Alex Fitzpatrick has looked well at home at this level when teeing it up in his first full season as a pro and with a runner-up finish to his name at Galgorm Castle showing what he can do on similarly precision-reliant courses, I fancy him to contend in Sydney this week.
Fitzpatrick mixed his time across several different tours at the start of the year, largely performing solidly but really burst into life in the middle part of the year.
He particularly impressed to a wider audience at The Open, finishing 17th and entering the final round sat inside the top the 10; building on that by claiming a first professional win two starts later in the British Challenge on the Challenge Tour.
Fitzpatrick then took full advantage of a start in the ISPS Handa World Invitational on the DPWT, finishing a distant 2nd to Daniel Brown and continued to thrive at this level with at 14th-place finish in the Czech Masters and 5th in the Omega European Masters, effectively wrapping up his spot on the DPWT for the 2023/24 season.
Though his recent results haven’t quite matched those earlier efforts, he has continued to look solid, missing just one cut in his last ten starts and comes into this week after finishing an encouraging 18th in last week’s Australian PGA.
Fitzpatrick hasn’t played here before but as an excellent iron player and scrambler - ranking 14th in both areas on the DPWT last season – I’m confident he has the game to take it to this historic venue.
1 pt Travis Smyth each way (1/4 - 5 places) - 66/1
Growing up just an hour-and-a-half away from Sydney, this week’s Australian Open is very much a home game for the talented Travis Smyth and if able to reproduce the consistently strong performances he’s shown on the Asian Tour this season, he can enjoy a memorable week.
Smyth was a superb amateur, reaching #11 in the world and plenty was expected of him when turning pro in 2017, especially after his hugely impressive six-stroke win in the NT PGA Championship on the PGA of Australia during his final few months as an amateur.
He made an instant impression in his first Australian Open as a pro at the end of that year, finishing 10th here at The Australian on a star-studded leaderboard.
The early years of his pro career saw him play across a variety of tours and he continually caught the eye, with a 3rd-place finish in the 2020 Vic Open – another DPWT/PGA Australia co-sanctioned event – a standout effort, before he finally earned his first win as a professional in the Yeangder TPC on the Asian Tour last season. Ultimately ending the season finishing 7th on the Order of Merit there.
Smyth has been in much the same form on the Asian Tour this season, making each of his fifteen cuts, recording ten top 25s and five top 10s; with a 2nd-place finish in defence of the Yeangder TPC at the end of September rating as his best effort. All that has been missing from his C.V for 2023 is a victory.
Though the sample size is small, whenever he has teed it up in an event which collates strokes-gained data he has shown himself to be a player who possesses an excellent tee-to-green game.
Smyth will need to bring the best of that with him to this formidable course and as a player who I’m sure we’re yet to see the very best of, he looked attractively priced this week.
0.75 pts Kazuki Higa each way (1/4 - 5 places) - 125/1
Kazuki Higa narrowly lost his full DPWT card last season though will still get plenty of starts on the tour in 2023/24. He’s shown enough promise to suggest he’s capable of doing something at this level and if able to lean on the performances of compatriots, Ryo Hisatsune and Rikuyu Hoshino for inspiration, he can make some early headway this season on this suitable setup.
The six-time Japan Tour winner started the season well, with a 4th-place finish in the Indian Open a standout effort amongst his opening DPWT starts. He hit a bit of a flat spot in the middle part of the year as he split time between Europe and the U.S but rediscovered some consistency towards the end of the season, missing just one of his last ten cuts and recording two top 10s, when 6th in the Open de France and two weeks ago he finished 10th amongst a strong field in the Dunlop Phoenix back home in Japan.
It's no surprise to see his two best performances this season coming on tough courses, where accurate ball-striking and a quality short-game can prove a mighty asset. As a player who ranked 14th in driving accuracy and 20th in scrambling last season, he should be well-suited to The Australian.
Higa played here in the 2015 Australian Amateur, failing to reach the match-play stage, but does have some strong performances in this part of the world, having finished 2nd in the stroke-play segment of the 2014 Australian Amateur and 17th in the 2017 Australian Master of the Amateurs. I’m expecting him to add another impressive Aussie result this week.