Exciting year in prospect with much NZ representation
By Duncan Simpson
New Zealand PGA Secretary
The numbers of New Zealand professional golfers on overseas tours in 2017 will create plenty of interest for golf fans throughout the year.
There’s also a ton of action locally, starting straight after New Year with a packed pro-am schedule leading towards the New Zealand PGA Championship and New Zealand Open tournaments, both in March.
All of this can only benefit the profile of golf. We certainly owe a great debt to Lydia Ko for what she has done for the sport in recent years.
But it’s rather ironical that although her results are reported faithfully week in and week out regardless of how she performs, her male counterparts have to actually win a tournament before getting a mention. Here’s hoping there’s more balance in this area in 2017.
For starters, we now have Danny Lee, Steven Alker and Tim Wilkinson all on the world’s richest golf circuit, the PGA Tour.
Danny had a relatively disappointing year in 2016 by his standards, but he is now well established on the tour and will be able to plan his schedule with reasonable certainty. I predict he will win another event in 2017, and contend well in at least two of the majors.
By contrast, Alker and Wilkinson will have to seize every opportunity they can in the early part of the season to lift their rankings before the big guns come out to play again. Neither will want to return to the grind of the Web.Com Tour, the secondary circuit to the PGA Tour.
We will also have Ryan Fox on the European Tour, whose excellent performances on the Challenge Tour over the last two years should set him up well for 2017. He can handle a tough travel schedule, and the multicultural nature of the European Tour won’t faze him.
Michael Hendry is now well established on the Japan Tour, and looks set to emulate or better David Smail’s record on this circuit over many years. He may well have Brad Shilton and Daniel Pearce as company, providing they make it through the final Japan Qualifying School in December.
The Japan Tour works in well with our local circuit, as that gives players like Hendry time to tune their game before heading off to Japan in April. The Charles Tour events in New Zealand, in particular, are usually a good guide to overseas success.
On the home front, there’s a back to the future look about the PGA of New Zealand’s 2017 tournament schedule, featuring several venues that haven’t hosted pro-ams since the heyday of the New Zealand professional golf circuit in the 1970s and 1980s.
The pro-am format is not only a chance for our players to build a stake for the year ahead, but also an opportunity for amateurs to play alongside professionals and see just how good these guys are.
Fans and players alike won’t have to wait long for action in the New Year: the Whitford Park pro-am kicks off on January 7, a couple of weeks earlier than normal. Josh Geary won this in 2015 to start a successful year which included several PGA China Tour victories, eventually securing him Web.Com Tour status for 2016.
Michael Hendry was a convincing winner of the same event in 2016, to trigger off his best year yet as a professional golfer. So the 2017 Whitford pro-am could again be a good early form guide for the rest of the year.
Next cab off the rank is the PGA’s annual Qualifying School in Taupo, where those wishing to have a crack at the professional ranks line up alongside a bunch of existing tour players seeking to regain their status on the NZ Tour.
A handful of tour cards will be on offer after three pressure-packed rounds. In recent years Daniel Pearce and Kieran Muir have ignited their professional careers by winning Q School, thus gaining preferential entry to all NZ PGA pro-am events for the next 12 months.
The successful players from Q School will then be eligible to join the circuit for the two day Takapuna tournament on January 17 and 18, with events to follow at Waitemata, Akarana and Pakuranga — a total of $62,000 in prizemoney will be up for grabs over the week.
PGA records indicate that it is several decades since Takapuna last hosted a professional golf tournament, and there will be much interest in how the professionals tackle the weekend warriors’ traditional battle ground. A sub-60 round or two could be in the mix, although the Thomas Park track tends to play harder than it looks.
January finishes with a swing through the bottom part of the North Island, with one day tournaments at Napier, Martinborough and Paraparaumu Beach, followed by the popular two-day event at the Eketahuna and Masterton courses.
This was where Ryan Fox debuted as a professional in 2012, and he must have fancied his chances after shooting 15 under for the two rounds, only to find that Grant Moorhead had gone two shots better. Ryan made amends by winning the Martinborough pro-am two days later — the first of many victories he has recorded since.
As I said at the start — looks like an exciting year — and that’s only January.