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How the NZ Golf Open went from gentlemen's playground to professionals' payday

George Djuhari tees off at Millbrook Resort on day three of the 2018 Open. Photo/Getty Images

Greg Dixon looks back on the hallowed history of the New Zealand Open golf tournament as it turns 100.

What might the man who won the first New Zealand Open, a fellow with the thoroughly sober name of ADS Duncan, make of the 100th edition our country’s most prestigious golf tournament?

When this year’s Open tees off on February 28, it will be at those glittering twins of Queenstown, The Hills and Millbrook, courses that between them lay claim to some of the country’s most handsome fairways and beautifully manicured greens, pretty waterways and wetlands, and even a collection of sculptures, all in a landscape dominated by the high drama of the Remarkables.

Played before thrilled crowds and a large television audience, it will be our most diverse Open yet. One hundred and 52 professionals from New Zealand, Australia, Asia, the US and Europe will compete at the twins to be the 100th tournament champion and for a share of a prize purse of $1.25 million.

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By contrast, at the inaugural Open, played in September 1907, the prize money was rather less handsome – £25 for the winning professional and £10 for the runner-up, about $4200 and $1700 today. The host was humbler, too: the Napier Golf Club, a course established barely a decade before the first national championship.

Yet it seems likely that what would most strike ADS Duncan – Arthur to his friends – about the 100th New Zealand Open would not be the glamour and spectacle, the ball-striking power of players, such as our current No 1, Ryan Fox, the flash modern courses or the even flasher rewards. No, it would be the ascendency of the professional.

Remembered as a gentleman of the old school and an upholder of the game’s standards, Duncan was not only a New Zealand golfing legend of his time but also a proud amateur in an age when amateur golfers were kings of the course.

In New Zealand, as throughout Britain’s Empire, men engaging in manly sporting pursuits such as golf were expected, win or lose, to do so fairly, with a stiff upper lip, but not for financial reward. In short, gentlemen were not golf professionals and golf professionals were not gentlemen.

The 2018 NZ Open winner, Australian Daniel Nisbet, at Millbrook Resort, which with the nearby The Hills golf course, is the venue for this year’s tournament. Photo/Supplied

So, although an impressive 130 players took part in our first Open – an event that incorporated three other competitions, including the national amateur championship – just seven professionals rounded out the field. And at least for one spectator, they weren’t up to much.

“Much interest was taken in the play of the professionals,” a Press Association correspondent reported, by telegraph, to the NZ Herald, “but on the whole they were very disappointing to follow.” The pros, the correspondent continued, were probably nervous and “also over-zealous about their reputations”. So, some things never change.

It was Duncan, a man of average height and slim build who relied on the superb rhythm of his swing, who dominated that first Open, posting a record final round score for the course and finishing eight shots ahead of his closest rival. Scottish-born professional Jack Maclaren took the £25, but the Open and the honour went to the amateur, Duncan.

The worm soon turned. Just a year later, in 1908, those nervous, reputation-conscious professionals struck back. JA Clements, though just a lad of 19 from Wanganui, became the first New Zealand-born professional to win the prize money and tournament.

Some of the 110 bronze wolves and a warrior at the 18th hole of The Hills course. Photo/Supplied

Looking at the Open’s history since Duncan’s triumph, we see a tournament ultimately controlled by professionals, interrupted by two world wars, often dominated by Kiwis in the first 40 years, and that has, in recent times, been more of a happy hunting ground for Australian players.

Indeed, in the 66 Opens played since 1950, just 15 have been won by New Zealanders, including Alex Murray, Simon Owen, Greg Turner (twice), Grant Waite, Michael Long, Matthew Lane, Michael Campbell, David Smail, Mahal Pearce and Michael Hendry. All are destined for New Zealand golf’s Valhalla. But it will be legendary left-hander R J Charles, now Sir Bob Charles, who will sit at their head as winner of four New Zealand Opens.

Sir Bob, a hearty 82-year-old who still hits balls most days at Clearwater, the course next to his Christchurch home, is perhaps the greatest living embodiment of the Open’s history. He first played the tournament as a 17-year-old amateur in 1953. In 1954, still an amateur, the tousle-haired Wairarapa kid returned and won, beating by two shots two of the world’s best professionals, including Australian Peter Thomson, the 1953 title-holder and perhaps the greatest player in Open history.

The win changed the young Charles’ life, with the amateur eventually turning professional in 1960, then going on to take the Open three more times, in 1966, 1970 and 1973.

The 100th playing of the tournament takes place at The Hills, above, and Millbrook Resort, near Queenstown. Photo/Supplied

Today, Charles believes the major change in the Open in the modern era has been the influence of money. “Money changes everything,” he told the Listener. “The great thing when I started out … was to have the likes of Thomson and [fellow Australian] Kel Nagle, both major international champions, come year after year and compete in New Zealand. All right, they were here for the money, such as it was, but they were here mainly for that title.”

Sadly, he says this is no longer so. Our comparatively smaller prize purses mean we struggle to attract the very best international players, the Thomsons and Nagles of today.

And 100 tournaments on, there’s almost no chance of an amateur winning at Queenstown – at least not in the Open, though the tournament does now incorporate the New Zealand Pro-Am Championship, a format in which amateurs and celebrities play alongside the pros.

For better or for worse, the 100th New Zealand Open will be another day at the office for some of Australasia’s and Asia’s best professional golfers and not, as the Open was in yesteryear, a playground for plucky champion amateurs.

We can be sure that one of those old champion amateurs, Duncan, would be sanguine about that – he made his peace with the pros nearly a century ago. Although somewhat aloof, conservative in outlook and no sufferer of fools, it was he who first broke with strict amateur protocol and, at the 1920 Open in Hamilton, crossed the dining room and sat down to share a meal with the professionals.

New Zealander Bob Charles.

A timeline

Scottish immigrant and so-called father of New Zealand golf Charles Ritchie Howden leads the establishment of the country’s first golf club in Dunedin.

Wellington amateur ADS Duncan becomes the first New Zealand Open champion at Napier. He wins again in 1910 and 1911.

JH Kirkwood becomes the first Australian to win.

Though leading after four rounds, Scottish pro Alex Murray, who’d won in 1935, is sensationally disqualified for practising his putting on the fringe of a green on the 8th at Hamilton.

Amateur RH (Bob)Glading becomes the first post-war champion. He wins again in 1947 as a professional.

18-year-old Bob Charles, then an amateur, wins the first of his four Opens.

Australian Harry Berwick becomes the last amateur to win for 56 years.

Golf legend Gary Player is in the field and finishes third.

Bob Charles wins his first Open as a professional, by 13 strokes, a record that still stands.

Greg Turner wins his first of two Opens.

New Zealanders win five consecutive Opens (Michael Long, Greg Turner, Matthew Lane, Michael Campbell and David Smail).

Then world No 1 Tiger Woods finishes 6th equal in the Open at Paraparaumu.

Australian Jake Higginbottom becomes the first amateur to win the Open since Harry Berwick in 1956

Despite the February earthquake in Christchurch, which killed 185, the Open is played at the city’s Clearwater course.

The Open returns to The Hills and Millbrook. The New Zealand Pro-Am Championship is introduced.

Kiwi Michael Hendry becomes the first New Zealander to win the Open in 14 years.