Hill’s NZ Open battle

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Queenstown jewellery magnate Michael Hill is battling to retain golf’s New Zealand Open – as another local business leader urges council to underwrite the event. 

Rumours are rife that Christchurch City Council is close to securing the Open for its city’s Clearwater course. 

Hill isn’t giving up the event he helped revive during the past three years without a fight and says he wants to host it for another five. 

It’s believed each Open is worth about $30 million to the Queenstown economy. 

“I think it’s pretty close we can pull it off,” Hill says. 

“But I don’t want the Open as it was. I have a spectacular vision for blowing this thing right out of the water.” 

Hill is calling for urgent support, financial or otherwise, and has set up a “Save Our Open” link on The Hills website. 

“I can’t just bankroll it all along – there comes a time when others have to take responsibility for it.” 

Hospitality operator Good Group’s chief executive Russell Gray yesterday chipped in: “Having the NZ Open in Arrowtown is a major coup for this area and we would be extremely remiss if we let it go. 

“Quite frankly, if it needs support in the way of money, Queenstown Lakes District Council should underwrite it immediately.” 

Gray, a Destination Queenstown director – who was also a volunteer at the first Hills Open – says the problem is events fall through the cracks. 

On behalf of DQ and Chamber of Commerce, Gray’s lobbied QLDC for an Events Queenstown body to manage major events like the Open, Winter Festival and Winter Games. 

QLDC’s annual plan, to be adopted next Tuesday, will provide money to investigate such a body, mayor Clive Geddes says. 

QLDC provides the Open a range of support, Geddes says. 

Unlike Christchurch City Council, it doesn’t have the resource or mandate to write out cheques, Geddes adds. 

Meantime, Hill wants the Open to join the growing Asia-Pacific OneAsia circuit and ditch its co-sanctioning partner, America’s second-tier Nationwide Tour. 

Over a five-year period, OneAsia would bring “approximately three billion homes to view Queenstown”, Hill says. 

As venue provider, Hill also wants to call more shots – the past three Opens have been run by Aussie promoter Bob Tuohy. 

The Hills general manager Sam Gent says: “We’ve only paid money to the promoter, we’ve had no income, no control and no way of improving it and making it work for the community. 

“We want some skin in the game.” 

Gent says Hill has spent more than $3m on the tournament during the past three years including $250,000 to groom the course for each tournament. 

On top of that, Hill shells out some $1.25m a year to maintain the course for year-round play. 

Part of that $3m tournament spend is Hill’s company – Michael Hill International – buying naming rights sponsorship, which he doesn’t want again. 

Hill: “All I did was put up the money. 

“I’m sure people would think I would partake in at least the gate takings. 

“Nothing came to me at all – I couldn’t even sell a book here or a piece of clothing [without paying the promoter].” 

NZ Open chief executive Dean Murphy says a deal with a tour sanctioning partner is still being negotiated and venues will be evaluated after that. No venues are frontrunners and The Hills remains a contender, he says. 

“It’s been incredibly successful there and because of that it has given the tournament some life and lots of people want to be involved with it these days. Queenstown has a lot to be proud of.”