Open’s here to stay – Hart

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The man who brought the New Zealand Open golf tournament and its pro-am format to Queenstown wants it to stay here forever.

Looking forward to the 100th Open at The Hills and Millbrook Resort, starting February 28, organising committee chairman John Hart says the tournament’s been reinvigorated by having Queenstown as its host.

“We find with our international sponsors, with our international players and amateurs, they love coming to Queenstown.”

Last decade, the former All Blacks coach came to The Hills owner Sir Michael Hill with the idea of staging a pro-am tournament at his then-new golf course.

Hart had been inspired after playing the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship pro-am in Scotland.

“It can only work in special places, and Queenstown, to me, was always the place, logically.”

That then became the format for the NZ PGA Championship at The Hills.

“But then it was going so well and the Open was struggling, so I went to the PGA and NZ Golf and said, ‘look, logically the biggest tournament in the country should be the Open. How do you feel about the Open being a pro-am format?”‘

Hill then underwrote the pro-am format Open.

The tournament’s since taken on a second course, Millbrook, whose owner Eiichi Ishii, now underwrites it.

“You need international-quality golf courses to run this tournament, so there are few places in NZ where you can get it,” Hart says.

“And you need proximity [between courses] so you don’t have terrible logistical problems.”

Then, added to the courses, Queenstown not only has the accommodation infrastructure but is a tourism drawcard, too.

Normally, golfers who miss the cut will head elsewhere straight away, “but they say ‘this is one place we don’t mind missing the cut because we’ll stay the weekend and enjoy it’ – that says a lot about Queenstown,” Hart says.

“Our vision is to create the best professional golf tournament experience in Asia-Pacific and promote Queenstown as NZ’s premier tourist destination.”

Hart notes that the government’s support for the event is also based on it building relationships with Asia, which it’s done.

“The Asian Tour co-sanction is a big step to us, the Japan Golf Tour partnership is a big step.

“We’ve got a relationship with the Korean Tour as well.”

Hart notes that having paying amateurs in the field, 60 per cent of whom come from overseas, also raises more than $1 million each time.

He says the Open’s still on target to add a third course, like the Alfred Dunhill and the world’s other famous pro-am tournament, the AT&T Pebble Beach, in California, in the United States.

“That’s probably more likely, now, in 2021, 2022.”

Meanwhile, he’s excited about the upcoming 100th tournament, which will recognise the Open’s “great history”.

“There are very few Opens around the world that have had 100 years.

“I think there’s five, so this is pretty significant.”

scoop@scene.co.nz