The 2023 New Zealand Open – Steppingstone to the Majors?

Dating back to 1906, the New Zealand Open has been a steppingstone event to golfing greatness. In the last 85 years there have been seven first time winners of “our Open” who have gone on to win major championships.

It may be hard to imagine the 2023 champion 48-year-old Australian Brendan Jones as a potential major winner. Having said that, he finished strongly over the closing holes to take the title from the younger, and exceptionally talented, group following him. Jones was an immensely popular winner with the Millbrook galleries.

There was plenty of New Zealand talent in contention coming into the last nine holes. Local hope, and joint runner-up, Ben Campbell was derailed by a double bogey on the par 3 15th hole. Rangiora’s Kazuma Kobori, a 21-year-old amateur, started badly on the last day but finished strongly in sixth position to win the Bledisloe Cup for leading amateur. Michael Hendry tied Kobori on 14 under with Harry Hillier and Daniel Hillier handily placed one shot further back at 13 under par.

Another potential star is the 20-year-old left-handed Australian Elvis Smylie, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the 18 -year-old Bob Charles in 1954. Smylie has a fine sporting pedigree with his mother Liz having won four Grand Slam titles in her tennis career.

From Bobby Locke to Michael Campbell, the select group of first time New Zealand Open champions who graduated to accumulate 14 major wins are, in order -

Bobby Locke - South Africa - 1938.

Locke arrived in New Zealand in 1938 as a 20-year-old. After playing number of exhibition matches throughout the country, he won the New Zealand Open at Balmacewan with a par score of 288 – or “even fours”, as it was known at the time. His underrated career was interrupted by service in the South African Air Force from 1940 to 1946. Encouraged to travel to America in 1947, Locke excelled there. He won 11 events over two seasons in the US and finished in the top three 30 times. The American pros did not like “Old Muffin Face” - as they called him. The PGA Tour banned him from playing in the US in 1949. The 1948 Masters champion, Claude Harmon rationalised it thus – “Locke was simply too good. They had to ban him.” He went on to win four Open championships between 1949 and 1957.

Peter Thomson – Australia - 1950.

Thomson was Australia’s best golfer. He was given a start to his professional career at the New Zealand Open. He arrived at the Christchurch Golf Club aged 21, to win his first professional tournament with a record aggregate of 280. He would go on to win the New Zealand Open nine times. His simple, elegant method made him the best links player in the world for more than a decade from the early 1950s. He did not practice much; his warmup consisted of hitting a few balls until he was sure he was ‘’finding the middle of the bat’’. The Thomson method returned him five Open Championships. Thomson summed up his golfing life – “I had a very joyful time playing a game that I loved the sheer pleasure of. I do not think that I did a real day’s work in the whole of my life.”

Bob Charles - New Zealand – 1954.

New Zealand’s greatest golfer stunned everyone (including Thomson and Bruce Crampton) in winning the 1954 New Zealand Open at Heretaunga. “Our Open” gave Sir Bob his start in the game and he has never forgotten that. He won again in 1966, 1970 and 1973. In 1963, he became the first left-hander to win a major when he triumphed at Royal Lytham and St Annes in the Open Championship. One of his finest performances in the New Zealand Open came at the age of 71 when he found himself the star attraction at the 2007 Open at The Hills when Sir Bob became the oldest golfer to make a cut in a European Tour event. Now at age 87 his almost unchanged swing, together with his philosophy and fitness are extraordinary – ‘’hit the middle of the fairway, the middle of the green and putt the ball into the middle of the hole’’. Sir Bob still makes it deceptively simple.

Kel Nagle - Australia – 1957

Nagle had a later start in the game than his close friend Peter Thomson. He won his first New Zealand Open at the Manawatu Golf Club at the age of 36. He had been a professional for 11 years and, like Locke, had lost five years of his professional career to World War II. As a young man he had the nickname “The Pymble Crusher’’ with a long swing that propelled the ball vast distances. In the most productive part of his career Nagle shortened his swing and exchanged length for accuracy. Three years after his first New Zealand Open, he would go on to stun the golfing world by beating Arnold Palmer in the 1960 Centenary Open around the Old Course at St Andrews. Nagle was one of golf’s gentlemen and was close to Thomson. Sir Bob Charles referred to Nagle as the ‘’the epitome of a gentleman’’.

Ian Baker-Finch – Australia - 1983

Baker-Finch was brought up in rural Queensland. He arrived in Auckland at the beginning of his professional career to win the 1983 New Zealand Open played around Middlemore. He scored 280 to win by three shots from Kiwi Stuart Reese. It was the 23-year old’s first tournament victory and gave him entry into the 1984 Open Championship at St Andrews seven months later. Propelled into the limelight in the games oldest major, Baker- Finch lead the Open after three rounds. He would disappear in the last round with a 79. However, he took a lot from the experience and has credited the lessons learned from 1984 with giving him the strength to win in a commanding fashion at Royal Birkdale in 1991 with rounds of 64 and 66 over the last 36 holes - still an Open record.

Corey Pavin - United States – 1984

Pavin was 26 when he conquered Paraparaumu Beach golf club with a score of 269 to win by four strokes from Australia’s Terry Gale. Like Locke, Thomson and Charles, Pavin was making his way in the game and had been the US “rookie of the year” in 1984. He had been working on a new swing back in the US the month before the event. He would go on to win the major, viewed as the toughest to win -The US Open, at Shinnecock Hills in 1995. His four-wood to the 72nd green was one of the greatest shots in the event’s history. He overtook Greg Norman, who had been three shots ahead of him in the last round, to win by two shots.

Michael Campbell- New Zealand – 2000

Michael Campbell also liked Paraparaumu Beach. He and fellow Kiwi Craig Perks tied at nine under par on 269 after 72 holes of regulation play. Campbell, 31, took the title in fine style, scoring an eagle on the second play-off hole to take the tournament. He had already come close to winning the Open Championship at St Andrews back in 1995, holding a two-shot lead going into the last round. He fell away with his final round 76, but still only missed the play-off by one shot. John Daly won his second major and the Claret Jug. It is easy to forget just how good a player Campbell was. Much like Thomson, he had a simple and well-balanced golf swing. In 2005 he took Tiger Woods on head-to-head in The US Open, finishing better than Woods to win the gruelling event by two shots on 280.

The New Zealand Open has a proud history. It has produced a select group of first-time champions who would use their win to go on and achieve golfing greatness.

Based on their 2023 performances, it is easy to imagine players like Campbell, Kobori, the Hilliers and Smylie winning ‘’our Open’’ and then going on to major success.

Geoff Saunders was the Chairman of the NZ Open when the event was relocated to The Hills in 2007 and won the Bledisloe Cup for the leading amateur in the in the 1976 Open.