The sports bulletin on my Monday morning drive to work offered up a quartet of stories that were all worthy of comment.
When is a World Cup not a World Cup? When it is the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf, that’s when.
In the wake of France’s FIFA World Cup triumph in July, the Pacific Islands sparking renewed interest in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, and Ireland’s 16-9 win over the All Blacks acutely focusing attention towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, Australian audiences are well attuned to the concept of the best taking on the best for the title of ‘world champion’.
For casual observers, that’s not exactly how things work in the golf world, although that’s not to say that galleries at Melbourne’s Metropolitan Golf Club – as well as international TV audiences – won’t enjoy an enthralling four days of competition, as 28 nations, in teams of two, battle it out for the title.
The tournament has a formidable history – first played for in 1953, with names like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Peter Thomson, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, Davis Love III, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Jason Day gracing the trophy.
But since Scott and Day’s win at Royal Melbourne in 2013, the event has been held just once, at Kingston Heath in 2016, won by Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and Thorbjorn Olesen, who return this year to defend their title.
In fact, the last time the event was held anywhere other than Australia or China was in 2006, with no competition held in five of those years. Spoiled for choice, or more discerning with their budgets, sponsors have simply elected to direct their dollars elsewhere.
So, ‘World Cup’ it might be in name but – weighed down by the might of the US PGA Tour, the ambition of the European Tour, and the romance and blood-lust that is the Ryder Cup – the event has struggled to maintain traction. Accordingly, it needs to be viewed in perspective.
Of the world’s top 50 ranked players, just nine will tee it up this week. 23 players (or 40% of the 58-man field), are ranked within the top 100, with Greece’s Alex Tranacher and Venezuela’s Joseph Naffah currently sitting outside the top 2000.
However, racing fans know that every Melbourne Cup has a rank outsider or two in its 24-horse field, and the race is never less than entrancing as a result.
And here’s the rub – there’s more than enough serious golfing talent in town, and interest in the national, flag-waving aspect of the competition, to keep any golf-watcher interested this week.
Fresh from his 4th PGA Tour win in the CIMB Classic in October, an in-form Mark Leishman leads Australia’s challenge. World ranked 33, Cameron Smith makes for a very able companion. The Aussies cut a relaxed duo at yesterday’s press conference, obviously delighted to be in each other’s company, and happy to share their course strategy with all and sundry.
It is never easy carrying the weight of local expectation, let alone favouritism with the bookies, but expect a strong showing from the home nation.
Matt Kuchar is another last-start PGA Tour winner, picking up the Mayakoba Golf Classic a fortnight ago, his 8th tour victory. With teammate Kyle Stanley ranked 30, the USA must always be regarded as a serious threat.
Runner-up to Kuchar in Mexico was New Zealand’s Danny Lee, however his late withdrawl is a blow for the impressive Ryan Fox, and for hopeful Kiwi fans. A lot will rest upon the broad shoulders of replacement Mark Brown.
Mexico’s Abraham Ancer might be the size of a Melbourne Cup jockey, but he is also the newly crowned Australian Open champion – impressively streeting last week’s field at The Lakes, in Sydney, by five strokes, and sharply improving his world ranking to 60.
England has shown serious intent, putting up two Ryder Cup heroes, Ian Poulter and Tyrell Hatton. The flamboyant Poulter is always a popular figure – expect large galleries to fall in behind the flag of St George.
The talented Ben An and Si-Woo Kim are a live chance for Korea, China’s Hatong Li is another prodigious talent, as is Japan’s Sotashi Kodaira. South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli has played well in Australia previously, while Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Ireland’s Shane Lowry lead the ‘big guy’ charge.
In reality, the winner (team members will collect just over $1 million each) might come from anywhere, with the tournament format, comprising a mix of four-ball and foursomes, placing a premium on team harmony and players able to complement each other’s personality and style of play.
What is more predictable is that Metropolitan has been presented in outstanding order. One of Melbourne’s renowned sandbelt courses, it has hosted seven Australian Opens, with Greg Norman claiming before the 1997 event, that Metropolitan’s pure couch grass fairways were the best he had played, anywhere in the world.
Viewers in other states might also claim that the cold front carrying thunderstorms and local hail predicted for Melbourne over the next few days is equally predictable. It is with irony and no ill-will that greenkeepers and gardeners all around Melbourne will be welcoming whatever precipitation they get – even if it means double-time for the visiting caddies and donning of wet-weather gear for the field and galleries.
Come Sunday afternoon, any queries about depth and quality will rightly be pushed to the side. 20 of the 28 nations have their highest-ranked player representing them, and there is serious money to be earned and prestige to be gained.
Predicting the winner of any golf tournament is akin to picking tech stocks in a flukey market, but – forced to take a position – look for Poulter and Hatton to recapture their Ryder Cup magic and bring it home for England.
‘World Cup success’ and ‘England’ are words that history has not readily associated. Don’t be surprised if that changes this weekend.