Australia seeks golf status boost

Australian golf is in need of another Great White Shark.

The game peaked down under in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Greg Norman was at the height of his powers.

The success of the two-time major winner and world number one meant that Australian tournaments were sell-out affairs, golf courses looked to expand and thousands of younger players were attracted to the game in the hope of emulating his success.

Since his retirement, the game has never fully recovered.

'Pretty good shape'

In a country of 22 million people, more than a million play golf over 30 million rounds each year - a take-up rate that makes it Australia's sixth most popular sport.

Image caption Brian Thorburn of the Australian PGA says new Aussie players are starting to come through

The country also has one of highest numbers of golf courses per capita in the world.

Golf generates $3bn Australian dollars (£1.9bn; $3bn) and employs 21,000 people.

Still, the game could be in much rosier health and has seen memberships decline slightly since the global financial crisis.

Certainly, courses do not appear quite as crowded as they were a few years back.

"We're in pretty good shape," says Brian Thorburn, the newly-installed chief executive of the Australian PGA, an organisation about to celebrate its centenary.

"But it did peak under the Norman era. He was winning a lot of tournaments and he had a talismanic profile. But we're starting to see some guys coming through now."

"We need a few more majors being won to get the profile. We're hopeful of being within a whisker of a major being won by an Australian golfer - that should get us back up there."

Young stars are coming through like Jason Day, a 23-year-old golfer who came second in both this year's US Masters and the US Open.

Remarkably, however, Day has never played professionally in Australia.

Like many players, he has focused on the US and Europe, where the tournaments are much more prestigious and the pot of prize money much deeper.

Adam Scott, who tied with Day for second place at this year's Masters tournament, is another player with the potential to win a major.

Norman conquest

For former Aussie pro-golfer Lucas Parsons, Greg Norman was a talismanic hero.

Image caption Lucas Parsons says fellow Australian Greg Norman (l) was a colossus of the golfing world

Of his seven tournament wins on the PGA Tour of Australasia, none was more special than the Greg Norman Holden International.

The glass trophy, handed to him by Greg Norman, still occupies pride of place on his bookshelf at home.

"Greg was my idol as a kid. So to win his event was very special to me," says Parsons, with obvious pride.

Norman was a colossus of the game, he says, and almost irreplaceable.

"I met Michael Jordan. I met The Don - Don Bradman. Norman was a different factor," says Parsons.

"He just had this amazing aura. He was six foot one and built like a wedge, and he just had this amazing charisma.

"The crowd loved that and saw that. They just loved to look at him - 'there's Greg.' They were in awe of him."

The watershed moment, he says, came at the 1996 US Masters, when Greg Norman led for the first three rounds, but was then beaten into second place by the British golfer Nick Faldo on the final day.

It dashed Norman's hopes of winning his first major US title.

"I don't think he ever recovered," says Parsons, "and Australia never recovered."

Far from the stars

Another problem for Australian golf is the tyranny of distance, which makes it hard to attract big-name stars to play tournaments down under.

Image caption Tiger Woods proved a popular attraction in Australia in 2009 and 2010

This has been compounded by the elongation of the US and European tours, which has shortened the window during the southern summer when international players used to make the journey down under.

More recently, Australia has tried hard - and spent hard, with sizeable appearance fees - to attract marquee players.

In 2009 and 2010, Tiger Woods appeared at the Australian Masters tournament in Melbourne, sparking a week of Tiger-mania which gave the game here a big shot in the arm.

In November, Australia will host the President's Cup, where the US will take on an international team at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

Closer Asian links

At the same time, the PGA is trying to harness closer regional links through the One Asia tour.

Established two years ago, the tour now features 13 tournaments in China, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and Australia.

It has been founded on the idea that the world's economic powerhouse will also becoming a golfing powerhouse.

"Asia is growing at a rate of knots," says the Australian PGA's Mr Thorburn.

"China, particularly, is going to grow from 500 courses to 2,700 courses in the next 20 years.

"It's going to quadruple the number of golfers in China, and many of the other Asian nations similarly.

"Establishing a tour as a genuine alternative to the European tour and the US tour is the objective of One Asia. So we think that's the pathway for many Australian players."

But Australian golf still has global rather than regional aspirations, and knows it needs a player winning major tournaments to put it back firmly on the map.

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