A field of 156 professionals and 156 amateurs will tee off on Thursday, playing for a prize purse of NZ$1.65m, the most ever in the 102 year history of the event, which returns after three years of Covid-related absence.
The tournament will be played completely at Millbrook Resort, which has now been extended to 36 holes, with a cut to the leading 60 professionals plus ties for the final two rounds at the weekend.
Eight of the past 10 winners have come from across the Tasman, with two-time winner and defending champion Brad Kennedy from Australia saying he is thrilled to be back at a tournament that is one of the first he locks into his calendar every year.
Driving into the venue after the three-year hiatus, Kennedy vividly recalled the four holes adjacent to Millbrook’s long driveway which proved pivotal to his Sunday charge in 2020 that led to his two-stroke victory.
“I can still remember the shots that I hit, where I hit it, the putts that I made. That back nine for me is a back nine that I’ll never forget. Just coming through the gates and seeing those holes really brought back those memories and hopefully I can draw on that during the week, but I’m still not sure how to play some of the holes out there.”
Kennedy, who won the first of his two New Zealand titles at Clearwater in 2011, is now based on the Japan Tour. He has been assessing a Millbrook course which will host the entire tournament over two re-configured layouts, including the new Coronet-facing nine holes which were opened in 2022.
“A lot of it’s going to be wind dependent, especially the new holes up on top of Coronet. If you get the wrong wind at the wrong time it’s going to be very difficult. I won’t be holding back, that’s for sure,” he said.
“Once you start to play safe and you aren’t giving yourself opportunities, you can get stuck just making pars and unfortunately pars aren’t good enough any more. You have to be out there willing to hit shots that others aren’t willing to hit, that’s what makes the difference between playing to win or playing to manage and make a cut.”
While he is 48-years-young, Kennedy won’t be the oldest serious contender, with 51-year-old kiwi Stephen Alker, the US Seniors Tour champion back and among the favourites.
“It’s a different dynamic. In terms of now being one of the favourites, well the last year has been fantastic for me. It means a lot to be back here. For me it’s been four years – too long.
“I am just going to play my game. I am not going to try anything special, anything fancy – do my stuff and hopefully it is good enough.
“It is not a long golf course. You get up the top in the new nine holes and it may depend on the wind, but there’s not a lot of drivers needed. I only hit driver once in practice. It is more about placement, make sure you make good approaches.”
There are 10 former winners in the field including the last New Zealander to win, Michael Hendry who prevailed at Millbrook in 2017 and comes in off the back of victory at the Vic Open in Australia.
There is also arguably the strongest group of young New Zealand professionals who play their trade on professional tours around the world, including Daniel Hillier, who has begun well in his first year on the DP World Tour.
Play begins at 7.40am on Thursday with Hendry on the Coronet course from 1.05pm, with key prospects in consecutive groups from 8.02am on the Remarkables course comprising Kennedy, Alker playing with Hillier, and Josh Geary.
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