Everybody -- players, tours, game and spectators -- wins in unique Oates Vic Open
GEELONG, Australia -- Sunday, Minjee Lee triumphed in the 2018 Oates Vic Open at 13th Beach Golf Links near Melbourne.
It was a dominant five-shot victory for the world No. 20, her second in the event and a fifth worldwide success for the 21-year-old, but the biggest winner? For once a cozy sporting cliché is absolutely appropriate: The biggest winner last week in Australia was golf.
That line is not meant as a slight to the impressive Lee. Instead, it seeks only to confirm that the Oates Vic Open is achieving something special for the sport.
It is, in the words of its own social media campaign: "Men and women. On the same courses. At the same time. For equal prize money."
In a sport which has clubs whose mantra might easily be "Men and women. Same course. Very different tee times. And different bars afterwards," the Oates Vic Open's approach is close to outright revolution.
Radical it might be, but a slow burn evolution in truth. Back in 2010, Golf Victoria (the organizing union) not only reintroduced the women's tournament to the schedule, they played it in the same week of the men's event and scheduled the final round for the same course with alternating groups.
Emboldened with positive feedback, in 2013 the operation was moved to 13th Beach, a venue with two courses which would allow the idea to flourish; now the entire week utilizes alternating tees.
The men's event is sanctioned by the PGA of Australia, the women's by the Australian Ladies Professional Golf and, from last year, the Ladies European Tour.
If that is the dry tale of the tournament's growth, the color story of how it has captured the imagination is more akin to the rise of a rock band who insiders have been quietly raving about for years.
Players are apt to praise most tournaments, aware that it's both a polite and prudent policy. Yet the language and the look in the eye of those discussing this event has always had an edge of truth.
"A really good gig," they'd say. "A real buzz," they'd tweet. "Not like anything else," they'd enthuse. The crowds have been getting bigger every year. The industry has started to take note. Media exposure is on the rise. Even world weary critics, their scorn for novelty worn as a cussed badge of honor, have admitted they quite like it.
This year there was a genuine sense that the Oates Vic Open is about to hit the mainstream and make it to the big time.
The secret? New ideas often suffer from a reluctance to let them speak for themselves; overenthusiastic marketing and PR twists those ideas into gimmickry. Not in this case.
CEO Simon Brookhouse told espnW: "Golf Victoria firmly believed that creating this format was in the best interests of golf, most particularly women's golf. It was never intended to be a gimmick; in fact, it is our firm belief that this can be the future of tournament golf around the world.
"There was a conservative view held by some, however this was a small sample of those who are generally reluctant to change in all warps of life. The truth is, since the first year at 13th Beach Golf Links, the support from the golfing public, players, government and other sporting bodies has been overwhelming.
"The success has confirmed my belief that people are willing to accept change if it is for the betterment of the cause, in this case creating an equal playing field in professional golf."
Brookhouse said the unique format of playing the tournaments together has been a benefit for both the men and women.
"The profile of the events has changed dramatically since its inception," he said. "The men's event has been able to grow in stature alongside the women's on the back of great support from all stakeholders.
"There is no doubting the fact that by having males and females, competing sponsors and governments have shown a much [greater] propensity to invest in the event. There is no greater evidence of this than the prize money growth from $150,000 in 2013 to $650,000 in 2018."
The increase in those numbers is impressive and subverts many notions of the equal-pay argument, not least in suggesting that equal pay for all can result in better pay for all.
But the size of the figures reveals another truth, which is that very distinct circumstances have helped this situation. With the exception of a handful of high-profile events, both tours down under have schedules and prize pots very much adrift from the major tours.
The LPGA's biggest prize fund is the U.S. Open ($5 million); the PGA's top purse is also the U.S. Open ($12 million).
At the LPGA's non-major events, players fight for between $1.3 and $2.5 million; the least the PGA plays for is $3 million.
The Ladies European Tour regular event prize pots range from 250,000 to 600,000 euros (roughly $312,000 to $748,000); the European Tour between 1 and 3 million euros ($1.25 million to $3.74 million).
Those pay disparities are not gaps, they are chasms. Starting from the numbers the Oates Vic Open did undoubtedly made equal pay easier to argue for and achieve.
Yet while it would be disingenuous not to take note of this, it would be equally remiss not to celebrate an organization willing to grasp the opportunity it had: Big doors swing on small hinges, and so does change.
Nor should the attitude of the men be neglected. There has been no public muttering of discontent and no suggestion of it, either, in private. Richard Green, three-time European Tour winner, argued the men have embraced the change.
"We were all pretty excited," he said after this year's second round. "Fans love it, but the players probably love it the most and I think that's what makes it. Tennis seems to be successful doing it and I don't see any reason why we can't roll along together under one professional banner."
Good stories generate headlines and in 2015, Green won this event in a playoff, watched by his partner Marianne Skarpnord, who had earlier claimed the women's title. In similar vein, Cheyenne Woods found herself contemplating competing with her Uncle Tiger.
"I was thinking of different formats we could play," she said. "You could do teams and I hope he would pick me. That would just be awesome.
"I love that this week they really value the equality. I think a lot of tours and sponsors can learn from that."
The tournament's egalitarianism reaches far and wide because it is not just the men and women golfers who share the same fairways: The spectators do, too.
In scenes reminiscent of the golden age of the sport, the galleries (which have increased in size year on year, fueled by the thrill of double competition) walk behind the players, rather than being held back (in the politest sense of the word) by the commonly used length of rope.
This year, Lee lifted the women's title, Simon Hawkes the men's. Everyone who made the cut had improved pay, sponsors and the host club witnessed greater exposure, Golf Victoria and the three tours enjoyed successful weeks, while the fans benefited from an improved experience.
It was always planned that the Oates Vic Open would have more than one winner. What no one predicted was that the number of winners wouldn't stop at two.