New Zealand Open: Contenders in form ahead of Queenstown
Many of the leading contenders for the New Zealand Open Championship are in good form in the countdown to the tournament from February 27 to March 2.
The National Open, which will be co-hosted by The Hills and Millbrook for the first time, holds a purse of $900,000 and is expected to be the biggest golf tournament staged in NZ for many years.
There are a number of Kiwis hoping to end the drought of a home champion – it has been more than 10 years since a New Zealand golfer held aloft the Brodie Breeze Trophy.
Wellington professional Gareth Paddison, who finished tied third at the NZ PGA in 2013, reminded everyone of his quality on the weekend with his second win of the Victorian PGA Championship.
The 33-year-old is playing with renewed confidence in 2014 after working with coach Denis McDade in the offseason and it paid dividends under pressure on Sunday afternoon with a clutch birdie to win by one from Michael Hendry.
North Harbour pro Hendry, who is looking to win for the third time in as many years at The Hills after successfully defending his NZ PGA Title in 2013, is also coming into form.
The 34-year-old finished runner-up at the Victorian PGA which was a continuation of his solid season in 2013 that included three wins.
Hendry has a great track record around The Hills and will play the New Zealand Open in the spotlight as one of the players to beat.
Wellington professional Mark Brown also showed that he is in good form early in 2014.
The 38-year-old, who is a European Tour winner, finished in a share of sixth place at the Victorian PGA Championship.
Brown had a memorable opening round – a seven under par 65 – where he made five birdies and a hole in one of the par 3 17th.
Closer to home Tauranga professional Josh Geary, who finished tied third at last year’s NZ PGA, has also begun the year on the front foot.
He opened with a three stroke win at the Masterton - Eketahuna Pro-Am, a runner-up finish to Joshua Carmichael at the Martinborough Pro-Am (who finished eagle – eagle to win) and a share of third place at the Paraparaumu Beach Pro-Am.
Geary has a fantastic record at The Hills and was the leading Kiwi at the NZ Open in four of the past five events.
There are plenty of international players in form as well.
American professional Rocco Mediate, who is famous for his playoff loss to Tiger Woods in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, has begun the year well on The Champions Tour in the States.
The 51-year-old has managed two top -10 finishes from the two events he has played in 2014 with a fifth place at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai and a tie for seventh at the Allianz Championship.
Mediate, a six time winner on the PGA Tour, has an impressive scoring average early in the season at five-under par 67.
Meanwhile big-hitting Aussie Scott Hend has made a solid if not spectacular start to 2014. He finished tied 29th in the world-class field at the Dubai Desert Classic in his only start on the European Tour this year.
Hend will play in the NZ Open after completing his best season to date where he finished runner-up on the Asian Tour Money List with earnings of just on NZ$750,000.
He has had five victories on the Asian Tour including three wins in 2013 at the Chiangmai Golf Classic, the Mercuries Taiwan Masters and the Venetian Macau Open.
During his professional career he has also won six other tournaments internationally including three at home on the PGA Tour of Australasia.
He is ranked No.139 in the world and will follows the NZ Open with an appearance in the prestigious WCG Cadillac Championship in Doral, Florida.
Well-renowned Aussies Paul Sheehan and Peter O’Malley, who is a former NZ Open Champion, returned to action last week at the Victorian PGA and finished tied 12th and 16th respectively.
The Japan Golf Tour is yet to begin in 2014 so Japan’s Takuya Taniguchi and Kota Kagasaki played the Victorian PGA Championship last week to prepare for the NZ Open.
Taniguchi, on his first appearance in the event, finished tied 45th and Kagasaki missed the cut by one stroke.
Australian professional Jake Higginbottom, who won the New Zealand Open as an amateur in 2012, returns to action this week at the Queensland PGA Championship ahead of his title defence in Queenstown.
A host of quality celebrity amateurs will join the world-class field at the New Zealand Open in Central Otago.
Three of the greatest Test Captains in cricket history - Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Stephen Fleming will be joined by World Cup winning Wallabies Captain Nick Farr-Jones, All Black greats Jeff Wilson and Justin Marshall and former Black Cap Mark Richardson.
US based kiwi celebrity Phil Keoghan, the host of The Amazing Race, and Cris Judd, an American actor and choreographer, will also make their debuts in the event.
Former Australian league and rugby star Wendell Sailor has had to withdraw from playing in the championship this week because of an unexpected clash with a prior commitment.
The countdown is on to the New Zealand Open and the leading contenders are looking to arrive in Queenstown with some confidence to make a strong challenge for the title.