GOLF - ABSENT in body. Ever-present in spirit. The 2012 FMG Poverty Bay Open tees off tomorrow with local hopefuls keen to pay the ultimate tribute to two of the region’s greatest golfers.
The deaths of East Coast legend Peter Rouse (in January) and his Gisborne counterpart Eric Gordon (May) stunned the community. Between them they won 12 Poverty Bay Open titles from 1964 to 2001 and were runners-up multiple times. Only last year, Gordon won the Barrington-Miller Cup second 16 at the open.
Not to have either of them adding another matchplay scalp to their notch-filled belts or enjoying a gin on the 19th is almost incomprehensible.
Their influence, however, remains. Even in their absence they are likely to play an inspirational role in the quest for this year’s Keiha Cup championship 16 title.
Several of the favourites have connections to both legends — none more so than seven-times champion Waka Donnelly, who was taken under Rouse’s wing when he started as a junior at Te Puia Springs over 25 years ago.
Donnelly’s emotional seventh open victory in 2010 — less than a year after father Bill’s death — drew him level with Gordon as the second most successful player in the tournament’s then 79-year history.
One more will elevate him to a place alongside Gordon’s older brother and New Zealand international Frank, who won eight crowns between 1952 and 1969, and is the only player to have won it three years running (’60-’62).
It is a mission Waiheke Island resident Donnelly is keen to accomplish 23 years after his first open win. While family and work top his priority list these days, his golf has been ticking along and a close source — nephew Steve Donnelly — has revealed the driving range has been frequently visited by uncle in the build-up to this week.
Steve himself is also among the front-runners and a third open title to go along with his 2004 and 2009 successes would be a fitting finale before he embarks on the next stage of his career.
Auckland-based Donnelly is into the last year of an honours degree in electrical and electronic engineering. He is heading to Australia in December — although the United States is where he wants to work — and his golfing swansong of sorts will be playing for Poverty Bay-East Coast at the national interprovincial in Dunedin just before he leaves the country.
Defending champion Landyn Edwards (Rotorua) is not returning, nor is the man he beat in last year’s final — former Gisbornite David Feeney. Bay of Plenty Golf entered a powerful contingent in 2011 to use the tournament as a warm-up for the national interprovincial on the Bay course later that year.
Edwards top qualified with what is believed to be an open record 5-under 139 for the 36 holes of Thursday strokeplay, and went on to trounce Feeney 6 and 5 in the final.
It is difficult to see Edwards’ effort surpassed tomorrow but there are a good number of players who can inflict red-score damage to the Bay course depending on conditions.
At least four of them are searching for a breakthrough open crown. Andrew Higham, who hails from Rouse’s Te Puia Springs course, Rotorua-based Waikohu player William Brown, Matthew Mackey and long-time PBEC representative Simon Jenkins have eyes on the big prize.
Higham has won everything but the open in recent years and goes into tomorrow as the reigning senior club champion at the Bay.
Brown, 19, has brought a fellow Wairakei Academy of Sport golf squad member with him — Ruel Pedersen of Mangakino. This pair are the lowest handicappers in the field at 0.0.
Mackey’s temporary return to the district saw him win all three matches at No.3 in the PBEC team at a recent interprovincial against Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Hawke’s Bay in Hamilton.
Tony Akroyd, the 2007 open champion, is also part of the hometown challenge.
The open has attracted entries from various parts of the North Island, one from the South Island and even a player living in Australia.
Qualifying over 36 holes of strokeplay tomorrow will be followed by matchplay in six sections of 16. Finals are on Saturday afternoon.