Ricky Ponting's 68 off the stick, from the back markers no less, was the talk of 13th Beach today as the pro-am for the Oates Victorian Open was played, but by tomorrow, the form of Jarrod Lyle, Stacey Keating and the other top professional golfers will take precedence.
Lyle, who is returning from a bout with cancer and hopes to get himself back on the United States PGA Tour, is the marquee player in the men's field for the $150,000 tournament.
The Victorian made his return after 18 months on the sidelines at the Australian Masters at Royal Melbourne last December, making the cut in a herculean effort, having shed tears on the first tee on the opening day. "I went there to try and play golf,'' he said today. "I told all my friends to come Thursday or Friday so they could at least watch me play two days. It's pretty hard to play with tears in your eyes but I exceeded all my expectations. I was happy to get around three days and crawl around the fourth day.''
Lyle, 32, has had another month to work on his strength, and he feels some increased expectation this week. "I'm a lot stronger now. So I want to see the improvement in my fitness and hopefully I won't have to crawl the last nine holes. I've been doing a lot of work on that and on my golf swing, so it's coming around very slowly.''
Among the top professionals expected to push Lyle in the men's section are Richard Green, Jack Wilson and Nathan Holman, who came close to winning last year, and defending champion Matthew Giles. There are also several top-ranked amateurs in the field, headed by Ryan Ruffles and Zach Murray, the current state champion.
In the women's field there are a cluster of Australians from the LPGA in the United States, including the likes of Lindsey Wright, Sarah Jane Smith, Sarah Kemp, Julia Boland and Kristie Smith, along with veteran English player Laura Davies. Brilliant 17-year-old amateurs Minjee Lee and Su Oh, both fresh from excellent performances at the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, also are in the field this week along with Keating, the defending champion, whose win last year in front of family and friends was so emotional. "I have nice memories here so that always helps, I guess,'' she said.
As for Ponting, the former Australian cricket captain is making a nice fist of his golf nowadays, playing off scratch and on the waiting list to join prestigous Royal Melbourne, where he wants to play pennant. However he dismissed speculation that he might turn professional. "I've got no illusions about where my golfing talents lie,'' he said. "I love competition in my life, having played cricket as long as I have. It's pretty hard just to walk away and not have any competitiveness around. I'm hoping to become a member of a club up in town in the next few months, and if that happens I'd like to play some pennant there. Stories about me becoming a pro golfer and way beyond my wildest dreams.''
He played with Golf Victoria chief executive Simon Brookhouse, who described his golf as "absolutely phenomenal'', and also won the longest drive competition. Ponting is playing in the pro-am section of the New Zealand Open in Queenstown next week, the Kiwis' national championship being modelled on the format that is popular in the Dunhill Links championship in Scotland.
Brookhouse is delighted with the vibe around the Bellarine Peninsula after GV moved the Open to the coastal region last year, drawing strong crowds with its unique format, with men's and women's groups alternating through the field. "It was a risk for us to come down here and have the event regionally last year. We've all seen what a great success it's been. Hopefully it's bigger and better,'' said Brookhouse.