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Wairarapa trio teeing up for Open glory

Seventy years after unknown teenager Bob Charles lifted the New Zealand Golf Open trophy, three Wairarapa golfers look to emulate that feat in the 2024 edition. CHRIS COGDALE talked to the local contenders.

In March 1954, an 18-year-old lanky amateur from the Masterton Golf Club strolled down the final hole at Royal Wellington to seal a two-stroke victory over Australian Bruce Crampton, launching a career spanning more than five decades. Charles went on to win many prestigious titles, most notably the 1963 British Open. He added another three NZ Open titles in 1966, 1970 and 1973.

Today, Ben Campbell, Kerry Mountcastle, and Harry Bateman will tee off in their quest to add their name to the time-honoured trophy.

Ben Campbell has finished runner-up on two occasions, in 2017 when he missed out to countryman Michael Hendry in a three-way playoff, and last year when he finished three shots behind Australian Brendan Jones.

The 32-year-old comes into the tournament on his home course, having tasted his first success on the Asian Tour with victory in the 2023 Hong Kong Open, followed by a third in the Indonesian Masters.

2024 started with Campbell being listed as a reserve for LIV events in Mexico and Las Vegas before a 57th placing in the Malaysian Open and his withdrawal from a tour event in Oman with the recurrence of a back injury that has dogged him in recent years.

However, he is confident that the injury won’t impact his performance in the NZ Open, saying, “We got on to it early enough, so it won’t be anything too serious.”

“There will be the odd time, probably once a year, that it gets a bit unhappy like it did last week, but I’ve just got to be careful with it. Obviously, with my bad hip and playing on it, my back took a lot of that load; it’s just part of the beast,” Campbell said.

One advantage Campbell has is playing on his home course, and he is predicting a hot-scoring tournament, with a score of probably 20 under or more needed to win it.

“Before last week, my game had been going pretty good, and playing on your home course, you know what you’ve got to do around there.

“I’ve shot some really low scores around Millbrook before, so it’s nice knowing you can do that. I’ve shot 10 under around there a few times, so you know it’s possible

“You’ve just got to take advantage of the par fives around there and keep the bogeys to a minimum. The course is looking really good. I haven’t played there since I got home, but the boys are saying the rough is a bit longer, which is good.

“You’ve got to stay patient – eight or 10 under is not impossible – so even if you don’t get off to the best start or you have one bad round you can still get back in there.

“If I can hit it as I have been and get my short game going, it should be a good week.”

The NZ Open has grown in stature in recent years with its connections with the Asian and Japan Tours and with up to 50 players from those tours and some leading Australians, Campbell said it’s a strong field, and “You’re definitely going to have to bring your A-game to win it.”

Kerry Mountcastle comes into his third NZ Open in improving form following a slump in late 2023 after his maiden victory on the Australian Tour in the Gippsland Sixes.

He subsequently missed cuts at the Victorian PGA, Australian PGA and Australian Open and competed in the LIV qualifier in Abu Dhabi, where he had a good first round but fell away and missed qualification.

“Everything is starting to fall in place, and my last couple of results have been a bit better than the first couple this year. We had six [tournaments] in a row, and I just gradually improved through that stretch, and I’m definitely feeling a lot more confident about the game.” Mountcastle said.

“The main area I needed to improve on was my putting, and I did a little bit of work with Kazuma [Kobori], the guy who has been winning everything recently, just to help with reading greens and that sort of thing and the putting has been a lot better. That’s given me more confidence in my game, and I don’t have to rely on hitting it close all the time.

“I feel I can compete a bit more, and the results in the last couple of weeks have kind of shown that.”

A ninth place at the Webex Players Series in Sydney and a 30th at Hunter Valley suggest Mountcastle is in the right form to achieve his goal.

“I’m obviously here to win as we do at every tournament we go out to win, but I feel that where my game is at the moment, I’m confident with what I’m doing, and I’m hoping for a top 20 finish.”

Mountcastle made the cut in 2023 but missed playing over the final two days in 2019 when he was an amateur.

Harry Bateman is taking a relaxed attitude to his 10th appearance in New Zealand’s major tournament.

His best result was tied for fifth in 2019, however, he has trimmed back his playing career and has foregone playing overseas and is concentrating on playing New Zealand events because of his young family.

“I’m more part-time now with the kids at home, and I decided to take the summer off from the Aussie circuit, so I just stayed in New Zealand, which is a lot easier and less stuff to play in, so there’s a bit more time at home with the young ones,” Bateman said.

Despite pulling back on tournament play, Bateman reckons his golf is going okay.

“There are a few things to sharpen up on, but the ball striking is pretty good. I’m not used to these greens coming from Masterton, because these greens are about twice as quick, so I’m getting used to the breaks and working on my stroke.”

Bateman, who will have former Masterton professional Jamie McIsaac as his caddy, said he has minimum expectations and simply wants “to play my game and enjoy the week, and the result will be what it will be, and I really don’t think too far forward. I’m feeling good and looking forward to it, and just want to get started.”

All three can expect solid support from a group of friends and family who are converging on Queenstown for the four days.

Chris Cogdale
Chris Cogdale
Chris “Coggie” Cogdale has extensive knowledge of sport in Wairarapa having covered it for more than 30 years, including radio for 28 years. He has been the sports guru at the Wairarapa Times-Age since 2019.

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