When the caravan that is professional golf rolled out of Victoria Golf Club in December 2022, something substantially more than normal was left behind.
The ISPS HANDA Australian Open crowned, for the first time concurrently, three separate winners of the nation’s golfing championships.
And to do it in front of a packed house made the moment and its significance even better and more poignant.
Befitting the truly global nature of the occasion, three international raiders took away Australia’s top golfing prizes, edging out the hometown heroes after days of gripping contests.
On the men’s side, Adrian Meronk continued to push the boundaries for Polish golf, becoming the first of his nationality to win the Australian crown.
The emerging DP World Tour player captured the Stonehaven Cup in style with an eagle at the 72nd hole for a closing four-under-par 66 to seal victory over his childhood hero, Adam Scott.
Scott, chasing his second national title 13 years after his first, closed with a flat 74 after starting the day a one-shot leader.
“To be honest, I really wanted to play with him this week,” Meronk said of his playing partner. “He was always my role model growing up, so it was super cool to play with him.
“Obviously I didn’t really want to focus on him, just focused on my game, hitting good shots. But to beat him in the final group in front of the big crowds in Australia is just quite an unbelievable experience and I’m super proud, that’s for sure.”
ISPS Handa ambassador Min Woo Lee (69) was outright third a further shot back to secure a not insignificant consolation prize of a ticket to the 2023 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
The top-three finishers not otherwise exempt gained entry to the 151st Open.
Meronk and Scott had already qualified, leaving Spaniard Alejandro Canizares (64) and Lee’s fellow West Australian Haydn Barron (68) to snare the other two spots after sharing fourth at seven under.
But the day belonged to Meronk.
Six months after winning the Irish Open to become the first Pole to triumph on the DP World Tour, Meronk joined legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Greg Norman and Scott in etching his name on the Stonehaven Cup.
“I just looked how old this trophy is. It’s just incredible. I’m very proud and excited to be joining that company,” Meronk said of the Stonehaven Cup and its honour roll.
Scott offered no excuses, only regrets after enduring yet another near miss.
Since winning his national championship at New South Wales in 2009, Australia’s only Masters champion has finished runner-up three times – to Rory McIlroy in 2013, Matt Jones in 2015 and now.
Ashleigh Buhai completed a rare double in the women’s division, winning the Patricia Bridges Bowl to add to her win at the AIG Women’s Open earlier in the year.
A regular in Australia for almost two decades, Buhai also broke new ground in becoming the first South African to win the Women’s Australian Open after a tumultuous day on a leaderboard packed full of talent.
At various times, former world No.1s Jiyai Shin and So Yeon Ryu joined Aussie hopes Hannah Green and Grace Kim all looked as though they might hoist the trophy.
But almost as quickly as their title hopes soared, so they did they crash with untimely bogeys.
Buhai, however, was rock solid with only a couple of blemishes that were more than compensated by a brilliant eagle on the eighth to set her on a winning path.
And as the field rallied for one last crack, she closed with back-to-back birdies to see off the threat, joining Shin and Aussie legend Karrie Webb as the only concurrent holders of the British and Australian titles.
“I’ve been coming to `Aus’ since I was a teenager, so this feels great,” Buhai said.
“Back in the day I played the Jack Newton Invitational and now I’ve got a lot of friends and family here and we haven’t been here for almost three years (because of Covid).
“And I’m a golf nut, so any time I get to play on courses like this and just to be back in Aus has been fantastic.”
That feeling was certainly elevated by her rare feat of holding both the Women’s Open and Australian Open trophies concurrently.
“Obviously I was thinking looking at this that it’s pretty cool that my name is on this trophy as well as the British Open with a lot of greats, so that’s obviously very special.”
But the silverware didn’t finish there with rising Englishman Kipp Popert playing sensational golf to thrill the large gallery and win the Australian All Abilities Championship.
Popert planned to spend a few months in Australia to play additional tournaments, so it was the best possible start to his journey.
He began the final round three shots adrift of overnight leader Kurtis Barkley, but played a round that reinforced his status as World No.1, to eventually win by seven shots.
The Englishman’s three-under-par 69 was comfortably the day’s best score as a gusting northerly breeze, as always in Melbourne’s famous Sandbelt, proved a worthy defence for all but the most clinical ball striking.
And that’s exactly what 24-year-old provided, even when the challenges presented themselves.
“I was really happy with the way I played,” Popert beamed after holding aloft the trophy.
“We train to do that and I managed to do it … when I needed to, and playing with Kurtis and Juan (Postigo), who are such good players, it’s even better.”
Canadian Barkley started slowly and was four over for his round after a double bogey at the 6th.
By the time Popert rolled in a short birdie putt on the par-5 8th, he’d assumed the lead and after overcoming challenges with spectacular escape shots on the next two holes, he eased clear on the back nine.
“On nine, I hit it in the trees left, chipped out and had 230 (yards) and put it to 12 feet, holed that putt (for birdie),” Popert said.
“And then on 10, I hit it left and then hit a 50-yard hook around the trees to about 10 feet.
“They really got me going and it was a really nice round.”
Postigo, the popular Spaniard, closed with a birdie for his own brilliant 72, charging home to finish at six over, just one stroke adrift of Barkley.
Veteran Geoff Nicholas was the best-placed Australian, showing his experience to close with a gritty 76 to climb to seventh at 20-over. I