Norman's return boosts struggling Australasian Tour
SYDNEY, May 12 (Reuters) Greg Norman's decision to play this year's Australian Open has already renewed interest in one of the world's oldest golf tournaments and revived hopes of saving the struggling Australasian Tour.
Norman, five-times winner of his national championship and unrivalled as Australia's most recognisable golfer, has not played in the event since 2000.
But the former world number one has agreed to end his six-year absence by competing in this year's 91st edition at the majestic Royal Sydney course.
Norman said he wanted to help restore the tournament to its glory days when the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Tom Watson regularly travelled to Australia to contest a title once regarded as the unofficial fifth major.
''It will happen, but it's not going to happen overnight,'' Norman told a news conference.
''The culture of the event is there. All you've got to do is get the dust off. I would like to think it's not too late.'' Australian golf officials immediately hailed Norman's announcement as a major coup, saying his appearance would revive interest in the cash-strapped tour.
''He is a testament to golfing success and a major drawcard wherever he plays,'' chief executive Paul McNamee said.
Norman's decision came less than six months after he was heavily criticised by Mark Hensby, one of a growing band of Australian professionals plying their trade on the lucrative US PGA.
Hensby launched a scathing attack on Norman, saying he was not doing enough to help the rapidly-shrinking Australasian Tour and should be using his influence to attract new sponsors.
ANGRILY REFUTED Norman angrily refuted Hensby's claims and immediately contacted the player personally, but he says the matter is forgotten and had no bearing on his decision to play this year.
''It's a dead issue,'' he explained. ''What Mark Hensby said is water under the bridge.'' Norman's planned reappearance at the Australian Open is paying dividends with Adam Scott, Australia's highest-ranked player at world number nine, confirming he will also play.
Officials are also hoping to lure Aaron Baddeley, Stuart Appleby, Robert Allenby and Hensby but know the job of rescuing the Australasian Tour will need more than just the best local players.
The Tour, which used to number in excess of 20 events, has been reduced to seven main tournaments, five in Australia and two in New Zealand.
While local officials and even Norman have been blamed for the demise of the local tour, many attribute the downfall to the extraordinary rise of the US PGA Tour.
With the average weekly purse in the US exceeding the total prize money on offer on the Australasian Tour, it is little surprise the top overseas players rarely come to Australia and local promoters are struggling to attract big sponsors.
The growing interest in China, Japan and India has promoted Australian officials to consider linking up with the burgeoning Asian Tour.
Officials held a meeting with players late last year to discuss ways of improving the tour, and a few months ago they announced that they had hired former Australian Open tennis chief executive McNamee.
McNamee was given a brief to revive public and corporate interest in the Australian Open golf and Norman's return could be the first visible sign of a turnaround.
REUTERS YA RK1245