The once-thriving sport that rode on Greg Norman’s coat-tails through the 1980s and 90s, that used to proudly boast about its huge participation numbers, that once featured a dozen or more professional tournaments each summer, is in disarray.

The departure this week of Golf Australia’s chief executive Tony Hallam, 18 months before his contract was due to expire, has resulted in a raft of recriminations and bickering, and confirmed the suspicion that golf has become the red-headed stepchild of Australian sport.

So dire is the situation that the Australian Open, once described as the “fifth major” because it routinely attracted players of the calibre of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer each year, is without a major sponsor and, according to some, in danger of not going ahead this December. For the first time (wars aside) since 1904.

The Australian Women’s Open is also looking for a major sponsor. The Australian Masters, a fixture on the calendar at Huntingdale for the past 30 years, this year lost Mastercard as its main backer and its future, too, is under a cloud.

At a time when local players are prospering on the world scene like never before – Australians comprise the largest non-American contingent on the US PGA Tour, two Australians (Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy) are ranked in the world’s top five players, and 10 are in the top 70 — the state of the local scene which spawned them is dire.

Hallam was recruited with much fanfare in 2005 from PricewaterhouseCoopers where he was a partner. He came into the job with great enthusiasm and high hopes for turning around an increasingly dysfunctional sport. But now he, too, has gone, defeated by the magnitude of the task.

His critics say he tried to bulldoze through reform without proper consultation, and did not listen to those who’d spent most of their working life in the industry. They point to a blowout in staff hirings as he desperately sought new ways to increase revenue. They also claim recent asset sales have done nothing to help the long-term cause of GA.

Hallam still has three weeks to serve before he leaves the GA offices. While he hinted at imminent sponsorship announcements, Hallam told Crikey he did not want to make any detailed comment until after he had departed.

What he did say, though, is that those who run the inherently conservative sport needed to learn to embrace change.

“The challenge for golf is to go ahead in leaps and bounds in the same way that soccer, cricket and AFL have done in the past few years, otherwise we’ll get left behind,” he said.

If the women’s Open does find a major sponsor, it is slated to play at two of Australia’s best courses in the next two years — Metropolitan and then the composite course at Royal Melbourne — in what would be a major triumph for the women’s game in this country.

The men’s Open is listed next year for New South Wales Golf Club — perhaps the most scenic course in Australia, and one that would provide great pictures for television — but it, too, needs a major backer.

Finding the money is the hard part. And what makes the situation even more worrying is that a finance wiz from the top end of town, someone who supposedly had a great network of contacts in business, has come up empty-handed. If he can’t make it work, who can?