The adrenalin rush of a great golf story first struck me back in 1964 – and it wasn’t even my story – but the feeling has stayed with me in a working lifetime primarily devoted to the reporting of the Royal and Ancient game.
Twelve months into my cadetship as a journalist with The Age in Melbourne I was placed in the sports department sitting next to the late Don Lawrence who covered both golf and tennis and sat enthralled by his tales of life on the road writing of two sports he loved with a passion.
I became his offsider at Melbourne tournaments, compiling the scores and writing the odd breakout yarn from his main story. I saw how he operated and met the famous golfers who were his friends. I was with him at the old Wills Masters tournament at Victoria GC in 1964 and we were out on course watch Arnold Palmer in the second round. Arnie was the King, a golfing god, and an army of fans followed wherever to played around the world.
Palmer’s three-wood second to the ninth went astray but not lost because of his huge gallery. No, his ball was nestled in the fork of a tree some seven metres above the ground. He contemplated his situation and decided to climb the tree and play the ball. Several spectators hoisted Palmer up among the branches where he, too, lodged himself in a fork of the tree.
It was then that I saw the ingenuity of Lawrence as a golf writer and a smart operator. There wasn’t a photographer in sight and a story such as that definitely would be enhanced by pictorial evidence. Don saw a kid, aged around 10, with a Box Brownie camera and gave him 10 quid on the spot to buy it. Don took the photos that were front page, and they circulated around the world.
Despite his heroics, Palmer made bogey but did share the halfway lead with young South African Cobie Legrange who was the eventual winner, and I was left with an insatiable desire to follow in Don’s footsteps but he loved the job so much I didn’t think it would become reality.
I’d taken leave of absence from The Age in 1968 and headed to London where I got a job with Reuters writing of all things theatre and book reviews but, in March 1969, Lawrence telephoned me.
“You’ve always wanted my job. It’s yours. The Age will pay your airfares home and put you up in a hotel until you find accommodation,” he said, explaining he had been appointed News Editor of the paper on the insistence of his great friend, the legendary Age Editor Graham Perkin.
And, so the journey began. My first tournament as senior golf writer was the 1969 Australian Open at Royal Sydney. What better way to start than grab the first interview with Gary Player who’d won the title four times previously. I organised to go in the car with Dunlop/Slazenger executive Arthur Huxley to the airport to pick up Player.
Player was a week short of his 34th birthday at the time, and gave me a story as he so often did subsequently – “Man,” he said, “I’m going to retire from golf at the age of 40.” Back then The Age had an inter-state office in Sydney at The Daily Telegraph where I handed my type-written story to be sent to The Age by the telex operator.
Call it curiosity to see what the new kid on the block had done, call it what you will, the following day the Telegraph golf writer, Phil Tresidder who was another legend in Australian golf writing, said to me: “I rang Gary last night to check whether he’d said he was going to retire. He confirmed he did. Nice job” Bloody hell, the old bastard was checking up on me, but to his credit he didn’t nick the story. We did become good friends.
And, of course, Player didn’t quit at 40. He may well have now, for the last tournament he played was on the Champions Tour in 2011 at the age of 75. Don’t bet on it though.
What drama that 1969 Australian Open produced – and controversy, too.
Players arrived at the Royal Sydney course only to be told their wives and girlfriends could not access the clubhouse. That was for players and club members only. Lee Trevino, accompanied by his then wife Sue, and Bruce Devlin, whose wife Gloria was with him, were furious, threatening to withdraw. It was a throwback to the days that the golf club was a male bastion. Royal St George’s in southern England, an Open Championship course, once had a sign: “No women or dogs allowed on the course.”
Needless to say, the media wasn’t allowed in the clubhouse either. Our domain was the squash court where tables and chairs were set up for work. Another hiccup was that Peter Thomson, who wrote a regular column for The Age, discovered the holes in play for the opening round were too small. His theory was they’d been cut, and then rolled, compressing the circumference of the hole marginally inwards. It was rectified for the second round.
Player won a fifth Australian Open but not before a day that surely approached Armageddon. There was a fierce electrical storm with players remaining on course following by a southerly buster with the wind howling at over 80 km per hour. A huge scoreboard, by 1960s standards but nothing like those monsters of today, blew over behind the 18th green.
What I discovered that week was golf was a truly exciting sport to cover – and that Gary Player is a dramatist. The little South African arrived at Kingston Heath to defend his title and immediately declared he couldn’t win – “I’m hooking the ball so badly it will be a miracle if I win.” Only Ben Hogan could sort him Player said, but he’d been there, done that previously. He called Hogan asking for help, and the legendary Wee Iceman asked: “What clubs do you play?” Player replied: “Dunlop.” Hogan then said: “Well, call Mr Dunlop.” Then, in the second round, Player marched the course with a white table napkin wrapped around his mouth as if he was heading to the local bank with a pistol in his pocket. He was guarding against a hay fever attack but Thomson, another golfer who also suffered from periodic hay fever attacks, never resorted to such theatrics. Well, Player won a sixth Open, notwithstanding his battle with the hooks and possible hay fever. And, yes, we had a little drama in the media tent. It was circular and inflated by air, but it suffered a puncture and we took cover under the desks as the contraption descended on us. Maybe a cranky golfer sabotaged it.
Talking of cranky golfers, Mark Lye certainly was. He is now an expert commentator on The Golf Channel telecasts on which his demeanour certainly belies that of Mark Lye the golfer. In 1972, he played the old Dunlop International tournament at Yarra Yarra and was so disappointed with his play he proceeded to belt the living daylights out of the locker-room. I mentioned the incident in a few paragraphs in the body of my main story. The following day he stormed into the media tent wanting to dismantle me. “What are you talking about Mark?” I said producing a copy of The Age. It was the second edition in which the few lines had been dropped from the first edition to drop-in a small overseas golf story. Lye departed with the look of a man being lead off to a padded room by men in white coats.
Golf does strange things to grown men. Another American Hal Underwood was a regular down our way in the 1970s and Bob Shearer tells of the day he saw Underwood swimming naked in an alligator-infested lake in a PGA Tour event calling out: “Has anyone seen a Titleist 4?”
Tony Jacklin got steamed up in Australia once, too, but he is an English gentleman not given to violence. It was in the 1970 Dunlop International at Royal Canberra where the tournament committee (that means rules officials these days) declared his putter illegal. He’d won the 1969 British Open and the 1970 US Open with that same putter without raising an eyebrow from the two governing bodies of world golf – the Royal and Ancient GC and the USGA. Our folk deemed it illegal because it had two vertical indentations in the grip that they felt might be an aid to his putting grip. Quite immodestly, I was the only one who got the story. Jacklin was furious saying: “It’s just like I’ve been cheating these last two years … it’s the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me.” Someone had looked at his unsecured bag of clubs in the locker-room, reported it to officials and then told me. I’ve never given up a source of a story and I’m not about to now. That’s how you earn trust and respect. Players and officials held my mentor Don Lawrence in that regard and I hope I am too. The Jacklin story angered my golf writing colleagues. Terry Smith, who wrote for the Sydney Sun, sent me a copy of his book, The Complete Book of Australian Golf, with an inscription: “Peter, why didn’t you tell me about Jacklin’s putter? I forgive you – after five years, Terry.”
Talking of colleagues – and Lawrence in particular – he couldn’t stay away from golf writing. After his executive stint at The Age, he spent a couple of years or so with the IPR public relations firm but then returned to golf writing for the old Melbourne Herald afternoon paper. One of his first tournaments back on the road was the 1976 Westlakes Classic in Adelaide when a strapping young surfie type, Greg Norman, blitzed the field. Don was the writer who dubbed Jack Nicklaus the Golden Bear (he was given two Golden Bear shirts years later in recognition), and he wanted to give Norman a nickname. He came up with the Golden Bear Cub in Adelaide that year, but it was never going to stick. There is only one Golden Bear and Norman’s parents, Merv and Toini, would be most upset if it was suggested Nicklaus had anything to do with Norman’s parentage. Years later, of course, it became the Great White Shark which was far more appropriate.
I accompanied Norman to Port Lincoln in South Australia in the early 1990s when working for Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper when the Shark went in hunt for a great white shark. It was being filmed for a documentary but I’m not sure it ever went to air. If it did, I didn’t see it but the memory of those few days remains vivid. Three days we went out on the hired boat, three fruitless days. We went back to the motel each night and drank beer in company with Bob Shearer and his son, Bobbie, who were to be part of the documentary. We talked, and got to know each other far more. When Norman finally hooked a great white shark I watched both in awe and horror as he fought to bring a pride of the ocean to the boat’s edge so it could be gaffed and brought on board to take back to shore for weighing. It was well into the night when it was mission accomplished. You look into Norman’s steely blue eyes and you can be intimidated. It was 100-fold that night as he came close up and personal with his namesake.
The pity is that Norman could intimidate the opposition on a golf course in regular tournaments, but when it came to the majors it was so, so different. They were his Achilles heel; how many times did we witness it? I’d telephoned Merv and Toini on the Sunday in 1996 when Greg took a six shot lead into the final round of the US Masters half a world away. I was then working for the Sydney Morning Herald, my last resting place as a newspaper golf writer, and asked if I could fly from Sydney to Queensland to watch with them as Greg became the first Australian to win at Augusta National. Merv said: “No, this one is for us.” It wasn’t of course. Faldo, Norman’s nemesis, shot a final round 67 to Norman’s 78 to win by five shots. Australia wept .
I have Norman’s phone number, and can ring him any time. Well, sometimes in the middle of the night when he hasn’t been in the US but rather Europe or Asia, he hasn’t been that cordial but our friendship survived. I have Jack Nicklaus’s number, too, having first met him back in 1971. In 1991, Geoff Nicholas, the amputee golfer who at last count had won 12 world championships, finally got his Australasian PGA Tour card and was playing his first tournament in Malaysia. Nicholas, known as Little Jack, had met Nicklaus and the greatest player of all time had shown a kindly interest in Nicholas. I rang Jack and told him Nicholas was playing his first event as a pro and the following day Nicholas came to me with a fax sent by Nicklaus wishing him well. The little bloke was so chuffed, and probably still has that fax framed on his wall. Geoff never knew I’d contacted Nicklaus; now, if he’s reading this, he does. I wrote the story from Malaysia without mentioning my part. Nicklaus was Nicholas’s hero – mine too. I named my first golden retriever Jack but will never name another dog Tiger. I’ve had a Sam (Snead) and a Tom (Watson) but Tiger? I admired Woods as a player, but had no respect for his on-course behaviour. Then came the sex scandals and his mea culpa in a stage-managed, no questions asked, press conference – “I felt entitled,” Woods said.
I won’t waste any more words on Woods.
Yes, it has been quite an adventure writing about golf – mixed up with a lot of tennis and less AFL football, cycling and athletics – in newspapers but that all came to an end late last year when I quit, effective immediately, as Sydney Morning Herald golf writer because budgetary constraints were limiting by personal attendance at tournaments. I’ve never met Daniel Popovic who won our PGA Championship late last year, nor have I met so many of our other younger players but I’m comforted in the knowledge that I made so many wonderful friends among the golfing community while it lasted. The emails and text messages I received after I quit were as though I’d died and I was listening to the eulogies at my funeral. I treasure them all, gratified in the knowledge that I have entertained and informed folk with my scribbling through the years.
Now, I didn’t tell you about the time …