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A New Belgian Hero

Colsaerts follows in Van Donck's Footsteps

Posted May 22, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece


It’s not often we get the opportunity of writing about Belgian golfers.  The events of last weekend, however, make it appropriate to honour not one, but two of them.  Nicolas Colsaerts happened to win the Volvo World Matchplay Championship in this, the centenary year of the greatest of all Belgian golfers, Flory van Donck.

As it happened, van Donck never had the opportunity of playing in the event, given that it wasn’t launched until 1964 when he was aged 52 and some way past his best.  Yet he still managed remarkable golfing longevity in representing Belgium on 19 occasions in the Canada Cup/World Cup between 1954 and 1979, when he became the oldest-ever competitor at 67 as a partner to Philippe Toussaint in Athens.

A significant breakthrough seemed likely in 1955 in Washington DC.  That was where van Donck tied with reigning Open champion, Peter Thomson and America’s Ed Furgol on 279 for the individual title.  In the ensuing play-off, however, the Belgian knocked himself out of contention with an uncharacteristic three-putt on the second tie hole, paving the way for a Furgol victory. An indication of van Donck’s dominance of his own country, however, was that while Belgium actually finished tied fourth on that occasion, his partner, Arthur de Vulder had a decidedly moderate aggregate of 294.

Van Donck was born in Tervueren, Belgium on June 23rd, 1912, in between two remarkable American contemporaries, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. A measure of the consistency he acquired as a top-flight golfer was that in an 11-year spell from 1949, he finished only twice out of the top-10 in the Open Championship and was second in 1956 and again in 1959.  He was also twice runner-up in the British Matchplay Championship, losing in the finals of 1947 and 1952 to Fred Daly, on both occasions.

Among 31 European victories, he was a five-time winner of both the Belgian and Dutch Opens, and captured the Vardon Trophy for the tour’s leading stroke-average in 1953.

When the Canada Cup had its only Irish staging at Portmarnock in 1960, van Donck began the tournament on his 48th birthday and ended it by giving himself the best present imaginable.  Though it marked the first appearance in the event by Arnold Palmer, the reigning US Open champion who partnered Sam Snead to an American triumph, the Belgian carded admirably consistent rounds of 66,71,70,70 to take the individual title on an aggregate of 279, two strokes clear of Snead in second place.

He and Christy O’Connor had some memorable tussles, one of which threatened to end the Irishman’s career.  In happened in the 1956 Joye Coupe, a forerunner to the Seve Trophy, in which Henry Cotton captained Britain and Ireland against the Continent of Europe at Royal Waterloo.

Recalling how he had opened up a formidable lead of six holes with seven to play, O'Connor could still picture the large, partisan Belgian crowd “eyeing me like an arch enemy".  Unusually for him, O’Connor took his foot off the pedal so as not to humiliate the local hero and, as it happened, sustained a serious wrist injury when his club connected with the hidden root of a tree.  So, he became helpless to stop the Belgian winning holes back to extend the match.

Eventually, in considerable pain, O'Connor closed out van Donck on the 17th, but his slide had been witnessed by Cotton's wife, Toots, who knew nothing of the injury.  O'Connor takes up the story: "Toots obviously talked to Henry because when I got in, he ripped into me - 'When you get to five, you go six, then you go seven, then eight up.'  I'm dying with pain but he's not interested."

At a time when there were no physiotherapists on hand to treat such injuries, O’Connor effectively neglected the damaged limb which was to affect him for the remainder of his golfing career.

Meanwhile, van Donck was blazing a trail for other Belgians to follow, though they have remained fairly thin, numerically, through the years.  Still, Colsaerts produced a performance of such quality in the high winds of Finca Cortesin, as to match anything his great predecessor had done.

- Dermot Gilleece

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