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Aussie Golf is Having a Good Time

Dermot Looks at some of the stories and achievements of golfers down under

Posted May 07, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

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Good things are happening to Australian golfers right now.  Only a few weeks after Adam Scott landed the country’s first US Masters title, Brett Rumford has secured back-to-back European Tour victories in the Far East.  And like Scott, incidentally, he did it with a broomhandle putter.

With the US Open returning to Merion next month, David Graham has been thrust into the limelight as the last winner of the title there, in 1981.  And for good measure, TV pundit, Ian Baker-Finch, was half of a triumphant partnership in the Raphael Division of the Legends of Golf in Savannah towards the end of last month.  Indeed his six-foot winning putt on the third green of a sudden-death play-off, revived memories of the silky action which delivered the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1991.

By my reckoning, nine Australians have won a total of 15 Major championships, starting, of course, with the great Peter Thomson and his five Open Championships from 1954 to 1965.  The others are: Greg Norman (2), Graham (2) and Kel Nagle, Wayne Grady, Steve Elkington, Baker-Finch, Geoff Ogilvy and Scott, with one each.

Outside of those victories, Australians have also shown themselves to be remarkably versatile.  For instance, Joe Kirkwood (1897-1970), earned more as a trick-shot artist than as a top golfer.  Then there was Joan Hammond, who won three New South Wales women’s titles and represented her country in international matches against New Zealand and Great Britain.  I didn’t see her in any of those events, but I had the great pleasure of listening to her beautiful soprano voice when she sang in Handel’s “Messiah” in Dublin during the 1950s.  Interestingly, the Australian LGU raised money to help her pursue her musical studies in Austria and Italy during the 1930s and she later repaid the debt by giving concerts to help finance overseas golfing trips by her fellow countrywomen.   

Graham became a very interesting character, perhaps because of a troubled childhood.  When he was 16, he announced to his father that he would like to drop out of school to take up a career as a professional golfer. His father warned: “If you do, I'll never talk to you again.” Sadly, the father held to his threat: they never exchanged another word.

Years later, when the older Graham died, it was months before his son heard about it. “Most definitely it made me more determined,” he admitted. “I went on a personal mission to prove to him and some others that I could make it in golf.”  Which could explain why, after his victory at Merion, some wicked wag felt moved to remark that Graham had eventually become as good as he thought he was.

Irish Open enthusiasts remember Graham's appearance at Portmarnock in 1977 when he shot rounds of 75 and 76 to miss the cut, which was a considerable disappointment to the sponsors, who had paid him a substantial appearance fee. They also recall that in 1981, two months after his victory at Merion, he returned to Portmarnock, this time playing all four rounds for an aggregate of 284 and 11th place behind Sam Torrance. “I felt I owed it to the sponsors,” he said, of a gesture which was greatly appreciated by all concerned.

Graham has always been his own man. Which explains why, on being asked as a long-time friend of Jack Nicklaus what he thought of Muirfield village, he replied: “It looks like they copied a bunch of holes from other courses.”  Later, with sadness in his voice, he admitted: “That comment was devastating to my relationship with Jack.” But typically, there was no apology. Graham remains one of a kind.

The father of modern Australian golf was unquestionably Norman von Nida.  Born in 1914, he proudly announced to the touring Walter Hagen in 1929: “I am the best caddie in Brisbane.”  To which Hagen replied: “OK, son.  Then you and I are a pair, because I am the best golfer in Brisbane.”

Though he won a total of 22 significant tournaments in Australia, Asia and Great Britain, the Von, as he was known, never captured a Major title.  But he did an immense amount of good for Australian golf by encouraging a number of the country’s up-and-coming players, including Thomson, Bruce Crampton, Nagle, Bruce Devlin, Graham and Norman.

And as a contrast to the devices wielded by Scott and Rumford, he once resorted to using a driver on the greens, such was the torment he suffered with putting.

- Dermot Gilleece

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