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South African Sabbatini Could Shine Like Locke

Following Sabbatini's victory last weekend, Dermot Gilleece looks at one of the Great South Aftrican players who led the way

Posted Mar 07, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece


On the opening day of the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960, Gary Player drove into a bunker when needing a par at the last for a course-record 65. It being a team game, he immediately asked his playing partner for permission to go for the green.

Player, as it happened, was then a major champion, having captured the Open at Muirfield the previous year.  Yet he still considered it appropriate to address his veteran South African colleague respectfully as “Mr Locke.”   After considering the matter for a few moments, the great Bobby duly gave the nod and Player proceeded to secure the record.

These pioneers of South African golf on the international tournament scene were brought to mind by the victory of Rory Sabbatini in the Honda Classic last weekend. And the esteem with which Player treated Bobby Locke, reflected the enormous influence the older man had exerted on the game.

In fact Locke made his first impact on Ireland in 1936 when, as a 19-year-old exploring the golfing scene in these islands, he captured the amateur award in the Irish Open at Royal Dublin with an impressive aggregate of 287.  Two years later, in his first season as a professional, he returned to win the Irish Open at Portmarnock, beating no less an opponent than Henry Cotton into second place.

During the years on either side of World War II, he won the South African Professional Open on five successive occasions, after a breakthrough victory as an amateur in 1937.  He also won four successive South African Professional Matchplay titles between 1938 and 1946.  And it was in the wake of these achievements that he proceeded to blaze a trail in the US for compatriots such as Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, David Frost, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Sabbatini to follow. 

In the winter of 1946-’47, Locke played a 16-match exhibition series against Sam Snead in South Africa.  To the surprise of everybody but his own local admirers, Locke won 12 matches as against only two from Snead: the other two were halved.  A feature of these performances was the extraordinary putting of the South African who seemed to be totally indifferent to where the flag was on a green.  He simply aimed for the closely-mown grass on the assumption he would hole the putt.

Observers at the time expressed the view that the quality of Locke’s putting had a seriously detrimental effect on Snead’s proficiency with the blade, to the extent that on his return home, the Virginian fell out of the top half-dozen on the US Tour for the first time in his career.  In the event, having been advised some years previously by Walter Hagen to try his luck in America, Locke  felt confident enough through his dominance over Snead, to go there. 

So it was that in 1947, he made his debut in the US Masters, albeit without any great distinction.  Local professionals expressed the view that his rather loose swing was far too prone to a hook to deliver success on tour.  Whatever about his swing deficiencies, Locke was to extract huge compensation from a wonderfully productive putting stroke.  In fact he won no fewer than 15 tournaments in the US between 1947 and 1950 when Snead and Ben Hogan were strutting their stuff.  And one of those victories was by a staggering 16 strokes in the Chicago Victory National Championship, which remains a record for the US Tour.

His US career, which incorporated countless exhibition matches, was cut short, however, because of a highly controversial ban, ostensibly over playing commitments.  Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters champion, captured the general mood when he said: “Locke was simply too good.  They had to ban him.” 

There is no doubt but that the confidence gained during this highly productive period was responsible for Locke’s success on the biggest stage of all.  After a breakthrough victory at Royal St George’s in 1949, when he beat Ireland’s Harry Bradshaw in a play-off, he went on to capture four Opens, the last of them at St Andrews in 1957.

Among his nine South African Open titles and numerous other successes in his local country, there were some notable triumphs in Durban.  Which, as it happens, is the birthplace of Sabbatini.

- Dermot Gilleece

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