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The Glory of South African Golf

A tradition of winners is the key, writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Feb 19, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

bobby locke

While Darren Fichart was capturing the Africa Open by two strokes at East London GC on Sunday,  Charl Schwartzel was challenging for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC, on the other side of the world.  In view of the recent dominance by South African players, the surprise was that Schwartzel was eventually forced to settle for a share of third place behind John Merrick, only one stroke out of a play-off.

Going back to December 6th, half of the eight events  played so far on the 2013 European Tour schedule, have been won by South Africans.  Schwartzel captured the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leonard Creek on December 13th;  Louis Oosthuizen won the limited-field Volvo Golf Champions event at Durban CC on January 20th;  Richard Sterne won the Joburg Open on February 10th and Fichart has now emphasised their dominance, a week later.

When we look at Sweden and its remarkable upsurge in golf in only 30 years, it becomes decidedly modest when compared with the huge impact achieved by South Africa in the aftermath of World War II.   As it happens, a Swede has yet to win a Major title whereas South Africans had no fewer than five Open Championships to their credit within the 11 years from 1949 to 1959, inclusive.  These, of course, were achieved by Bobby Locke (4) and what proved to be the breakthrough success at Muirfield by Gary Player, who went on to capture a total of nine Major titles.

Born in 1917 in Germiston outside Johannesburg, Locke set the standard for his countrymen to follow.  For a period of 21 years up to 1956, he was unbeaten over 72 holes on South African soil. He, himself, had followed the lead of Syd Brews who displayed remarkable longevity by winning the South African Open in four different decades.  Ironically, Brews, who was English born, once told Locke that he hadn't enough game to be a pro.  And it is said that years later, Locke came home from America and almost drove his brand new Cadillac through the window of Brews’s shop.

In 1946-’47 season, local financier, Norbert Erleigh, sponsored a 16-match series in South Africa between Lock and Sam Snead, then at the peak of his powers.  Locke won 12, Snead two and the remaining two matches were halved.  The experience of watching his opponent hole an unbelievable number of putts on difficult greens, had such an effect on the American as to damage his putting for the remainder of his career.  

Reflecting on the experience several decades later, Snead said: "I could beat him down from tee to green 15 times out of 18 and still lose. He was the greatest putter I have ever seen in my life. He'd hit a 20-footer and before the ball got half-way, he'd be tipping his hat to the crowd. He wore out his hats tipping them."

Buoyed up by his success against such a quality opponent, Locke decided to try his luck on the US circuit, starting in the 1947 Masters at Augusta National.  Without a practice round, he carded  74,74,71,70 for a share of 14th place behind the winner, Jimmy Demaret.  This earned the South African a reward of $188 but before the end of that season, he had received appearance money of $5,000 to play in the Tam o’Shanter tournament where victory brought him an additional $7,000.

Though Demaret led the US money list that season with $27,936, Locke was remarkably only $3,600 behind him, setting a stroke-average of 69.8 for just 52 rounds on American soil. He had won seven tournaments, was twice second and third once and behind him in the money list were such iconic names as Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson.

Locke was back for more of the same in 1948, setting a Tour record with a 16-stroke win in the Chicago Victory National Championship.  And on returning there in 1949 after he had beaten Harry Bradshaw in a play-off at Royal St George’s to capture his first Open Championship, the Americans had had enough.  Deciding that as a temporary, summer visitor he was in breach of their rules, the US Tour banned him for life.

The ban, which was slammed by Gene Sarazen as the “most disgraceful action by any golf organisation in the last 30 years”, was later rescinded in 1950.  Embittered by the experience, however, Locke turned his back on the US and trod more welcoming fairways on this side of the pond, with comparable success.

Some Swedish experts have attributed their lack of Major success to the absence of a golfing tradition.  By his exploits more than half a century ago, Bobby Locke ensured that the current crop of South African players would have no such complaint.

- Dermot Gilleece

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