Date: November 24, 2016
Author: David Greenhill

Watching a rising star

I've often wondered what it'd be like to see the beginnings of something or someone really special. What would it have been like to visit the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg during the early 60's and see the Beatles playing for hours into the dawn as they forged the sound that would eventually take them to music immortality? Maybe hearing a young Bob Dylan playing at a Greenwich Village club in 1961 New York? What about watching Dame Judy Dench progress her acting career by performing with the Royal Shakespearean Company in London at about the same time?

Having worked in golf for 25 years and playing the game for as long as I can remember, I have been incredibly lucky to have seen lots of great players play lots of great shots. As a kid growing up in Hobart in the late 70's, I saw one of Australia’s greatest women golfers in Lindy Goggin strike the ball near perfectly in local Pennant while pulling my mum's golf bag and buggy around Royal Hobart.

Moving to Melbourne in 1979 then created the chance to see a bleach blond Greg Norman for the first time at Woodlands in the Garden State Victorian PGA. He left me awestruck playing a laser like two iron into the par five second. I’d never seen someone hit a ball so far with such control and flair.

Having been a keen footballer and cricketer, it changed the way I thought about golf. The sport was suddenly cool. It needed power, touch, strategy and mental toughness and Norman was like a surfie come movie star on the way to taking the game to unprecedented heights.

In the early 80’s, I remember seeing Ballesteros playing golf like an artist around Royal Melbourne shooting 66 with persimmon woods and a balata ball – bending the ball this way and that and playing short shots with the best pair of hands that I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have a lob wedge either.

I saw Bernhard Langer hit a Ping one iron to the 18th at Huntingdale into a strong southerly to secure the 1985 Australian Masters two months before taking his first green jacket at Augusta.

I've seen the transition of Allenby, Appleby, Green, Ogilvy, Baddeley, Fraser, Griffin and many more from elite amateurs into successful professionals. More recently I've seen the emergence of generational players like Minjee Lee and Su Oh who played one of the most outstanding Women's Victorian Amateur finals in 2013 at Kingston Heath. Su won that one in a birdie fest while Minjee went on to win the Women's Oates Vic Open in 2014 with a similar breathtaking display.

At the recent 2016 Emirates Men’s Australian Open, I had the good fortune to add another player and a raft of breathtaking shots to my list. Twenty-year old Western Australian Curtis Luck has had a great year making the cut at the Oates Vic Open; winning his home State Open in May before becoming the second Australian in history to win the Men's US Amateur in August.

For good measure, he was a member of Australia’s victorious Eisenhower Cup Team at the World Amateur Teams Championship in September before backing up a few weeks later to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur in Seoul with a closing five-under 67 in bitter cold and gale force winds to pip Victoria's super talented Brett Coletta by a stroke.

From regular contact at events and through resulting observation, the slim but wiry strong West Australian can really play. On top of that, he has an engaging personality, is intelligent, is friendly and genuinely decent. He looks like a modern rock star whilst behaving like a seasoned player well beyond his years. He's also got that special something.

And so it proved when I was assigned as a referee to Curtis' group for the final round at Royal Sydney where he was paired with the super talented Venezuelan Jhonny Vegas (great name). What a day I had. Vegas shot 67 and finished at nine-under while Luck closed with a 69 to take lead amateur honours on seven-under. However it wasn't so much the score he had but the way he went about it and the future that I can see in his horizon.

Whereas Vegas has a classic swing to go with his powerful frame, Luck has an economical action that generates amazing length. But there were so many other things that stood out. I couldn't help but think that Luck is more a golfing artist. There is no shot he can't play nor is willing to try. His irons are shaped and flighted as each shot requires with amazing control. His short game resembled the young Seve I saw in the early 80's with imagination to match. Soft hands, variety of clubs used as needed and immaculate touch.

Luck started the final round relatively poorly missing gettable birdie putts on the opening two holes, before dropping the third after finding a greenside bunker. A missed tiddler of a par putt on the fourth saw a second successive bogey.

However I had come to know him as an extremely tough and determined competitor and the final day of the Open was to be no exception. A scrambled par on the fifth after a poor tee shot but great sand save and he was away. He birdied the par three sixth courtesy of a long range putt, missed another gettable chance at the seventh before three birdies in a row from the eighth. By the time he got to the 11th tee, he was firing on all cylinders to the firming greens and last day hole locations you’d expect on the last day of an Open.

The 12th produced the first of three shots that left an indelible mark. After attempting to drive close to the green at the 359-metre par four, Luck strayed to the right and was faced with a difficult low running shot from between the paperbarks.

He was somewhat unlucky when his recovery took a large bounce and rolled over the green into a difficult fluffy position with a large bunker now between his ball and the hole cut on a small section of green to the right with barely any room on which to land the pitch.

With a seeming score disaster inevitable, Luck pulled out his lob wedge and played a bunker type shot off the horrible lie. The ball went straight up, carried the bunker and landed with a gentle thud before rolling to a few feet of the hole – remarkable. Par was saved as was the momentum of his round.

A couple of unlucky pars followed as he firstly went through the par five 13th in two and again got a hard kick into the greenside bunker of the neighboring ninth green and couldn’t recovery for the birdie. At the 14th he found the green safely but his mid-length birdie putt lingered on the edge of the hole and didn’t drop.    

The next amazing shot came at the par five 16th playing back into the wind. After a drive of close to 300 metres, Luck was faced with a tight, slightly downhill lie in the middle of the fairway. To a mortal like me, the green looked out of range and surely a lay-up would be the play.

However he reached for the driver from his caddie, coach, mentor and good friend Craig Bishop and proceeded to size up a shot that had danger written all over it. He then played a near perfect driver  off the ground in the same way that Norman used to on the 14th at Huntingdale at the Masters all those years ago. The shot was so audacious but so brilliantly executed, my only reaction was simply to laugh.

The ball flew like a bullet and was somewhat unlucky to finish just over the green in a deep swale. Luck took three to get down and had to settle for par after missing a birdie putt of a metre or so – hardly just reward for the shot played to bring the green into range.

The final of the three shots came at the long par three 17th where the hole was on small shelf on the right side of the green. Barely any landing room with the wind supposedly heling but gusting from varying directions. Once again it looked to be an incredibly tough shot. Not to be deterred, Luck flighted a splendid mid to long iron that used the wind perfectly and landed softly on the green, settling a few metres past the hole.

After quite a few near misses over the back nine, in went the putt for a deserved birdie. A solid par on the iconic closing par four framed by the semi-gothic Royal Sydney clubhouse and Luck was round in three-under to finish in a tie for 11th and be leading overall amateur.

Some quick handshakes and kind words with the players, caddies, scorer and carry-board volunteer and that was that. The main exception though was that I came away having seen something special enough to want to tell people about it. In my mind, this was one of the more complete amateur players that I’d seen in 25 years and I’d had the good fortune to watch close up for a whole round.

In the midst of it all, the more seasoned Vegas had been well in contention and save for a few mistakes and a few missed putts, may well have won. But it was the young Western Australian that left the bigger impression. Curtis is off to the US Masters next April and presumably will turn professional at some point thereafter. Next time he tees it up at an event near you, be sure to go, have a look and see what you think. Hopefully you’ll see exactly what I did in Sydney on a sunny afternoon last Sunday and that was watching something special happening right before my eyes.