Date: November 25, 2015
Author: Mike Clayton

Old champions retain important place in golf

Not so long ago a young and promising Australian player was paired with Tom Watson at the Australian Open. He was at least aware Watson had won The Open Championship five times but was surprised to learn he was American. He had assumed him to be English.

Some things are beyond staggering.

Along the same lines, I once asked a young kid, a good enough player to have made the semi-final of the Australian Amateur, if he knew of Peter Thomson.

‘Yes’ he replied, ‘he’s the golf course designer.’

I guess, in a way, he was right.

The history of golf has always interested me, in part because those who have written about the game since the days of Bernard Darwin have done it so well.

‘The smaller the ball the better the writing’ as they say.

And, understanding the history of the game is surely of benefit to the aspiring player because it’s a window into how great players of the past have gone about their business. If you hoped to be a great novelist or a great playwright you would first set about studying the great novels and the great plays. Why would an understanding of the techniques of the great players and the way they played the game not be a benefit?

Any young kid having a hard time of it on the tour could well reflect on the early years Ben Hogan spent on the tour, driving from city to city with barely enough money to survive. Or Byron Nelson who wanted to buy a new driver only to be told by his wife, ‘you have already bought three drivers this year and it’s been a whole year since I’ve had a new dress. Can’t you fix the one you have?’

It was a much different time and at The Australian on Wednesday we saw nineteen past champions on the first tee and later there was some jovial lamenting of the money the players of today play for by the oldest pair at the ceremony, Thomson and Frank Phillips, the winner in 1957 and 1961.

The money is extraordinary especially in the United States but as Thomson, typically and dryly noted later in a press interview alongside Phillips and David Graham, ‘I’d hate all the tax they must have to pay these days.’

Neither Thomson nor Phillips hit a ceremonial drive but all the rest did including the one-armed Jack Newton who won at Metropolitan in 1979. He hit a beautiful drive a couple of hundred yards down the middle of the 1st fairway at The Australian and one wonders what he would have made of his career had it not been halted by a spinning airplane propeller. He was only 33 at the time and whilst he was struggling with his swing he was too talented a player to have faded from the playing side of the game.

With all the focus on Peter Senior it wasn’t surprising the play of Peter Fowler in Melbourne was overlooked. The same age as Senior, Fowler was just inside the top twenty at Huntingdale and no man has worked harder at golf than the 1983 winner at Kingston Heath.

As Newton was struggling with his game in early 1983 so Fowler lost his game completely in the mid-nineteen-nineties. He couldn’t hit a driver anywhere near the course and no matter how good his short game there came a time when even it was incapable of papering over the sins of his long clubs.

That he was able to go back to New Zealand and reinvent his game was remarkable but he was playing out of sheer desperation and a need to feed his young family.

David Graham, his trademark swing easily recognizable, ‘pured’ one down the centre, as did most of the rest of the old champions.

They are now all varying shapes and sizes and some drive much further than others but all have an important place in golf in Australia and to have them all in one place at the same time was something to remember.

Perhaps we will have a new champion this week or maybe Scott, Spieth or Ogilvy will repeat as a winner and guaranteeing years from now a new generation will remember their names.

Some won’t but it will be their loss.