Picture:123RF/DEKLPFENAK
Picture:123RF/DEKLPFENAK

Ask a South African to name the country’s best golfers and the names Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen always pop up. But what about Sid Brews, Ronnie Glennie or Clarence Olander? This week we take a look at some of the unsung heroes of SA’s golfing past.

The current structures in amateur golf in SA seem to churn out top young player after top young player with such ease that it is not surprising you find golfers from the southern tip of Africa on leader boards worldwide in any given week.

Each young player follows an individual route into the game, but once they start to compete in junior events they are absorbed into this conveyor belt of talent where the most promising players are identified, nurtured and, eventually, let loose into the deep pond of professional golfers.

Here, it is up to them to determine whether they will sink, tread water for a while, or swim.

It’s not a perfect system by any stretch and, for various reasons, not all “sure things” actually make it in the cut-throat world of professional golf.

Then again, there are always a handful of unknowns who beat the odds and break onto the international scene as late bloomers.

This flow of talent stretches back to the earliest days of golf in SA, where Brews became the first South African to achieve worldwide success, notably when he finished runner-up to the great Henry Cotton in the 1934 Open Championship at Royal St George’s. Brews managed a handful of wins in Europe and on the PGA Tour, while he dominated the SA golfing landscape with eight SA Open and six SA PGA titles.

Back then, becoming a professional golfer did not come with any of the glitz and glamour it does today.

Travel — by ship — was arduous and tournament prize money was barely enough to cover the cost of the trip.

As such, many of the best golfers opted to stay amateur for life; playing for the love of the game and the prestige of representing their country — all while maintaining their day jobs.

For some, the prestige of winning amateur titles was more important than professional events.

In 1947, Glennie won the SA Open Championship at Mowbray Golf Club as an amateur. The story goes that upon returning home that night, his father said, “Well done, my boy, but now you must go out and win the SA Amateur because that’s what really counts.”

Two years later, Glennie settled the matter by winning the 1949 SA Amateur title at Maccauvlei.

Many of the players from that era would undoubtedly have made wonderful professional golfers had they opted to forge a career in the paid ranks. Instead, it’s likely you’ve never heard of them.

Olander, for example, won the 1936 SA Open as an amateur — the same year he won the third of his three SA Amateur titles. Jimmy Boyd was another amateur to lift the SA Open trophy, in 1953. He was followed a year later by Reg Taylor, arguably the greatest amateur golfer this country has ever produced.

Taylor won a number of amateur events across the world and represented his country 13 times between 1954 and 1974 — a record that was overtaken by another amateur lifer, KwaZulu-Natal’s David Suddards, who had 18 Springbok caps between 1975 and 1984.

SA produced many world-class women golfers in that era too.

Rita Eason won the SA Ladies Championship on no fewer than seven occasions, while Jeanette Burd and Jackie Mercer won it four times each.

Alison Sheard, a three-time winner of the SA Ladies Championship, went on to forge a wonderful professional career that included numerous European wins, including the 1979 Women’s British Open — now considered a Major championship.

It’s also fair to say that a number of our top golfers’ careers were overshadowed by the dominance of nine-time Major champion Player, who seemed to win just about every local tournament he entered.

Brothers Brian and Trevor Wilkes won multiple titles in SA and Europe, while Barry Franklin converted a superb amateur career into a European Tour-winning one and Bobby Cole, the 1966 Amateur champion, came within a whisker of winning the 1975 Open Championship at Carnoustie.

Bobby Verwey, brother-in-law to Player, won tournaments on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Sunshine Tour and would go on to claim the 1991 Senior Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes. A year later, John Fourie got his name on the Senior Open trophy with a two-shot win at the same venue.

Then we have Allan Henning who, despite being a PGA Tour player and a two-time Sunshine Tour Order of Merit winner, was not even the best player in his family. His older brother Harold’s record comfortably eclipsed that of Allan’s — or for that matter the two other Henning brothers, Brian and Graham, who were fine professionals themselves.

One of the greatest players SA ever produced arguably ranks as one of the least well known. At the tender age of 18, Retief Waltman announced his arrival on the SA golfing scene when he beat superstar and three-time Open champion Bobby Locke in the 1957 SA Professional Match Play Championship. Beating Locke in his prime in SA was almost unheard of and “Old Muffin Face” would go on to win his fourth Open Championship later that year.

Waltman would go on to win two SA Open titles — the first by eight strokes, the Dutch Open on the European Tour, and play in two Masters tournaments. Yet, aged just 25 and approaching the peak of his career, Waltman turned his back on golf and turned to ministry, reportedly seeking more meaning in his life than the fairways and greens of the US could offer.

It just goes to show how unpredictable the game of golf — and life — can be.

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