I wonder if she's still there. I like to think she is: narrow old-lady's shoulder blades pressed against the wattle tree. Ice-blue eyes methodically auditing the landscape. The 12-gauge shotgun she calls Big Brother cradled in her lap, safety off. Her trigger finger itching perceptibly as she singlehandedly holds at bay—for a time, at least—the encroachment of golf on civilization.
Travers, or Travis, was her name, but the Melbourne newspaper that gave the account did not describe her, so I am free to imagine her as being creased with character lines, depicting a keen intellect; tanned and wiry and poker straight and, like most Australians, glowing with a deep-down bullheadedness.
What the old lady Travis, or Travers, had announced from her station near the NO HAWKERS sign in her yard was that she did not think the patrons of the adjoining Frankston municipal golf course had been given a divine right to sprinkle her property and pet sheep with their hooks and slices—this wasn't Sai-gon, you know—and that she was fully prepared to blow the fool head off any golfer who came retrieving. Her tone defied all thoughts of clemency.
She said she had collected three shoe-boxes full of evidence in her effort to get that portion of the course closed, and that if, "as people say, I'm an old bag, well, I think they know now that some old bags are filled with dynamite." When last heard of, she had taken her case up the ladder of Australian jurisprudence, and won $23 damages. There are those who believe that Travis, or Travers, is on the side of the angels.
For openers, I would hope to establish with this example of true Australian grit that the will to find a place for golf—and to keep golf in its place—is still alive in that country. But it is only fair to say that there are some signs that this attitude is weakening. Most Australian golf courses that I have seen, for instance, have an uncomplicated lived-on look, a charming devil-may-care quality all their own, as befits a people who like to get the job done without nonsense: grow some grass, sink a few holes, have yourself a course. Many of these layouts, especially in the sand belt around Melbourne, are natural garden spots, and I made that comment—"This is a garden spot"—to an Aussie cabdriver as we cruised up the tree-lined drive to a course one afternoon. His reply was dear to the heart of an unconvinced observer of golf, and worth the price of the ride: "Yes," he said, "most cemeteries are."
Other courses are much more to the point. At Surfers Paradise near Brisbane, where the Australian PGA was held this year, the course has been built over a cow paddock and swarms with bush flies. The pros went down the fairways waving their arms in wild circles. The fairways bleed together, shots straying from one to another. (A man selling American football helmets might do business here.) There is a giant eucalyptus tree smack in the middle of one fairway, and another fairway meanders across the back side of the course in such a fashion that the green can be approached from six or eight directions.
At Alice Springs, in the dead heart of the Outback, there is a course that can only be played after four or five—four or five short beers, that is. What the Aussies call "stubbies." The Alice Springs course is a pastiche of yellow stubble, specimen rock formations and clinging brown dust. Grass has no hope there because it almost never rains in Alice Springs. A five-gang mower was purchased for the groundskeeper one year and it didn't turn a wheel for the next seven. The greens (called "browns") are oiled sand. Two smooth-out scrapes with a bar rake are allowed before every putt. A ball under a rock or in a wagon rut on the fairway can be moved a club length to a preferred lie; a six-inch move is allowed anywhere in the rough. It is clearly a course with character, and any man who plays it can't possibly take the game too seriously.
But new courses are being built (golf marches on), and the cry to make them "championship caliber" is heard in the land, just as it was in this country when architect-builders began yielding to the insatiable professionals who did not want the weekend hacker to be able to say he beat the course that beat the pro. The results in the U.S. were courses with nicknames like "The Blue Monster," and whole communities were planned around these central jewels. (I have a dinnertime image of 50 or so square miles of golfing families, sitting around their roast beef, singularly engrossed in hip turns and pronation and this or that birdie that got away, and having a fairly low intuitive sense about what is going on in the other world.)
To make such a course means shoving a lot of earth around and spending a lot of money. Australians are slowly giving ground to this way of thinking. One particularly impressive undertaking, by American architect Bob Von Hagge and Australian golfer Bruce Devlin, on the coast near Brisbane, will cost $2 million and will be gorgeous and provide vantage points at every hole for television cameras. Smashing.
To go further. There have never been many outstanding young Australian players at any one time in professional golf because they do not receive the fawning patronage (cash, expenses, etc.) young American golfers multiply on, it being more acceptable for an Aussie to do it "the hard way." Original Australians (not to be confused with Aborigines) were convicts shipped in by Mother England to populate the place, and doing it the hard way seems to be endemic in the Australian nature. Kel Nagle started playing golf at the age of seven—the story is repeated everywhere, endlessly—with clubs fashioned from tree roots and cigarette tins. He even stiffed around for awhile in a lumber camp as a teen-ager.
Norman Von Nida, the Australian Ben Hogan, golfed his way out of the meat works in Queensland, where his job was to separate bare-handed the cracked skulls of slaughtered sheep. Von Nida shoved his gnarly, nodulose hands under my nose one night at dinner in Canberra and said, "That's why my fingers are so strong—like steel bars." He said the prospect of going back to the slaughterhouse helped him hustle a lot of unsuspecting pros and win a lot of Nassaus in his time.
Von Nida is a tiny flame of a man who never weighed more than 140 pounds, but he took on all comers and gained a measure of notoriety in America for bouncing back from a sock on the jaw by Henry Ransom and then proceeding to throttle the bigger man right out on the golf course in Harlingen, Texas. He had accused Ransom of cheating on his score.
Often the hard way is too hard, however. A player named Bob Mesnil was charted as the new star of Australian golf a few years ago, only to drop out of sight; he was discovered some months later driving a soft-drink truck and playing on weekends with borrowed clubs. But if there was always more thin than thick, the essential qualities of the Australian golfer remained intact: appealingly coarse and individualistic. When the late Ossie Pickworth, a free spirit (or "larrikin") who once won six out of nine tournaments without ever owning his own jet plane, used to plunk his entire winner's purse down on the tavern counter and yell, "Shout for the bar!" it was probably all the cash he had in the world at that moment. Ossie, according to legend, was whisked from the jaws of fiscal oblivion many times, once by holding fast to the stub of a $20,000 lottery ticket.
Now, alas, more money is being made available every season for the Australian touring professionals and, predictably, more players are touring after it. The result is a growing influx of the kind of faceless, fuzzy-cheeked player that keeps popping up to take trophies away from the big names on the U.S. tour. There are even two or three Americans who have become resident fixtures on the Australian tour, having concluded, correctly, that the Australian dollar goes further.
One of these Americans is a former New Jersey professional named Ron Howell. Howell decided he'd never make it in American enterprise when he added up the receipts at his pro shop one year and discovered the president of the club had purchased the grand total of $46 worth of merchandise. "Everybody wanted a discount," Howell lamented. He moved to Sydney.
A marginal player, Howell figured to be a big fish in the smaller pond. I asked him over a hamburger at Surfers what he thought it took in winnings to get along comfortably Down Under. He said $10,000 a year, and a smartly dressed young Australian golfer sitting with us blurted out, "Two."
"Two? Two what?" Howell asked.
"Two thousand dollars. That's what I won last year," said the native pro.
The point is that although neither of these men will ever get rich playing the Australian circuit, where even a $50,000 tournament is something read about only in dream dispatches from America, neither will they have to serve their apprenticeships in a lumber camp or by grappling with the skulls of dead sheep. The eventual result almost certainly will be the pall of sameness that dominates the U.S. game, and something more will be gone from Australian golf.
Then, finally, one afternoon in Canberra on the edge of the 5th green at the Dunlop International tournament, I ran into perhaps the most ominous of all signs of this slippage: the immaculate blond specter of Mark McCormack. McCormack has been appearing with increasing frequency in the country, fluttering over the Yarra Yarra and Royal Sydney galleries like a huge checker-coated hummingbird. And as every golf fan knows, Mark McCormack does not travel 10,000 miles to look at koala bears. McCormack travels to extract the appropriate homage and fat guarantees due his stable of moneymakers wherever they may appear. I think of Mark McCormack as the ultimate harbinger of golf's excesses.
But—are you listening Travis, or Travers, wherever you are?—if the walls of unorthodoxy are weakening, the fortress still stands. It is still not only proper but accurate to say that the Australians have not allowed professional golf to reach the hysterical heights of priority that it has reached in this country. Australian golfers do not necessarily consider themselves deified when they turn pro. They are not always catered to and stepped aside for at the better clubs. In fact, the opposite is often true, and no amount of posturing by indignant American and English pros can shake the resolve of a stubborn Aussie club member who doesn't want his rules changed (even if he just made them up) or golfers' wives in his clubhouse. There are, in fact, still clubs in Australia where the pro can't eat in the dining room.
Challenges to the barricades are made every year and usually end ingloriously for the challenger. Wives were indeed kept out of the Kingston Heath clubhouse during last year's Australian Open, despite strong liberating remarks by Mrs. Gloria Devlin, and the pros themselves were not allowed to practice on the course the day before. Gary Player was refused a cup of tea after shooting a record 65 on his way to the Open championship. He was told rather stiffly, he said, that it was past teatime.
One learns quickly not to take the celebrated Australian stubbornness lightly. It is deeply ingrained. The classic example is the dispute that once arose between the rival states of Victoria and New South Wales over the gauge of the tracks to be laid for the new railroad linking the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. Neither side would give an inch. The track was laid five feet three inches wide inside the Victorian border, and four feet 8½ inches the rest of the way. Passengers had to change trains at the border.
Neither do Australian galleries treat the professional golfer as though he were performing surgery. Rather, they regard him practically, objectively, as one enjoys a performer who has acquired a skill worth watching but not worth genuflecting to. They do not seem to regard the sport as being worthy of solemn assessment. Australian galleries are a breed apart—wonderful thundering mobs that charge down fairways and across the lines of fire like buffalo herds, and stand with their toes on the greens. They have been known to hoist a favorite onto their shoulders and carry him away, and think nothing of breathing down the backswing of a man making a shot, or chumming up for a little conversation.
There is, therefore, really no such thing as crowd control at Australian tournaments. Lee Trevino, who enjoys the bantering more than anyone because that is his style, says you can't walk a straight line down a fairway in Australia, mingling as you do. Trevino has become so taken by it that he says he will eventually have to live there himself. Others, who think golf deserves to be played in a vacuum, would not agree, of course.
I have a particularly fond memory, culled from the weekend at Kingston Heath, of little Gary Player, all in white, groping between the legs of the advancing gallery trying futilely to replace a divot. He had hit his shot, and immediately the crowd surged over him like a field of bamboo overwhelming a desperate cabbage picker.
Australian galleries are never exceptionally large, and often prefer to follow the foreign players and leave their own to friends and family. Australians, as a whole, are not a nationalistic people. They wouldn't burn the flag, but then they probably wouldn't have one to burn. Peter Thomson, their best player, passed by one afternoon at Canberra so unattended that I missed him completely. Either that or I was dozing, which is also a possibility.
Anyway, Australians flock to the foreign players, especially if they are Americans. Australians have an incorrigible fondness for Americans. Their newspapers are laced with news from the U.S. Their styles are America-oriented. Their faces light up when they hear a Yankee accent. I suspect a reason for this is that we have never weighted them down with our charity and they can therefore appreciate us on equal terms. In any case, they love to tell Americans-in-Australia golf stories. How Arnold Palmer once clubbed a ball into a tree and climbed 15 feet to hit it. Or the time Cary Middlecoff lined up his drive on the first tee at Royal Melbourne so that he was facing the players' hut and a stand of trees, 180 degrees off line.
Or the time in Sydney when Tommy Bolt, in a fit of pique over being handed the wrong club, threw it at his caddie, followed that by hitting two straight balls into a lake and then tried to walk off without finishing the round, announcing, "I'm through!" Ossie Pickworth, his opponent at the time, rushed over shouting, "No, you ain't quitting now," and Bolt relented. Ossie was probably leading at the time.
Just as professional golf breeds egotists, the galleries of Australia seem to have been put on this earth to take them down a peg when necessary. Englishman Tony Jacklin was badly shaken two years ago by a galleryite in Sydney who, reacting to Jacklin's too obvious show of pleasure about making a shot out of a bunker, called him an "arsey—." Gary Player, who in his perpetual soul-searching manner has a knack for being misunderstood—and practiced it often during his 1970 visit—issued a mild complaint about a hard green at Royal Sydney one year. His ball had taken an inflated bounce and rolled off the back side, and a man who heard Player's cavil yelled at him: "Whyuntcha start blaming yourself for a change and just hit the ball, ya mug." Last year Player and the galleries got along fine, but he was misquoted often by the Australian press and picked apart in columns by Peter Thomson.
True to form, however, the Aussies save their best shots for their own. "We are a nation of knockers," was how one Australian friend explained the phenomenon. "We've always enjoyed booing our own mob. We don't let anybody get too big for his pants." He said that at the Davis Cup Challenge Round one year the home crowd cheered so lustily for the Indian team it was embarrassing. At Kingston Heath in 1970, Bob Stanton, one of the young Australian golfers approaching star quality, missed a shot out of the rough. There were two men in the gallery right next to him when he muffed it, and one of them said in a stage whisper, "This joker must be an amateur." The other man said, "Yeah, and a pretty bad one, too." Stanton said he dreaded going out to play the next round.
During that tournament I spent some time spectating from a tricky stretch of terrain between the 8th and 16th greens, vaguely concerned for my life as the gallery ebbed and flowed around me and the balls whined overhead, but satisfied in the knowledge that if I went I would take Ron Clarke, the Australian distance runner, with me. Clarke is a fellow agnostic on the subject of golf and was out for some fresh air. Kingston Heath happens to be a lush, lovely course—if not "championship caliber" at least tough enough for the pros to complain regularly about the sadistic pin placements. (Golf professionals do not want to just break par; they want to leave it in pieces. It enhances their image.)
It was an incredibly clear, crisp day in Australia, when the clouds are canyons of fleece and the shadows a man casts are so distinct they look like people chasing people. The magpies and butcher-birds were in full voice. It was an altogether perfect day to watch a golf tournament.
I kept edging around to keep Clarke between me and the line of fire, being extra careful not to fall in a bunker, so I am not exactly sure how the conversation started. I remember we had been talking about a golfer named Barnes who had attempted to putt from the 8th green to the 16th, just that day. This absurdity was so contrary to rules that we could not help but be delighted. Barnes had hit to the wrong green and had been told by an Australian named Dunk to "go for your life," to putt away, so apparently neither one of them knew the rules. Another man standing with us told of the time Ossie Pickworth hit four consecutive shots into casual water in a big Australian tournament. "Ossie was too stubborn to ask for a ruling," the man said. "He kept dropping balls and banging them into that puddle. Ossie knew if you were farther from the pin you got to shoot first, but the finer points of the game escaped him."
But it suddenly dawned on me, standing there, that what Ron and I had been doing while watching the progress of the tournament was criticizing the generally unathletic appearance of what seemed a steady stream of skinnies and fatties and babies and oldies. Indulging in our meanness, we speculated over which one could swim the English Channel or dribble a basketball with one hand.
Under normal circumstances, Clarke is a shy, rather diffident fellow, erectly handsome and prone to introspection, who rarely goes off half-cocked. To become a world-class runner—a record-breaker many times over—he suffered the Australian "hard way" for years. The athletic club that spawned him is a small condemned-looking building next to the Melbourne thoroughbred racetrack on which the runners run. Its one-spout stall shower can be entered either from the locker room or a tear in the outside wall. In the winter the membership showers quickly, if at all.
So he gave the impression he was not speaking just off his head, but had given it thought, when he said he couldn't really appreciate a sport (golf) that did not require great reflexes or the ability to think fast. Or speed of any kind. Or youth, or strength, or the need to be fit. Or the need to react immediately to an opponent's ploy. (He had obviously been storing up the argument for some time, waiting for an ally.) And that if the only real requirement was long hours of practice and strong nerves, and spectators who are sworn to an intensive-care-ward silence, then it was not a sport at all, but a game, commendable in that respect but no more deserving than pocket billiards or bowling on the green. The catch was, I said, having agreed to all this, there is no "par" in most other sports. Par is the fishwife that nags the once-a-week amateur into recognizing continually how far removed he is from the professional.
A few days later, in his column in the Melbourne Sun, Clarke summed up his feelings under the general heading "Eat, Drink and Be Rich." He said that although there were obvious exceptions—such as Gary Player, who makes a point of being exceptionally fit and no doubt benefits from it—golf was the only sport in which you could "reach the top with a pot"; the only sport in which you could "chain-smoke your way to...a fortune"; the only sport in which athletes and nonathletes could compete on equal footing.
The exception that Clarke happened to make—Player—happened to win the Melbourne tournament, and the one the next week at Canberra, too. After that Player took his leave of Australia and left the PGA tournament at Surfers Paradise for Bruce Devlin to pick up. Clarke's column, of course, clearly stamped him as a nonsportswriter. Sportswriters—golf writers—perpetuate the mysteries of golf and glorify its practitioners shamelessly, partly because most of them play the game themselves and like to brag about "having a round with Bruce" or "having a round with Arnie." (Football writers do not "have a game with Bubba," for obvious reasons.) Most Australian golf writers get carried away as easily as our own. One, apparently up all night turning phrases, welcomed Arnold Palmer to Canberra as "The God of Golf." God Palmer, for the record, finished tied for 12th. God-watcher Mark McCormack told him he ought to practice his chip shots.
Australian golf writers suffer desperately from the need to really let go. They don't get much space and their cramped, rather frantic style makes you think they have had to compose in a dumbwaiter, between floors. The day the Australian Open began there were seven pages of horse racing news and a single short story on the golf tournament in one Melbourne paper. The story was about one-tenth the length of a treatise on the inside entitled "I'm So Sick of Sex."
The best golf writer in Australia is Peter Thomson, the same one who is the best golfer. (The irony of this gets to you only after you have not thought about it for a while.) Thomson handles the language smartly and does not use a ghost. Columns by sports stars written by ghosts are very popular in Australia. Thomson chooses to go it alone. When he finishes a round he moves directly to the press tent, pounds it out and lets the chips fall on whomever they may—usually some foreign golfer whose presence he resents. His target last year was Player.
Gary let his guard down by saying he had no chance after a first-round 71 in the Australian Open, how really terribly messed up his game was, how it would take a "bloody miracle" to save him. The next day he shot a 65. Thomson couldn't forgive Player that 65. He wrote, "We are becoming used to, if not bored by, the soul-searching and hand-wringing that precedes [Player's] record scores...." He used words like "histrionics" and "emotional displays" to describe Player's actions. It was obvious that Thomson would have been satisfied only if Player had run a string of 71s. Meanwhile, an unrepentant Player was retaliating. Without naming him, he hinted broadly that it was Thomson who had arranged to have the course closed the day before the tournament and had made it uncomfortable for internationals in many nasty little ways, and said a certain someone who writes a column as well as plays golf for a living had entirely too great an influence on the game in Australia. It was all too much for a casual observer.
So in Canberra I sought out Norman Von Nida and asked him about Thomson, whom I had not met but had been told was not terribly popular in his own country. "Thomson wants Australian golf for himself." Von Nida said. "He's jealous, that's all. He's the best golfer we've had, but he's that way. I don't like him much."
At the seat of Thomson's estrangement, I was told, was his reputation for being more British than the British. One does not have to spend much time in Australia before he hears that "most Aussies can't cop a Pom." That is to say, the average Australian wouldn't want his sister to marry a Britisher. They regard Thomson as a kind of naturalized Pom. They call him Pete-ah, and mock his affected British ways. They notice how he chums up to "his English writers" and has them to tea. They distrust his intelligence. "He reads Gandhi, of all things," I was told.
It just so happened I had the seat next to Thomson in the clubhouse at Canberra as we watched on television the finish of the tournament there. He is a strikingly photogenic man in his 40s, medium-sized with a flashy nose and curly brown hair and no upper lip. I had been warned he was also anti-American, which explained why he never participated in U.S. tournaments anymore. The story is told of the time in England when he won a tournament over Palmer and Nicklaus and was going into a restaurant afterward only to be cautioned by a friend that Palmer and Nicklaus were already inside. "You don't want to go in there, Peter. There's Nicklaus and Palmer," the friend said. "Yes I do," Thomson replied. "I want them to see me."
As a matter of fact, Thomson made no attempt to be hostile when we met. Not that he was particularly friendly, either. He just had no reason to be anything, and he wasn't. I asked him if it were true he didn't like Americans—if he didn't cop a Yank. He said, "Those things spread around. You don't like one or two and they say you don't like them all." He did not elaborate. I thought to myself, "Well done." I think I could learn to appreciate the qualities of Peter Thomson. Just the kind of wet blanket golf needs.
About that time a familiar figure began flickering black and white on the television screen, advancing onto the 18th green in that purposeful field marshal's stride, the now-customary worried look on his face (golf is no picnic for Gary Player, as he is the first to admit). The crowd cheered him on. Player was about to take another trophy away from Peter Thomson. Thomson shifted in his chair.
A man on the other side of Thomson, a British writer, it so happened, said he didn't care much for having had to travel all these thousands of miles to write about Gary Player winning two tournaments in a row.
"Yes," said Thomson soothingly. "It's a bloody shame."
Thomson, Bruce Devlin and Bruce Crampton are really the only Australians making an impact on international golf today. Von Nida and Nagle still play, but are no longer factors. Von Nida is semiretired, and Nagle is getting older and has a bad back.
Devlin, the onetime master plumber, wins more often than the others, and with Bob Von Hagge is going to make a fortune building gorgeous golf courses for the growing legions of converts, there being no reason to think the end is in sight.
It is a sore spot with the Australians, however, that neither Devlin nor Cramp-ton lives there anymore. They have made their nests in the United States, where they can be closer to the egg. (Thomson has been known to remind his readers of this on occasion.) Devlin returns every year to participate in the major Australian tournaments. He is an easy-swinging, easygoing, likable man who—blond, tanned, lean—looks like he should be playing in Western movies, and because he is conscientious and has put a lot of his money back into the country he has not gone out of favor there. On the contrary, he is probably the most popular Australian golfer of the lot.
Crampton, on the other hand, makes no pretense. He hardly ever goes home. The Australians have no use for Crampton. They are delighted when they read that he is referred to in the American press as a sourpuss.
How good these three are compared with the best Australian golfers who came before them—Jim Ferrier, Ossie Pickworth, Von Nida, Nagle, etc.—is a moot question and one I have no interest in answering. I would rather conclude that if I were compelled to follow golf forever I would have it be in the days not long ago when Australian golf really had some meat on its bones, and those happened to be the days of Pick-worth, Von Nida, etc.
I mean, I doubt seriously if any of the pros around today would get caught in a bunker with another man's wife, as a prominent Aussie pro once did, and then lived to win her for himself. I doubt if any of them will be as exciting as Ossie Pickworth, who played so fast the galleries panted in his wake; who, on his first trip to England, told a startled group of Fleet Street writers that he "trained on beer," and patted his ample stomach for emphasis; who said English golf courses were like "Chinese market gardens"; and who, in a dispute with Ferrier over the sharing of gate receipts, once leaped up on a table and shouted, "I'm king here!"
And Norm Von Nida, that irrepressible little man. Playing in the British Open in a floor-length raincoat. Chopping down the top of an offending bunker with his sand wedge at St. Andrews. Calling the burn at the 1st green "the bloody ditch." Telling off officials. Silencing chattering galleries and clicking photographers with baleful stares. Throttling Henry Ransom.
If there was one golf tournament in all the world I would like to have seen in its entirety (and maybe the only one), it was the Australian Open held in Queensland in 1955. Von Nida gave me an infinite replay that night at Canberra. The event, he said, was played at the Gailes Golf Club, which had been built in part by the inmates of the adjoining Goodna Insane Asylum. The course was, in fact, laid out alongside the asylum grounds.
Final preparations for the tournament were still being made the night before the opening round: paint was still wet on the walls. The locker room towels—only a handful, and cheap—were purchased the day before, and the fuzz was still so thick on them that every time a man toweled off, a thin layer of white fluff stuck to his face and body. There were only four or five tables set aside for pros in the tiny, teeming clubhouse—Von Nida called it the Black Hole of Calcutta. The stewards were new, but they were also unsophisticated. One was asked by Bobby Locke if there were any combs available for the golfers. The steward said, yes, sir, Mr. Locke, and whipped his own out of his back pocket.
A tropical rainstorm flooded the course the second day and rivulets of water coursed through the playing area. An amateur named Harry Hall-Kenny lined up a shot on the 18th fairway and a current of water picked the ball up and began moving it down a slight incline, between Hall-Kenny's legs. Hall-Kenny kept backing up, backing up, trying to hold his stance, waiting for the ball to pause so he could hit it.
The inmates of the asylum, having a proprietary interest in the event, lined the fence of the adjacent 12th tee each day, staring at the contestants who came by. One correspondent who was there said the inmates clung to the barbed-wire fence, oblivious to the blood running down their arms, and he swore you could hear the screams and moans from inside.
When Von Nida came to the 12th he quickly hit his shot and started to leave when, as a reflex, he casually picked up a tee that had been discarded by the group ahead of him. One of the staring inmates stopped him with a low, menacing voice: "Hey, you, put that back. It belongs to the fellow up ahead." Von Nida said he dropped the tee and hurried on.
At the end of the tournament, speeches were made, mostly polite and inoffensive. Then Von Nida—"The Von," he was called—got up and delivered himself to the occasion. "I spared them nothing," he says. He told the crowd it was the worst tournament he had ever seen. "I don't think Queensland is ready for the Australian Open," he said.
The evening spent with Von Nida in Canberra was easily the most stimulating in my brush with Australian golf, and made watching the various tournaments palatable. Von Nida told of the days when he caddied barefoot for Walter Hagen, when first-prize money was no more than two pounds ten. And how—shades of Lee Trevino—he won golf bets he ventured into without a dime in his pocket, and lost his shirt many times. And how he almost lost his knee when a player hit a trick shot off it and took more than the ball.
I asked him if he had ever written a book on golf, like everybody else.
Von Nida said he hadn't done an instructional, and wouldn't because they "are garbage."
I asked why.
He said, "Look at my hands. Do they look like Jack Nicklaus' hands? Am I built like Jack Nicklaus? There's no way for me to help my game by trying to swing like Jack Nicklaus. Player doesn't swing like Nicklaus, Hogan doesn't have hands like Snead. Palmer throws out a shank elbow. He should snap-hook everything he hits. How can you imitate them?"
I asked him, finally, for I felt the need for at least a modicum of expertise, what I could not know myself: if today's Australian professional golfers, carried along in the handbasket of affluence, were as good as they used to be.
Von Nida said, "Listen. I'm 56 years old. I only play in a few tournaments a year. But if I worked at it and got my game in shape, I could beat 'em all."
In my mind's eye, I can see Travis, or Travers, gladly allowing Norman Von Nida to slam balls into her backyard. Any day.