Golf: Poetry in motion

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Letting Go

The golf professional

giving me a lesson, remarks

‘Golf’s not a game for perfectionists.’

Aggrieved, I reply,

‘I’m a professional perfectionist:

I’m an editor.’

He watches me hit some balls and says,

‘We have to throw off the shackles.’

He gets me to loosen my grip

and to let go through the swing,

not trying so hard

to do everything right.

I chortle with amazement

as the 7-iron connects,

and the ball, shot after shot,

follows its long, high arc

down the fairway… 

John Pfitzner, 2008

John, a close friend of mine, who regrettably passed away prematurely at the age of 70 in 2013, was good at most sports played with a moving ball. Alas, with the static ball he had problems, like so many talented sportsmen; problems which he never really mastered. He did, however, reach a high standard with his poetry and was acclaimed in that field, with many honours coming his way.

Like Billy Graham, he was an ordained minister but, unlike Billy, never tried to link golf with his beliefs.

Billy Graham, the American evangelist and Presidential advisor, was a very keen golfer who played off a handicap varying between eleven and fifteen, and so he must have been about my standard, as I played off fourteen for most of my career, dropping very transiently to thirteen on one occasion.

Billy Graham alluded to golf in one of his Crusades in Australia. He pondered on whether he would find golf courses in Heaven when he arrived there (presuming he would arrive there) and decided that probably there would be golf courses. I do not think he thought this through thoroughly as perfection is presumed to be a characteristic of Heaven and so what joy would the heavenly occupants have in regularly having a hole in one or an eagle on a par five. The whole raison ď ȇtre of golf is in striving to achieve the impossible and being constantly humbled by one’s inadequacies. Quietly emitting an expletive under one’s breath would not be acceptable. Ben Hogan, that great golfer and writer of a masterful text on the swing, made a famous comment, ‘Golf is a game of misses.’ It is a game of imperfection.

Billy made a theological comment on another occasion when he stated that the only place his prayers remained unanswered was on the golf course! 

Before leaving Billy, it is worth making a comment on his grip, which was initially unorthodox but was changed by Gary Player to an orthodox grip, although he retained that original grip for putting, as do many professionals!

Below: Billy Graham teeing off. Getty Images

Evangelist Billy Graham was a friend and mentor to every American president from Harry S. Truman (who dropped the Hiroshima bomb in 1945) to Donald Trump, pictured above at Billy’s 95th birthday celebration in 2013. He was also a close confidante of Richard Nixon in 1960. Billy Graham died in 2018 at the age of 99. Image:


Golf is probably the only game in which true sportsmanship and strict personal honesty remains. One is called upon to referee one’s self at all times and the rules are clearly laid down in the regularly revised rule book. To illustrate golfing rules, I relate the following story.

Over a number of years, I accompanied three friends on an annual week’s golf trip to the residential Victoria Golf Club in Melbourne’s magnificent sandbelt, an extravagance and a privilege that we four unabashed chauvinists thought we deserved. Our four wives, and an aggregate of twenty-two children, we left back in Adelaide to fend for themselves. During that week, we played all the best courses in Australia, which we graded in the following order: Kingston Heath we considered the best, followed by Royal Melbourne West course, and then the East course, Metropolitan, then Victoria Golf course itself and, finally, Commonwealth. I shall return to those trips later.

On one occasion, we were playing Royal Melbourne when one of our foursome, probably our best golfer, Des McDonnell, off a handicap of eight, happened to spray a shot into the tea trees on, I think, the seventeenth hole. He disappeared from view to find his ball and chip out, which he duly did successfully. Upon his reappearance, he announced that the ball had moved half a rotation whilst he was addressing it, so he had to call a penalty of one shot on himself. This happens sometimes through no fault of the player, whereupon the player has to adjudicate upon himself and decide whether or not he is guilty. It is one of the beauties of the game of golf. As in life we are called upon to judge ourselves: innocent or guilty? This golf rule has now been changed such that if the player does not cause the ball to move at address, no penalty is incurred. One reflects on how many of us would call a shot on ourselves, out of sight in the tea trees, if the ball moved a half rotation, as had Des’s. We always played intense, paired, four-ball competitions for money on these trips and so Des’s partner on the day may have grumbled that the penalty was not necessary. It may have been me, I do not remember.

It may not have been on that same day but certainly it was on the same course – Royal Melbourne – that we made another astounding discovery. Royal Melbourne is considered the pinnacle of Australian golf courses not just locally but internationally, as it has been chosen four times as the venue for the most prestigious world tournament, The Presidents Cup. On this occasion, another of our group strayed into one of the numerous stands of tea trees. Near to where he located his ball were empty ball packets and the occasional golf tee. We could only interpret this as having being left by previous players who replaced their strayed and lost ball by another ball and then placed it on a tee: blatant cheating.

This incident caused us all to reflect on the game of golf and the game of life. Here we were, guests at Australia’s top golf course. Dare we think that its prestigious members were prone to cheating? If at golf, why not in life itself? How did they attain their privileged position in life as members of Australia’s foremost golf club?

Golf may be the only game where cheating is not condoned. In most games, one is applauded for ‘getting away with it’. Our recent experience in cricket with a player sandpapering the ball to get reverse swing and then hiding the sandpaper inside his jocks – outright cheating. Or in Australian football taunting your opponent or deliberately blocking a player going for a mark: cheating.

A final word. A good golfer must do his homework and study the rules, which can be quite complicated. My good friend and regular anaesthetist, Bill Mann, a very intelligent person, was playing in the final of the B grade championship at Kooyonga with a large crowd following, which included his mutual friends, Des McDonnell and me. At a crucial stage of the match, he hit his second shot on the seventeenth hole into the deep drain which runs parallel to the hole and on the left of the fairway as one approaches the green, with a pond on the right side of the green. Des and I watched Bill descend into the drain and hit a superb recovery shot from a difficult lie onto the middle of the green, halve the hole and go on to win the match and the championship. As we walked towards the eighteenth tee, Des said, ‘He grounded his club in a lateral hazard and should have taken a penalty loss of hole’. Well, I had not noticed his indiscretion and nor apparently had the referee following the match. I had no idea about the rule and perhaps he, too, did not. Certainly Bill would not have been aware of that rule as he would be the first person to call a loss on himself. This rule has since been discarded. Neither Des nor I ever mentioned this incident to Bill, as he would have been devastated.

Incidently, this same seventeenth hole at Kooyonga was where Wayne Grady mis-hit his second shot into the green, landing it high up on the hill behind the green, deep in some bushes. He was left with an impossible third shot and it cost him an Australian Championship in which he was the leader at the time, with one hole to play. 

One rule we did stick to on our trips to Melbourne was 12.2: ‘…it is forbidden to remove loose impediments from a bunker’. Thus, if a branch of a tree is in a bunker impeding a stroke at the ball which lies adjacent, the ball has to be played as it lies without moving the branch. This rule has also since been removed.

Above: Fifth hole, Royal Melbourne West Course – par 3 – 160m. Five bunkers surround the green! Image:


A word about etiquette. There are quaint, unwritten rules of etiquette in golf found in no other sports. Some examples: it is bad manners to move or talk or otherwise distract an opponent when he or she is addressing the ball; the player furthest away from the hole always plays first; one’s shadow should never be in the line of a putt. Before the rules changed, one’s opponent always tended the flag and removed it after the putt was struck.

I remember at one of our weekly golf matches Des and I were joined by a very good player who shall remain nameless. He was a vet who played off one and had been a member of a Scottish University golf team in his day. He always carried his bag (beware of the golfer who carries his bag!) and was fairly highly strung and temperamental, with little sense of humour – not really suited to playing with Des and me at all. For a time he played regularly with us and probably helped our golf. However, on one occasion he was driving off the old par three fifteenth hole at Kooyonga – a hole in those days alongside the western boundary of the course. Suddenly he stopped at the top of his backswing and brusquely addressed Des, ‘Would you mind not flicking the velcro of your golf glove when I’m hitting off Des – I find it distracting!’ Well, I certainly was not aware of this happening and looked at Des and he looked at me. I know Des had no intention of distracting his opponent but it was poor etiquette, to which Des was occasionally prone. In fact, our friend took it so seriously that he never played with us again. Interestingly, he subsequently developed ulcerative colitis requiring a total colectomy, a disease which is said to be associated with stress. He referred himself to my practice but I felt it would be prudent to handball him on to another surgeon.

Des was in trouble with etiquette on a couple of other occasions I can remember. Our good companion on Melbourne golf trips, Tom Mestrov, was the victim on one of these occasions. I should hasten to add that Tom was the most benign person one could meet, certainly not one to take offence easily. On this particular occasion, Tom (all six feet four inches of him) was on the tee addressing the ball and three of us were watching. We noticed him twitching, reluctant to get into his routine back swing. Eventually he stepped away, turned to Des and said, ‘Des, would you please stop talking while I’m on the tee’. Des had, in fact, been whispering to me, which is bad etiquette, but I was surprised Tom, who was quite deaf, was able to hear. Tom was quite correct in stepping away and pointing out our indiscretion and poor etiquette.


I did have the privilege of attending one of the earlier Presidents Cups at Royal Melbourne in 1994 at the kind invitation of my son-in-law, Bruce McAvaney, who was commentating on the event. My two striking memories were that of Hale Irwin, the famous American golfer and captain that year of the USA team, missing a short putt and then nonchalantly backhanding his ball with the back of his putter and missing again from about three inches. The crowd gasped. Hale Irwin had reason to be fond of Royal Melbourne as he had shot a course record of 64 there in the Australian PGA in 1978, a record that lasted ten years. My second strong memory was being behind George H. W. Bush in the lunch queue and being sorry I did not have the courage to introduce myself! ‘Johnson from Adelaide, Sir!’

Above: Hale Irwin in 1974. Image: John D. Hanlon,

Below: Tiger measuring the path of a putt at the WBC Mexico, 2019. Image: NY Times

We found the most frightening feature of Royal Melbourne in the 1970s, when we played it regularly, was the speed of the greens and their billiard table-like surface. Downhill putts accelerated past the hole and not infrequently finished off the green on the far side. 

In anticipation of the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Champion American professional Jordan Spieth commented that he believes the greens at Royal Melbourne ‘will be the fastest greens they’ll ever see.’

‘I was talking to Tiger about that this morning,’ Spieth said. ‘These will be faster than Augusta as far as what they’ll stimp on…and I think that really plays into this U.S. team with a lot of just phenomenal putters of the golf ball.’

Woods said he’s monitored the forecast and is expecting firm and fast conditions, especially on the putting surfaces. He also compared the layout to Augusta National, which shares an architect with Royal Melbourne in Alister Mackenzie.

‘The greens will be quick,’ Woods said. ‘They can get them over 14 [on the Stimpmeter] very easily. Got to be very careful of where you hit the golf ball. The golf course is probably going to be playing on the shorter side. It’s just fast, but still, just because it’s on the shorter side doesn’t make it any easier. Balls run out, fairways are sloped, they’re banked. There’s a lot of chase on the fairways because sometimes you get it downwind, 80 yards of chase you’ve got to worry about, so those are things a lot of the guys who have played Open Championships, they understand it, they know it.

‘The only difference is you’re going to get greens running like Augusta with hard, fast fairways.’

Brentley Romine, Presidents Cup 2019,, 6 December, 2019.


When did golf enter my life?

At the age of about twelve or thirteen, my friends and I discovered some old hickory-shafted clubs which had been discarded in the shed, together with some old golf balls with gutta-percha cores. From our travels around the district, we knew there was a very basic golf course out in the country at Woodville Gardens, some four miles ride away, so we jumped on our bikes and set off. We found the course deserted and sparse, surrounded in those days by open paddocks, the fairways uncut and bare, with slag greens or scrapes for putting and numerous large boxthorns lining the fairways. The clubhouse was a mere shed; locked, of course. However, it suited our purpose and so the three of us commenced our golfing careers. We all enjoyed ourselves but found the balls cut easily and developed large ‘smiles’ in the covers with our mis-hits. We lived with the ‘smiles’ as golf balls were precious. On the positive side, our mis-hits often led to the discovery of lost balls from previous players who had abandoned them, especially in the boxthorn bushes.

We taught ourselves and no doubt developed bad habits but we certainly enjoyed the competition and it made a change from cricket and football. Where were our parents and did they approve? I do not remember. We were always self-motivated as kids and our parents took very little interest in our activities as long as we turned up at mealtimes and did not do too much damage. But damage did occur.

We had a grass tennis court and, on one occasion I was practising with an old hickory-shafted four wood, hitting the ball towards our back street, (Lesley Street, Woodville). Most of the shots crashed into the wire backstop but suddenly I creamed one and watched in amazement as it sailed clean over the backstop, over the peppercorn tree, across the road, over the front garden of the house opposite and through the front window of our neighbours.

What to do? I very slowly walked towards the neighbours, composing my speech of apology. As I reached the back gate, I was surprised to see the lady of the house come flying out of her front gate and make a beeline for her next door neighbour’s property, the Morris’s. My friend and fellow golfer, Richard, lived there, his father being the local GP. Her first thought must have been, ‘It’s those horrible Morris kids again!’ I followed her with my eyes as she disappeared up their driveway, flirting with the idea of pretending I knew nothing. But the physics of trajectory was against me, so I stood waiting in the backstreet. Soon enough, she emerged with the doctor’s wife who was somewhat put out that the first suspect was her son rather than me. Confessions were made, parents were notified, not Constable Sparrshot (on this occasion), and promises of restitution were agreed to, but our good relationship suffered a severe blow. She forthrightly stated that it was fortunate the blinds were down as the room contained many valuable antiques. She had no children. 

My father, after shifting from Melbourne with his family in 1928 to start up a branch of the Ford Motor Company in Adelaide, must have had the opportunity to join the recently opened Kooyonga Golf Club in the 1930s (Kooyonga Golf Club opened for play on June 28, 1924) and so was one of the early members. He introduced me as a 14-year-old Junior member in 1947, just after World War II. I can remember having the occasional game with school friends during holiday time but cricket, tennis and football were favoured over golf. I do remember caddying for him around that post-war period on a Sunday morning when he played in a regular foursome with his best friend Howard Daw and test cricketers Tim Wall (of ‘Bodyline’ fame in the 1932-3 series against England) and leg spinner Clarrie Grimmett (he was dropped for the Bodyline series). They were all average B graders. Another member of Kooyonga at that time was Don Bradman but his handicap was around one or two and so he did not join them. In fact, he did not socialise with them at all and one had the impression that he did not have a close relationship with Wall and Grimmett, fellow members of the test team. Bradman was a member at both Kooyonga and Royal Adelaide, played at Kooyonga on a Saturday morning and at Royal Adelaide on a Saturday afternoon. 

I had the impression that Don was a shy man or perhaps he developed some remoteness to protect himself from a pestering public. One would pass him in the change rooms or showers and be greeted with a bare nod of acknowledgement but never any more. He continued to play at Kooyonga well into his eighties when his handicap stretched out to B grade. He regularly had rounds well below his age which is considered a milestone for golfers. 

On one occasion, in his latter years, the Don played against Michael McDonnell, the son of my best friend Des, in a B grade championship match at Kooyonga. Michael was in his teens at the time and destined to become a pro-golfer on the circuit although with only limited success. My friend Des caddied for Michael who consistently outdrove the Don, which was to be expected, as Don was in his eighties, but around the green he made mincemeat of Michael and won the match. Don had no caddy and joined Michael and Des for a beer in the clubhouse after. From all reports they had a very convivial round. 

At the age of 13, in 1946, I had the very good fortune to be at the Adelaide Oval to witness the Don’s last test match. Everyone there was full of expectation and, at ten to six in the evening, if I remember correctly, Don strode to the wicket to the accompaniment of a deafening and prolonged applause. He took guard to England’s fast-medium opening bowler Alec Bedser, who trundled in and, horror of horrors, took the top of Bradman’s off stump with his first ball! The Don said later that it was the finest ball he ever received. Be that as it may, the ball was pitched on a perfect length, dipped in and then moved to the off to take the top off the off stump.

The crowd was hushed as the Don walked slowly back to the members’ stand. Nobody could believe what had happened. We would have liked him to have emulated W. G. Grace and refused to walk. ‘These good people have come here to see me bat, not to see you bowl young man!’ Everyone that day was full of expectation that the ball would flow from the bat with monotonous regularity as it did on most occasions when the Don batted. We all felt cheated – we would never have the opportunity to see him bat again!

Above: Clarrie Grimmett – always bowled in a cap. Image: PA Photos

Below: Tim Wall. Image source unknown

Alec Bedser and his twin brother, Eric, became very close friends with Don and his wife, Jessie, who had one son, John (who, incidentally, changed his name to Bradson), and a daughter. For years after, they would visit Adelaide for every England/Australia test match, have dinner with the Bradmans and play a round of golf at Kooyonga with Don.

On one occasion, years later, I happened to be practising in the paddock at Kooyonga and noticed that Alec and Eric were doing the same thing. I could not tell them apart, so approached the closest of the twins to tell them of my experience so many years ago.

‘No, I’m Eric, it’s Alec you want to talk to, he’s over there.’

I walked over to Alec and told him how he had ruined my day at the test match. He jovially commiserated and then told me the sequel. Don’s wife Jessie and young son John happened to be walking behind the grandstand when the Don was bowled, and heard the crowd.

‘Oh,’ said John, ‘Dad must have hit a four’. What they were doing walking behind the grandstand, Alec (then Sir Alec) did not explain. Nevertheless, it was nice to have an old wound healed and we had a pleasant chat, especially as my wife and I had lived for a year in Surrey, the county team for which both twins played. Alec and Eric had had their cricketing careers interrupted by the war and were among those lifted off the beaches of Dunkirk in 1939. 

Wally Hammond captained that side in 1946 but he was well past his prime and spent the tour fielding in slips and walking slowly from one end to the other at the end of each over. England had been badly mauled during the war, losing some of their best cricketers, including the slow, left-arm spinner Hedley Verity from Yorkshire, who played for England right through the 1930s, including Jardine’s Bodyline team. He was wounded in Sicily in 1943 and died in a German POW camp in Italy. 

Above: Alec Bedser takes the Don’s wicket on another occasion. Image: PA Photos

Below: Don Bradman playing golf in England in the 1930s. Note his balance and full follow through. He was a scratch golfer for most of his life and often had a below par round. Image: JA Hampton, Getty Images

The game I do remember as though it were yesterday was the state game of England v South Australia in 1946. It started on a Friday and my friend Murray and I, both aged thirteen, were there behind the pickets well before starting time. It was the first international game after the war and the first we had ever seen. We were very excited. Hutton and Washbrook opened the innings for England and, come six o’clock, they were still together, each registering over 100 runs – England none for two hundred and something. We were both terribly disappointed and perhaps a little bored. Nevertheless, we turned up again on the Saturday when the start of play was delayed because of rain. When the game did restart we were overjoyed when they were both dismissed in quick succession. I remember Denis Compton then came in but the rest of the game has disappeared from my memory – it was 74 years ago. Denis Compton also played FA for Arsenal, with whom he won the FA Cup in 1950. 


When I was a junior member immediately after WWII in the 1940s, my father purchased a second hand set of Bruce Devlin clubs and arranged for his long-time friend and professional at the club, Jim Mills, to give me some lessons. Jim had been appointed pro at Kooyonga in 1927 and continued in that role for 49 years. I well remember his lessons: ‘Golf is a left-handed game for those who are right-handed, son. You push back with your left hand at the beginning of the swing and pull down at the top of the swing with your left hand!’ I am not sure about that advice, as a strong right hand is certainly important at the point of contact. Nevertheless, suppression of the right hand prevents those ugly problems of hooks and slices. Jim also used to make his own putters in the pro shop and I did find one in my father’s shed years later – a half moon shape moulded from solid lead, with ‘Jim Mills’ stamped on the top of the head. I donated it back to club a few years ago.

Incidently, I followed Bruce Devlin, an Australian having some success on the American circuit, around Kooyonga when he happened to be playing in a tournament in about 1970. I remember only one shot of his on that round. His second shot on the twelfth hole finished about four metres off the green. He looked up on the chip, hit it fat, and did not reach the green! Very encouraging for us duffers!

In that same era, I was a spectator at the play-off of the Australian Open held at Kooyonga in October, 1972. David Graham was tied with Peter Thomson at the end of 72 holes and, in those days, it meant there had to be a play-off over eighteen holes the following day, a Monday. We all gathered around the first tee as the two combatants played their first shots. Peter Thomson struck his ball sweetly down the centre avoiding the bunkers on the right. David Graham stepped up – swish – a wild, uncontrolled hook which landed not in the rough on the left, but almost in the centre of the practice fairway – out of bounds! Back to have his third shot off the tee!

The play-off was really decided on the first hole. Peter Thomson had a birdie four and Graham a double-bogey seven. Thomson won by six strokes. 

Around that same time, I remember attending another Australian Open at Kooyonga and standing on the seventeenth tee watching the players drive. At that time, in the 1970s, the eighteenth green encroached towards the seventeenth fairway and the enormous crowd around the eighteenth in fact spilled onto the seventeenth fairway. My recollection is that Ossie Pickworth was driving off the seventeeth tee. He struck his ball with a low trajectory, trying to get it over the hill and on the downslope towards the green. Unfortunately, it was of such low trajectory that it struck a spectator right on the back of the head. As I remember, the ball then went vertically for some 100m before returning to earth close by. Surprisingly, the spectator seemed little the worse for the experience. This episode resulted in a redesign of this part of the golf course such that it could not happen again. 

Above: scoreboard at the end of the 1972 Open at Kooyonga. Image: Leon Old Golf Collection

Golfing equipment has made huge strides forward over the decades such that most golf courses, probably all, struggle to keep up. Different balls, more scientific shafts and heads have all contributed to add tens of metres to the distance that even average players can attain. Par fives have shrunk to become easy par fours and so the challenge has been for golf committees to lengthen holes and make them more difficult. In the early days, the standard scratch score at Kooyonga was 76 but this was gradually reduced to 72, where it has remained.

An embarrassing moment occurred at Kooyonga in the 1965 Australian Open when Gary Player breezed around the course with two 62s and Jack Nicklaus had a 63. Golf architects were quickly brought in – the first and ninth holes were changed and electric power lines put underground. Bunkers were added and the 72 standard scratch mark was retained.

Above: gallery watching Gary Player at the Australian Open, Kooyonga, 1965. Image: Kooyonga Golf Club


In the early 1950s, I enjoyed only the occasional game of golf and then spent six years overseas, playing no golf, returning in 1966 with my wife and two lovely daughters. 

I rejoined Kooyonga as a provisional member in 1971 and began playing again regularly. Provisionals at Kooyonga in the 1970s were only allowed on the course after 1.30pm on a Saturday. And so I regularly put my name down on the time sheet with a fellow group of provisionals. Usually on the provisional sheet were the scattered names of prominent Simpson Cup players who put their names down at random and used the opportunity to get in some practice by playing a few holes before the Simpson Cup matches on the Sunday morning. 

And so I often found myself playing alongside such celebrities as Chris Bonython, Neil Crafter (state captain) and John Muller (Australian Amateur champion, having defeated Graham Marsh in the final. Graham Marsh later featured prominently on the American circuit and was brother of Rod, the Australian wicketkeeper).

Initially, I found this intimidating but the experience was invaluable and they were always incredibly patient and polite. I well remember playing with Chris Bonython, Australian Amateur champion and Australian Eisenhower Cup representative, when he landed his drive in the bunker on the left of the old ninth hole which was a par five, dogleg left. 

In those days, the elevated green was hidden from the bunker by trees on the left. He pondered and then took out his four wood and, with perfect contact in the sand, struck the ball, which flew, with a slight draw to get around the trees, landing sweetly in the centre of the green for a birdie, or was it an eagle. I can’t remember if he sank the putt. The perfection of the shot has remained in my memory until this day – probably the sweetest shot I ever witnessed. 

Above: Chris Bonython. Image source unknown

In the early 1970s, my best friend at the time, Des MacDonnell, suggested, nay, issued an edict, that he and I would take every Thursday afternoon off from work in order to play golf. I was a little reluctant to make such a commitment away from my practice but he was insistent and so we both committed ourselves. We continued doing this for probably 30 years and it was very beneficial for both of us. Those were the days of the ‘sprig’ bar at Kooyonga, under the watchful eye of ‘Yank’ Klicke, and it remained a very intimate corner for a quiet beer and chat after a round. 

Above: the third hole at Kooyonga – 190m par three – played on this occasion with a five iron (only middling contact with the club head – lowish trajectory). The shot landed short of the green between the three bunkers in the foreground and the three bunkers on the far left of the image, bounced onto the green, skidded across it, struck the pin and disappeared from sight. ‘I believe it’s dropped in the hole!’ said Bill.

Below: evidence of a memorable occasion, never repeated


Undoubtedly, our happiest times on the golf course were those spent at the residential Victoria Golf Club in Melbourne. 

First, a couple of details regarding the famous sandbelt below the southern outskirts of Melbourne. It is a rich vein of sandy loam subsoil upon which are situated eight of the best golf courses in Australia. Those eight courses, built on former farmland in what is now the midst of Melbourne suburbia, are: Commonwealth Golf Club, Huntingdale Golf Club, Kingston Heath Golf Club, The Metropolitan Golf Club, Peninsula-Kingswood Golf Club, The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Victoria Golf Club and Yarra Yarra Golf Club.

Des McDonnell, floated the idea in the early 1970s that he and I should consider getting together a team of four keen golfers to tackle the challenges of the Sandbelt in Melbourne. And so it transpired that our initial group of four set off with high expectations of a week of solid golf and camaraderie. Our group consisted of Des, Bill Mann, me and, over the years, the fourth position floated between Tom Mestrov, Lennie Valente and Frank Altmann. We had planned to stay at the residential Victoria Golf Club but we found that every week at Victoria was fully booked out, year on year, by regular visitors, and so for the first year or two we had to book into a nearby motel. Eventually, a booking became available at Victoria and we slotted into a regular week each year. This happened to be Melbourne Cup week, which suited us well as most Melbourne citizens were involved in Cup week and the courses were relatively deserted. None of us had any interest in the horses.

Over the years, we grew to love Victoria Clubhouse and course and our respect for the layout of the course itself increased the more we played it.

Victoria Golf Club was not always at Park Street, Cheltenham. It had originally been situated at Fisherman’s Bend, on the lower reaches of the Yarra River, opening there in 1903 on 200 acres of leased land at Port Melbourne. The Victorian Golf Association had been founded two years earlier. Interestingly, Royal Melbourne Golf Club had been offered the lease of the same land but turned it down.

The club at Fisherman’s Bend (pictured above) flourished but as the storm clouds of World War I gathered in 1914, the State Lands Tax office, without prior warning, notified the club that their rental had been increased from £60 to £90 – backdated four years! Although the club paid up, this action by the state was the catalyst for the move to the sandbelt at Cheltenham, although it was delayed by the 1914-18 war and did not eventuate until 1922. The prospect of a three-year wait for the course to be built and become playable was greeted with some dismay by the existing members.

The club was indeed fortunate that the most famous course designer in the world, Dr Alister Mackenzie, was coming to Melbourne at the request of Royal Melbourne, and so they were able to enlist his services to help in their design plans.

The clubhouse was designed and built and, eventually, opened (below) on May 14, 1927.

So it came to pass that, for a decade or so in the 1970s, 50 years ago, our little group of enthusiasts enjoyed the benefits and foresight of the founders of the Victoria Golf Club.

We would say farewell to our families at Adelaide airport – our families who openly labelled us a foursome of eccentrics – but that worried us not the least. We designated one of our four to be secretary for the week and he was responsible for choosing and booking the various sandbelt courses we would be playing each day. He was also responsible for paying for the group on our arrival at each course and paying all out-of- pocket expenses (lunches, beers etc.), and making calls on each of us when his funds ran out. Initially, I was elected to this post but when I managed to consistently coincide our various course visits with ‘Ladies Day’, I was unceremoniously dismissed and replaced by Bill Mann, who performed much more efficiently, even to the extent of purchasing a special purse labelled ‘golf expenses’. Our custom was to catch an early flight from Adelaide on the Sunday morning, hire a car at Melbourne airport and proceed with all haste to Cheltenham. I recall that two of our number were of the Catholic faith and, in our early years, they felt obliged to attend Mass en-route to Cheltenham. We all kept our eyes open for a Catholic Church and, upon sighting one, would search for a park and our two Catholic devotees would join the ingoing throng. I remember on one occasion we went through this routine and our two brethren hurried in. When they emerged an hour or so later, we found they were somewhat agitated.

‘What’s up Des?’ we asked.

‘It wasn’t a Catholic Church, it was Anglican. We didn’t discover until we found ourselves in the front seats and couldn’t get out because of crowd coming in, so we had to stay for the whole service!’

‘Good golf time wasted,’ Bill and I muttered.

I do recall Des trying to persuade me to become Catholic on one occasion. ‘It’s really good now,’ he proclaimed, ‘Now that they have introduced Saturday evening Mass. I slip in on the way home from golf after a beer and the homily gives me time to go through my round, hole by hole, and work out where I could have done better. Come Sunday morning and the whole day is free – Mass is out of the way – sleep in – do what you like with a clear conscience!’ 

On arrival at Victoria, we would sweep up that beautiful drive alongside the first fairway and enter the office as though we owned the place. The secretary at the time was Jack Merrick, who had been at the helm of the club’s affairs for 29 years when he died in 1981, around the time we stopped going but hopefully not connected. He was a gruff and rude man and ran the club as though he owned it. I know on one occasion I had reason to cross him in the course of confirming our booking by phone from Adelaide. I cannot recall the details and, on arrival in the office I stayed at the back of our group. Jack, however, was not to be thwarted and aggressively asked, ‘Where’s the person I spoke to on the phone’. I came forward and owned up but, not wishing to embarrass my colleagues, I did not reply to his tirade of abuse.

To give him credit, Jack he ran the course to perfection and we would frequently come across him as he was driven from hole to hole checking on the greens.

Above: Jack Merrick (right) with Gary Player, year and source unknown

Brian Simpson was the club pro over the years we were in residence at Victoria. He was always pleasant and made us feel very much at home. Of course, our visits to his shop to replace lost balls and worn-out gloves helped his business. With the appointment of Simpson in 1973, came the bonus of Brian’s Uncle Harry. ‘Uncle Harry’ (or ‘Unc’, as we called him) set up office in the first tee rotunda every day – rain, hail or shine. He supervised the smooth flow of players onto the course and was even a calming influence on we four, who were very competitive although our stakes were low. We were always a bit ‘toey’ as we waited to send our balls down that unique first hole, a short par four to an elevated green easily reachable with a four wood but very hard to hold.  Although we regularly scored a par four, rarely did we achieve a birdie. 

Above: Looking back from the first green to the first tee. ‘Uncs’ rotunda is barely perceptable in the distance. The clubhouse is on the far left. Image:

After registering our arrival at the club at about 11.00am on Sunday it was our custom to check into our rooms on the first floor. In those days, they could not be described as palatial, having seen little or no refurbishment since the building of the club in the 1920s. Small windows opened on to the roof. Naturally, there were no ensuite bathrooms but an austere common shower area at the end of the corridor. At some stage, a reluctant acceptance of the fairer sex had been made and a female shower area added, necessitating the wearing of dressing gowns in the corridor. On a revisit to Victoria in 2017, we found some attempt at modernisation had been made, with tiny ensuite shower cubicles crammed into each room, making them even more poky than they had been originally.

However, the décor was not important to we four and we unpacked with great expectations. At the top of the stairs leading to the accommodation was a drying room, for which we were most grateful as we played through all conditions, encountering at least one drenching day during each stay. Next door to the drying room was a small tea room which we regularly used at the end of our day’s competition.

Our custom was to loosen up on the practice fairway before Sunday lunch and then play 18 holes in the afternoon. Consistently over the years we found that initial round was riddled with shanks, hooks and slices which we attributed to ‘jet lag’.

Turning to the dining room, we found the cuisine to be consistently ‘out of this world’. The dining room and housekeeping was under the competent care of Mrs Edna Kenneally, who started in the dining room in 1953 and retired in 1982. In our first year at Victoria, I remember we were little piggies. We had paid for full board and we intended to get our money’s worth. We started with a three-course breakfast, the highlight being eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, several rounds of toast and marmalade, tea or coffee. We would then play 18 holes at Victoria or another designated course in the sandbelt. If we were at Victoria we would come in for lunch – again, three courses with the odd beer or two. Then, after another eighteen holes, we would have a beer or two before dinner. And dinner was really something – always three courses of delicious food with different main courses each day, accompanied by wine and a liqueur or port. We would then adjourn to the billiard table downstairs for a couple of hours before bed.

Yes, you guessed it. Our program was unsustainable. We could not play 36 holes a day and eat that amount of food. We decided that lunch had to be a snack, no more than a sandwich and one beer, and twenty minutes of rest on the cot before tackling the afternoon 18 holes.

Mrs Edna Kenneally (above) was a legend at Victoria, especially if you had the good fortune to be a house guest. Her home-made sandwiches, pies and sponge cakes were legendary. She was only nineteen when she started at Victoria and spent her whole life working for the club. She retired in 1982 and died in 1987 after a long illness.

What days of bliss they were. Yes, we gorged ourselves, not only in the dining room but on the courses – like small boys unrestrained at a birthday party. I often roomed with my very good friend Frank Altmann. At that stage he was running marathons and so, as he brought me a cup of tea as I was waking at 7.30am, he would tell me he had risen at 5.30 and been for a ten kilometre run around the Victoria Golf course. Sometimes, I roomed with my regular anaesthetist, Bill Mann, who would also sneak out early and play nine holes by himself before breakfast. Every day we would play 36 holes without fail and so, over the five week-days, we would play 180 holes of golf. Bill would probably reach 200 holes. Of course we did not waste the evenings and after our sumptuous evening meal we would adjourn downstairs to the billiard table for more intense competition. Nevertheless the week did take its toll and we would arrive back in Adelaide very tired.

To prevent inequality, if someone were having a bad week with their swing we made the rule that the two winners on the day would lose a shot from their designated handicaps and the losers would gain a shot. It proved to be a good innovation.

An interesting episode comes to mind (and there were many such incidents each day). 

I can picture the particular hole in my mind but cannot remember which course it was on. Des McDonnell, off a handicap of eight in those days, suddenly had a huge shank with his second shot and the ball went off at 45 degrees into the rough. He chipped out but then repeated the shot with another shank shortly after. 

This brought up the question of shanks. It is an incurable disease and one should never even mention the word. The cause of the disease is a little uncertain but probably swinging outside in and striking the ball with the hosel of the club, causing it to spray off to the right. Fortunately, Des quickly corrected his fault and it did not happen again but the disease can be fatal and quickly strip a player of their confidence. That famous USA golfer, Byron Nelson, at one stage of his career had an attack of the shanks. His cure – practice with the right hand brushing the right trouser leg on the downward part of the swing. This will force the swing to be inside out, not outside in.

Des was the best golfer by far in our group. His putting was legendary and he would regularly hole a pressure putt from the edge of the green or a two metre putt to win or halve a crucial hole in our match play competitions. Interestingly, his son Michael became a professional golfer on the Australian circuit. He regularly drove the ball over 300m and was accurate with his shots to the green but was an ordinary putter. If he had had his father’s ability on the green he would have been a champion.

Above: our intrepid group at Victoria after winning the ‘NAGA’ trophy – a trophy we made from an old wooden club head we found under a tree at Kingston Heath. Our team on this occasion comprised Bill Mann (left front) and Des McDonnell (right) with me and Frank Altmann (right back) standing behind. Sadly, I am the only one surviving in 2020.


Famous players grace Victoria’s honour boards. Probably the most famous son is Peter Thomson, who joined Victoria Golf Club in 1946 at the age of sixteen. By 1971, he had won the British Open five times and been runner-up three times, a record unlikely to ever be matched. He won the British Open three years in succession – 1954 to 1956. Admittedly, in those days, the British Open was not the prestigious event it is today as one of the world’s four major events and attracting a huge American contingent. Nevertheless, his achievement remains outstanding.

Above: Peter Thomson driving off the tee. Note particularly that he does not overswing and thrash the ball; rather, it is a caressing, gentle pass at the ball, relying on rhythm and timing. A Tiger Wood drive off the tee would finish with Tiger’s right upper arm pressing against his chin.

Thomson tells an interesting story about that first victory in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 1954: 

On the day before the qualifying I decided on a bold measure. I discarded the set of clubs I had been playing with for six months and took a new set straight out of the rack and I decided that on no account would I be tempted to use the driver – I would drive with a three-wood throughout.

Royal Birkdale was running fast and bone dry that summer and it was difficult indeed to keep the ball in play on the narrow fairways.

It seemed to me that I could get enough length from the tee with a three-wood without using the driver, so with this brand new set of clubs, and no driver, I set about winning the British Open. 

Don Lawrence, Victoria Golf Club 1903-1988.

How many golfers would go into a British Open with a new set of clubs? Very few I would suggest!

On the eighteenth hole of the last round when he won in 1954 at the age of twenty-four, Thomson missed his birdie putt and tapped the ball in with the back of his putter, as had Hale Irwin at Royal Melbourne (as earlier described). Thomson’s tap-in was, however, successful – but he was immediately approached and admonished by that grand old man of British professional golf, George Duncan, who told him, ‘If ever I see you do that again I will hit you with that putter!’ 

No, it is not our Victoria Club trophy for the week but the perpetual trophy for the British Open. Picture taken during the trophy’s tour around in the world in about 2015. Held on five occasions by Peter Thomson – but on this occasion by Tom Mestrov, one of our Victoria Club occasional invitees, and the author.

Tom, born in Croatia and, incidentally, a world traveller of golf courses, boasts of having played the best courses on every continent, including in China. A formidable sportsman at six feet four inches tall, he played off a handicap of eight.

Two other golfers from Victoria Golf Club are worthy of mention.

The first would be Doug Bachli (pictured below). The climax of his career was winning the British Amateur Championship at Muirfield Golf Club in 1954, the first Australian ever to win that crown. His victory occurred just a few weeks before his clubmate at Victoria Golf Club, Peter Thomson, won his first British Open at Royal Birkdale. A never to be repeated achievement for one golf club.

The second golfer from Victoria Golf Club worthy of mention is Harry Williams. Born in 1915, his life was one of triumph and tragedy – a golfer blessed with incredible talents on the golf course but unable to cope with the realities of life away from golf. At the age of 16, he beat George Thompson of NSW three up with two holes to play in the final of the Australian Amateur Championship of 1931.

In the 1936 Australian Open held at the Metropolitan Golf Course in Melbourne, Harry Williams finished second to that famous American golfer Gene Sarazen, with a score of 286 (Sarazen finishing with 282). Williams was just twenty one years of age. Some famous names finished well behind him, including his arch rival Jim Ferrier on 298. Jim Ferrier spent a successful golfing career on the American circuit, probably the first Australian to do so. He said of Williams, ‘If that boy simply had to play golf he would be a wonder. If his bread and butter depended on it you would not see the others for dust.’

Gene Sarazen described Williams as the best left-hander he had ever seen and possibly the greatest who ever played but Sarazen’s pleas and offers to take him onto the American circuit fell on deaf ears and Williams remained in Australia as an amateur.

William’s mother wielded enormous influence over her son and was the dominant factor in his life. His mother was probably the reason he never married and never went to America. William’s families on both sides were very wealthy and he never needed to work or learn a trade or profession. Golf was his life and his passion.

Williams’s capacity to manage his finances and look after his widowed mother was minimal and the family drifted into poverty. This was accelerated by his gambling on the racetrack and developing a liking for alcohol. Some attempts were made to get him back on track by his friends and supporters but to no avail.

On the night of December 14, 1961, police were called to the little East Kew flat occupied by Williams and his mother where they found them both dead on the kitchen floor. Nearby lay the lifeless body of the family pet, a small Australian terrier. The gas jets on the stove were turned full on, and strips of felt had been pushed into cracks and under the doors. There was no money in the flat and only a lettuce leaf and a small amount of butter was in the refrigerator. A brief note in Mrs May’s handwriting left no doubt that their financial position had led to the tragic suicide pact between mother and son.

Williams was 46 years of age, the same age as American Jack Nicklaus when he won the US Masters in 1986… 

When he and Jim Ferrier were catapulted onto the scene in 1931 as mere boys of 16 years of age, Williams proved the master, beating Ferrier the first seven times they met. 

Don Lawrence, Victoria Golf Club: 1903-1988

Peter Thomson tells an interesting story about that first victory in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 1954: 

On the day before the qualifying I decided on a bold measure. I discarded the set of clubs I had been playing with for six months and took a new set straight out of the rack and I decided that on no account would I be tempted to use the driver – I would drive with a three-wood throughout.

Royal Birkdale was running fast and bone dry that summer and it was difficult indeed to keep the ball in play on the narrow fairways.

It seemed to me that I could get enough length from the tee with a three-wood without using the driver, so with this brand new set of clubs, and no driver, I set about winning the British Open. 

Don Lawrence, Victoria Golf Club 1903-1988.

Above: Harry Williams aged 13. Note strong, left-hand grip which is a little unorthodox and may result in uncontrolled hooking. Rotating the ‘V’ between his thumb and index finger to his right would correct this but if, like Bradman, he had a touch of genius, a coach would leave it be.

Below: Presented to Harry by Gene Sarazen and inscribed, ‘To Harry Williams, the best left-handed golfer in the world. Good luck. Gene Sarazen.’

Images: Victoria Golf Club

Returning to Doug Bachli…One of the Victoria Club’s favourite sons, he was selected in Australia’s four-man Eisenhower Cup team to compete against 28 other nations at the old course of St Andrews in 1958. The other team members were Bob Stevens as captain and Peter Toogood – both from South Australia – and Bruce Devlin, mentioned earlier in this essay. On the final day, Australia was tied with the USA and, in the playoff, Australia was successful, scoring 224 points to the USA’s 222.

Bob Stevens was a member at Glenelg Golf Club and was the possessor of a smooth, faultless golf swing which enabled him to win the Amateur Championship of Australia in 1952 at Lake Karrinyup in Western Australia. Like Peter Thomson, he did not overswing and was deadly accurate.

I have very fond memories of Bob Stevens as, in 1954, he was the local manager of Cottee’s drinks factory on the North East Road at Payneham. Being an impecunious fourth year medical student I answered an advertisement for a job in the office at Cottee’s and, after being interviewed by Bob, I was employed. 

The job involved receiving the cash from the truck drivers as they returned from delivering full drink crates and paying for the receipt of empty bottles. They plonked the cash on the table and it was my job to balance the books to the last penny, as it was in those days. I worked with a pleasant, middle-aged central European woman but the balancing was tedious and time-consuming and took at least one hour for each returning driver.

After I had been in the job for about two weeks, I came up with a bright idea to save time. I suggested to Bob that we do the calculations approximately, rather than down to the last penny. Being a medical student, Bob mistakenly gave me credit for a modicum of intelligence and so my system was introduced. After a couple of days with my system and the resulting chaos it caused in the office, Bob came back and suggested, ever so politely, that we return to the pre-existing system. With a red face, I was forced to agree with him. Bob sadly died at the age of 80 in 2008.


One learns much about one’s friends (and opponents) on the golf course. One forms close bonds with them during a week’s golf, with many moments to treasure and many laughs. Those bonds last a lifetime. 

To our long-suffering wives and neglected children who granted us this privilege, we owe a great debt. We did traditionally pay them token homage by rushing down to the Chadstone shopping centre on the Nepean Highway on our final day and grabbing some small trinkets and toys!

Above: three friends playing off the new ‘tiger’ tee of the tenth hole at Kooyonga. From left: me, Des McDonnell and Bill Mann (driving)


Golf holes to replay when one can’t sleep at night?

Firstly, Royal Melbourne, where we used to play the East course in the morning and the magnificent West course in the afternoon. Pictured below is the West course par three fifth hole at 161m. Beautiful but daunting for B graders.

Victoria Golf Club’s fifteenth hole – 289m short par four – is another (image below). We initially thought this to be an easy par four but rarely did we score par and often very much more! The finishing three holes were a long par four and two picturesque par fives, the last downhill to an expansive green in front of the clubhouse. 

Also on this list is Kingston Heath’s fifteenth hole (below): par three followed by three long- finishing par four holes – the last framing the beautiful clubhouse where we looked forward to Kingston heath’s ‘ham on the bone’ sandwiches and a beer!

Then comes Metropolitan’s second hole (below) – a picturesque, deceptive par three of 143m in a park-like setting surrounded by tall gums.

Rounding out those happy memories is the Commonwealth clubhouse (below). The fine 18th finishing hole, dogleg left, is glimpsed on the right of the picture. 

On our first visit to Commonwealth Golf Club we caught up with an elderly couple of members and they joined us on the 18th tee so we finished as a six ball! Walking back to the clubhouse they instructed us in a tradition. All six balls were putted up the hill to the clubhouse and into a 19th hole. The upstairs members lounge not only has a magnificent view of the course but the décor includes priceless paintings by Australia’s foremost colonial artists. 


At the age of 87, I believe my golf playing days are over. My last game was two years ago at Kooyonga Golf Club, where I remain a member, having started there at the age of 14 as a Junior Member in 1947 – shortly after the end of World War II – some 74 years.

Dare I indulge myself with the recollection of that last round? My partner or opponent on that day was one of my sons-in-law, Chris Dittmar, a left-hander and monumental driver of the ball off the tee – approaching 300m – but never too sure on which fairway the ball was destined to finish! He was happy to join me in a buggy as the osteoarthritis in both his knees from a lifetime of professional squash in Europe from the age of 15 made golf course walking painful. From memory, he played off 12 that day and I played off 16. But a remaining clear recollection of that occasion was that I was one up after the nine holes which we had agreed to play and so I offered him a chance to square the match by playing down the tenth hole, the hardest hole on the course – a par four usually into the prevailing south-westerly breeze.

Being the hardest hole on the course, I had an extra stroke on Chris and the task of winning the hole proved too much for him – two up!!

Well that was probably a happy note on which to finish my golf career with its lifetime of happy memories but one always harbours the thought that there may be – just may be – one more round left in the locker? 

Second shot on the second hardest hole at Kooyonga – the eighth hole

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