The decision by the Australian Golf Union to stage the 1955 Australian Open Golf Championship in Brisbane represented a milestone for the game in Queensland,
Golfers in the state capital were delighted. Since the staging of the inaugural Open at the Australian Golf Club in Sydney in 1904, only one Club in this state, the Royal Queensland Golf Club in 1947, had hosted Australia’s premier golf tournament.
You can imagine the excitement when we heard that Gailes Golf Club in Brisbane’s west, with its championship course had been awarded the Open. At my club, Nudgee Golf Club we had further reason to celebrate on hearing that two of the world’s finest golf professionals were coming to play an exhibition at our Club prior to competing at Gailes the following week. From its original 9 holes in 1930, Nudgee had grown to a full 18 hole course by 1950. Following the completion of a new two level Clubhouse in 1954, it was viewed as a very progressive Club.
The Nudgee club champion that year was Dudley Von Nida. A brother of the famous Australian golf professional Norman Von Nida, Dudley was a dapper personality who radiated self confidence both on and off the golf course. Blessed with an elegant golf swing and great putting skills, he reveled in the challenge of match play. Dudley was the amateur representative invited to play in the exhibition with the Professionals.
The final member of the foursome was Nudgee’s highly regarded Club Professional, Jack Downs (father of our current Club PGA Professional, John Downs). A real gentleman, Jack possessed a beautiful golf swing, though short putting occasionally let him down.
Offering a modern Clubhouse and a testing 18 hole course, Nudgee was set to provide a quality venue for the event. The visiting international players were to be Norman Von Nida; The Von, from Australia and Bobby Locke from South Africa. These were household names in world golf. The “Von’s” involvement in golf began as a caddy at Royal Queensland Golf Club. In 1931 at the age of 17 he became a member of Nudgee at the invitation of the Club’s Vice Captain, the well known architect, Mr Tom Mullins. Young Von Nida went on to win the Club Championship that year, defeating his friend and sponsor Tom Mullins in the final. After winning the Queensland Amateur Championship the following year, the “Von” turned Professional and the rest as they say is history.
The thought of the “Von” returning to play at Nudgee made the prospect of attending the exhibition game even more special for Club Members and Associates. As a fifteen year old, I was also keen to see these great players for the first time. When Jack Downs asked me if I would like to caddy for the great Bobby Locke – I was beside myself. The exhibition was the brainchild of Slazenger’s entrepreneurial Queensland Manager Hal Whillans. A little more than a decade earlier, this tall, dark haired, dashing gentleman had distinguished himself as an Australian fighter pilot during the second world war.
When the big day finally arrived Nudgee’s fairways were heavy. Rain over preceding days had ensured the course would play much longer than usual. To everyone’s relief the weather cleared and blue sky arrived with the dawn right on cue. It became real for me when the visiting VIP’s limousine with Hal Whillans at the wheel, cruised into the Club grounds and parked adjacent to the first tee. In my youthful mind, I imagined what it must feel like to welcome movie stars. The vehicle carrying the VIP’s drew excited comments from some club members. It was a brand new 1955 Ford Customline sedan. Smartly painted in peach and cream, its colours were separated by stylised chrome strips along each side. In Australia during the early days post world war two, it was a rare sight as such transport was regarded as the epitome of luxury and elegance. The showy arrival was designed to impress and judging by the crowd’s reaction — it certainly did!
After words of welcome from Club President Eric Leach, the “Von” and Bobby Locke elected to hit practice balls before joining Club officials in a light luncheon prior to the start of play. In the meantime Slazenger sales representative John Delahunt, a Nudgee member, began unloading boxes of new Slazenger B-51 golf balls which he then emptied into practice bags. One each for the “Von” and Bobby Locke. Spectators couldn’t believe their eyes at this seeming extravagance. In those days few golfers could afford to buy new golf balls for regular play. The price of a Slazenger B-51 ball was 5 shillings and 6 pence, which roughly equates to AUD $10.00 for a top of the range ball in today’s money. This display of only the finest equipment for the best players, even when practicing, got everyone chattering and it served to heighten interest in what was to follow.
Locke and Von Nida had been fierce golfing rivals for years. When the œVon gathered his gear for the pre-match practice session he moved to a spot well away from where Locke had elected to hit his shots. Both men were immaculately attired. The clear contrast in their choice of golfing apparel was further highlighted by the obvious difference in their temperament and personality. The œVon, always a fashion plate, was attired in a long sleeved polo neck shirt complimented by tailored cream slacks and smart tan golf shoes. With a beret angled over his right ear, his outfit was a sporting fashion statement. The beret was ideal for playing in windy and cool conditions and it had also become his personal signature. It made him instantly recognizable and the “Von” liked to stand out from the crowd. The contrast between Bobby Locke and the “Von” was also accentuated by the marked difference in their height and build. Locke was tall and had a slightly corpulent appearance, much like your atypical private school headmaster. The “Von” cut an entirely different figure. Short in stature, extremely fit and a fine physical specimen, he could easily have been taken for a physical education coach.
Locke also preferred a particular style of dress to express his individual and unique personality. Around the world, he too was identifiable by his choice of golfing apparel. Draped over his large frame, he preferred long sleeved shirts with a tie tucked midway down his shirt front. His golf trousers were a pair of Plus Fours which folded neatly below the knees into long socks. This old fashioned style of scottish dress was topped off with a soft woollen cap. When it came to golf attire, Bobby Locke was not a modern man. He was a traditionalist! He called his hickory shafted putter œ Calamity Jane. I have no idea why! There was nothing calamitous about his putting skills. Win lose or draw, neither of these two giant sporting personalities would ever be lost in a crowd. Apart from being champions, it was perhaps the only other thing they had in common.
A midweek crowd of around 400 spectators with most men wearing hats and dressed in suits, watched in awe as the golf stars went through their paces during the practice session and it whetted their appetite for the start of the match. They were keen to see if the fantastic practice shots they had witnessed could be repeated during play. They would not be disappointed!
As Bobby Locke’s caddy I was excited when the 3 times British Open Champion asked me to pass him his driver on the first tee. Walking down the first fairway Jack Downs said “Pay attention today John, you should learn a lot”. In essence the exhibition was a Slazenger promotion and a practice round for the Professionals. Its main purpose was to showcase Slazenger’s contracted golf stars and the latest Slazenger golf equipment prior to the Australian Open. As a result, the game was played in a relaxed manner, with the gallery not only able to enjoy the golf, but also the friendly banter between the players. The day was capped off for me when Bobby Locke presented me with his golf ball and a tip of 2 pounds. (About 7 times the average caddy fee in Brisbane in those days). I wasn’t expecting to be paid and that night I replayed the whole day in my mind before going to sleep.
A week later Bobby Locke won the 1955 Australian Open on a rain soaked Gailes course. On that occasion Norman Von Nida had to settle for second place. Two years later in 1957 Bobby Locke added a 4th British Open Championship to his list of career titles and achievements. Then in 1959, by a tragic twist of fate, he was seriously injured in a car accident. Sadly he never fully recovered from his injuries and this effectively ended his competitive playing career at the age of 42. Following Arthur D’arcy “Bobby” Locke’s death in 1987, Gailes members Richard Holden, Bob Lette and Geoff Edwards successfully bid at an international auction to acquire the Australian Open Championship Gold Medal won by the great South African champion at Gailes in 1955. They then donated this piece of Australia’s golfing history to their Club. Attractively framed it now occupies a prominent position in the clubhouse at Gailes.
Already a fan of Jack Downs and Dudley Von Nida, I had become an enthusiastic follower of another member of the Von Nida family following the exhibition at Nudgee. After all, the “Von” was a triple Australian Open Champion and a former member and Champion of my own Club! Eleven years later we would meet again.
It was a Nudgee day to remember!