One of South Africa’s most renowned racehorse trainers is enjoying his golf again after a life-changing experience, writes GARY LEMKE.
Gary Player calls him ‘the best 16-handicapper in the world’, and South Africa’s greatest golfer says it with conviction.
It’s a Friday morning and Mike Bass, a household name in horse-racing circles over the past four decades, hits another drive down the middle of the fairway at Milnerton Golf Club.
To suggest that Bass bombs the ball a mile off the tee would be a lie. However, the fact he is able to even hit the ball is something of a miracle, considering that just over three years ago the racing world thought they’d lost Michael William Bass.
Player, the 84-year-old winner of nine ‘ordinary’ Majors and 164 victories as a globetrotting professional, lives in Plettenberg Bay but is a regular visitor to Cape Town and often joins the former racehorse trainer for a round at Milnerton. On this particular morning in December, Player shot 74 – despite taking three shots to get up and down around the green on five of the 18 holes. That was 10 shots better than his age and one of his remaining ambitions is to break the world record for the lowest score below one’s age, which is listed as 22, by John Powell in 2017, according to Guinness World Records.
Bass, on the other hand, is grateful for his second chance at life – and golf. He is now 74 and isn’t concerned about shooting his age; rather chipping away at a handicap that drifted out to 37 when he started again.
In August 2016 his handicap had crept up to 16 after being as low as nine a few years before that. It was also a Friday morning when he’d played what turned out to be his last round, in his regular ‘school’ at Milnerton which includes other racing personalities like retired jockeys Karl Neisius and Kenny Michel.
‘That night I didn’t feel well, so we left the Cape Breeders Awards early,’ he recalls. ‘The next day the doctor gave me some antibiotics for flu. I started getting worse, but the doctor reckoned I should give it time for the antibiotics to take effect.
‘On the Monday I went to the hospital, where I was assessed and discharged. On the Wednesday I went back, struggling to breathe …’
Things developed dramatically from there.
Bass had slipped into a coma shortly after being admitted that Wednesday. He had pneumonia and dangerously high blood infection levels (septicemia). As the days passed the messages became more stark. His chance of survival was established to be 2-3%.
The word spread quickly and a WhatsApp group was created to provide updates. Racing royalty, family and friends from around the world were stunned, but rallied together in support and prayer.
Doctors feared the worst as Bass fought for his life. Then a family friend and vascular surgeon, Dr Krzysztof Michalowski, arrived. ‘He offered a second opinion on Mike,’ says son Mark. ‘He took over the situation and insisted on amputating Mike’s right leg below the knee, immediately. It had been scheduled for the following day. That decision proved vital in saving Mike’s life and the doctor’s report indicated that had he not acted there and then, Mike would have been dead within four hours, given the blood poisoning racking his body.’
The veteran trainer turned the corner, although things were still in the balance. He required further procedures, including a tracheotomy and kidney dialysis, while extraordinary amounts of adrenaline had been pumped into him to help save his life. That’s where all the nerve damage in his lower body comes from today.
He emerged from his coma after 10 days and didn’t remember anything. ‘It felt like I was asleep and I had a recurrent dream, but when I woke up and saw I’d lost my leg it was quite a shock,’ he said at the time.
On 10 September 2016, Bass ‘announced’ his comeback with the following message: ‘Hi all, went to sleep for a few days and all hell broke loose. Not sure what all the fuss was about. I have read your messages and all I can say is a big thank you for all your support, it’s good to know I have such wonderful friends. I am amazed and humbled at all the support. It won’t be long before I am up and about.’
Over three years later Bass remains in a wheelchair, unable to use his legs and while he’s still a daily visitor to Bass Racing Stables in Milnerton, where his daughter Candice Robinson has taken over the head trainer’s reins, his visits to Cape Town’s two racecourses, Kenilworth and Durbanville, are less frequent than they used to be.
However, his love for golf is undiminished and he and Player pair up for frequent fourballs on a Milnerton course that is defenceless against the wind. On this occasion, as word filtered back to the clubhouse that one of the sport’s legends was playing, a handful of visitors arrived to walk a few holes and watch proceedings.
Friends of Bass rallied to his side in 2016 and after his recovery they clubbed together and bought him a ‘paragolfer’ wheelchair. While strapped in, controls allow for him to be lifted from a sitting position to standing, his legs secure and motionless. He manoeuvres the wheelchair into a position whereby he can address the ball and strike it cleanly.
There isn’t a fade or a draw to his game but he strikes it consistently well as he plays to his 16 handicap, although he is determined to shave another stroke or two off that figure. ‘The problem is I can’t rotate my hips,’ he says with obvious frustration, ‘so I can’t follow through with my swing. I can’t get the distance any more and it’s taken a lot of time and effort to get used to the restrictions. But, I’m ever so grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the great game of golf.’
Before his setback Bass had struck two holes-in-one, both at Milnerton, on the 11th and 14th holes. ‘When I got my one on the [170m] 11th the wind was pumping and I hit 3-wood,’ he says.
In his comeback he tried hitting left- and right-handed but has stuck with left. ‘As you know, I’ve always enjoyed the game so it was good to get back out there. While I was recovering, Gary was very kind to give me a set of clubs I could use while sitting in an “ordinary” wheelchair.’
These days Bass uses customised clubs and while his swing is flatter than it used to be, there are very few poor shots. ‘Mike, off that 16-handicap no one in the world can touch you,’ Player shouts from the fairway as Bass guides his ‘paragolfer’ into a bunker before he comes out cleanly. He then chips up and two-putts for a net par, another two points on the scorecard.
One of his last rounds of 2019 saw him shoot a gross 85, his best score since his disability. And that’s the other side of golf. There’s a place for everyone and it’s largely you against the course. The average global handicap is around 15, which translates into a score of 89-90, or a bogey on almost every hole. If you can perform at that level in your regular Friday school you’re the one most likely to be taking the cash off your opponents. It’s even more impressive when you realise what odds he’s had to overcome to get to that level again.
It was in 2016 that Bass was looking forward to taking up an invitation to the Dunhill Links Championship, which is played annually on the Old Course at St Andrews, the Championship Course at Carnoustie and Kingsbarns Golf Links.
Those invites are like hen’s teeth and Bass received his via voicemail. ‘Hello Mike, this is Johann Rupert. Gaynor [his wife] is over the moon with her Grade One win with Inara and I want to say thank you by offering you a place at this year’s Dunhill Links Championship.’
Bass was scheduled to play in a celebrity fourball that included jump jockey legend AP McCoy, but his fate determined otherwise. ‘I was really looking forward to it, they are great courses and I’ve never played on any
of them,’ he said at the time.
But, while he remains unable to walk, he has been given a new lease on life, which seemed unthinkable back then.
Golf, being the sport it is, has allowed him to regain his confidence and self-belief, and if you’re ever passing by Milnerton, feel free to drop in to the club and say hello to him. Who knows, you might even get a glimpse of the legend Gary Player too.