This week’s Open Championship is at Royal St George’s, or Sandwich as it is commonly known, and only one South African has won golf’s oldest Major at this iconic south-England seaside links – Bobby Locke in 1949.
The two qualifying rounds (these being mandatory in those days even for the defending champion) were at Sandwich and the adjacent Deal and Locke posted a 71 and 69, respectively, to easily qualify. A drought had rendered Sandwich dry with not much rough, although the greens were well watered and produced some bite. In the first round, Bobby was off to a fast start, racing to the turn in 32 despite two three-putts.
“Then I spoilt my round with a seven at the par-five 14th where I drove out of bounds and finished with a 69. The Thursday for the second round was a very poor day and I shot 76, so I was on 145 and five behind leader Sam King,” the famed South African later wrote in his autobiography, ‘Bobby Locke on Golf’.
The weather on the Friday was fine with a fair breeze and both Locke and Irishman Harry Bradshaw posted 68 to share the lead. In the final round, playing five holes ahead of Bobby, Bradshaw finished on 283 and the information relayed to Locke.
“At the 14th tee, I needed a par at each hole to tie,” he said. “I parred the 14th and 15th, but calamity overtook me at the [par-three] 16th where I took three putts.”
Locke now needed a birdie and a par (or vice-versa) to tie on two tough par-fours, the 17th at 423 yards and 18th measuring 441 yards. “It looked as if my chances were gone,” he wrote.
“But walking to the 17th tee, a remark flashed through into my mind. It was made by an American friend who was in the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadron and shot down in North Africa in World War 2 when I was a bomber pilot. He was taken prisoner by the Italians, flown to Athens and handed over to the Germans.
“But Harold F Marting of Indianapolis had made up his mind he was not going to Germany. He escaped in a fishing boat across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa and spent two months in hospital recovering from the effects of exposure. It was from this hospital I received his letter in which he said: ‘Bobby, where’s there’s life, there’s hope’. Somehow … new courage seemed to come to me as I remembered that letter and faced the 17th and 18th holes.”
Locke hit a long, straight drive down the 17th before playing what he described as a “picture shot” with a 6-iron to 12 feet and, watched by an 8,000-strong gallery, rolled in the putt for birdie. A par at the last followed, meaning the South African and Irishman were tied at the top to trigger a 36-hole playoff the following day. It was one in which a brilliant Locke shot 67-68 against Bradshaw’s 74-73 to destroy the Irishman by 12 strokes. The Claret Jug was heading south of the equator for the first time.
Locke, incidentally, had to work extra hard for the title as in all he (and Bradshaw) had to play a marathon 144 holes – two rounds of qualifying, four rounds in the actual Championship, and two further rounds in the playoff.
This was the first of Locke’s four Open titles, and the 13 South Africans in this week’s lineup at Sandwich wouldn’t be amiss to take a leaf out of the old master’s book when faced with any adversity over he four days: Where there’s life, there’s hope.
The 13 are: Jaco Ahlers, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Dean Burmester, Louis de Jager, Ernie Els, Branden Grace, Justin Harding, Garrick Higgo, Shaun Norris, Louis Oosthuizen, JC Ritchie, Erik van Rooyen and Danie van Tonder.