I was reading the autobiography of Oscar Chalupsky the other day when I found an apparent impossibility.
Oscar had been a paddler all his life, specialising in the surfski, but in the late 1980s he had begun to run into brick walls because South Africa was banned from international competition. Global events that he had won several times suddenly started telling him he couldn’t come any more.
So with no new worlds to conquer, he took up golf. His reasoning was that since South Africans were allowed to play golf on the global stage (Gary Player being a prime example) all he had to do was turn professional and, Bob’s your uncle, he could compete with the big boys.
Now here’s the apparent impossibility: he began to play with a 24 handicap and inside 12 months claims that he was down to scratch. I am aware of one other person who managed something close to this. You may have heard of him – Greg Norman. The golfer everyone loves to hate was a 27 handicap at the age of 15 and 18 months later he was scratch.
The point is that, like Oscar, the Great White Shark came to the game relatively late in life and found that he was good at it. There are lots of tales of professional sportspeople who retired and then took up golf, only to discover that it came easily. Cricket has many examples, from Ted Dexter and Gary Sobers to AB de Villiers and Shaun Pollock.
However, even here I don’t know of anyone who got down to scratch with such alacrity. In most cases they would have played good golf for years when their busy schedules allowed it and with the onset of retirement went from good to very good.
Oscar did nothing in his first quarter-century on earth to suggest that he was good at ball sports. He played Craven Week rugby for Natal, but that was after betting his mates at Westville that he would get into the school first team as a lock. He made it by jumping up and grabbing the rafters at home to simulate jumping in the lineout. His secret, he says, was determination and practice, as with rugby, so with golf.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I could hit practice balls all day and never get down to single figures. That’s because golf is a game that only truly rewards practice if you have a fundamental feel for the game in the first place. The skills required to get down to scratch are simply too varied. We all know someone who can blast 300-metre drives, but putts like they are wearing boxing gloves. We all know someone who plays perfectly decent golf until they land in a bunker. And we definitely all know someone whose game goes to pieces when they lose their temper.
So how did Oscar do it? You will not find out by reading the book; he mentions it as something of an aside, something that became irrelevant when, in 1991, Nelson Mandela was released from jail, allowing Oscar to go back to his first love, paddling.
I wonder if he is being economical with the … nah, can’t be.
– This column first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.