For the mere mortals of the world of professional golf, there is something of a structured hierarchy to initial aspirations. When the name on your bag isn’t Adam Scott or Geoff Ogilvy, and prodigious talent not a birthright, gaining a card to compete on tour is usually an ambitious starting point. Then follows, in loosely non sequential order, playing in your first professional event, then making a cut. Past this, a top ten finish looms, followed ultimately by the holy grail, a win.
Somewhere in this mix sits playing with the greats of the game. Anyone who has developed an affinity for golf, regardless of ability, has at some point fantasised about teeing it up with a golfing hero. Holding a tour card brings such ambitions within reach, particularly during weeks where you manage to play yourself into contention in the final groups for Saturday and Sunday play.
It is the chance to test your game against the best, to see how you will handle the scrutiny and distraction of big crowds, the intrusion of television, and your own expectations. For the untested however, the question remains as to how you will react when confronted by the challenge of such a situation.
My first experience mirroring such a moment was at the 1997 Heineken Open at The Vines in West Australia. Situated around the top 10 heading into the weekend, I rang the tournament office on Friday night to request my tee time for Saturday. Oh, and could you tell me who my playing partner is, I enquired. Mr E.Els, came the answer.
Really? You mean the current world No.1? The major winner? The emerging legend of the game who has been tearing courses apart for the past few years, currently in the form of his life? Sorry, what was that- oh, you were just saying that I’d be playing with him in Perth, otherwise known as East Johannesburg, so the massive expatriate gallery in attendance will likely be as interested in what I am doing as Pamela Anderson is in physics. No, no problem at all, and thank you, but of course I won’t be nervous.
Come Saturday morning, I could barely get the ball in the air during my pre-round practice. It was, without question, the tightest I had ever felt before a tee time in my life. And as each poorly struck shot wobbled its way down the driving range, the odds of a golfing catastrophe began to rise. The walk to the first tee, through a throng of people four and five deep, felt like a funeral march, the mind racing as it tried to conjure a swing thought that might somehow allow the day to rise above humiliation.
Upon first tee introductions, things miraculously found a sense of calmness. Ernie was relaxed, friendly and conversive. I settled, the club no longer feeling like a pick-axe. The first tee shot somehow split the middle. The day just improved from there, ending with a solid score and few missed shots.
Although I was drawn with a number of the world’s great players in subsequent years, that round remains with me as the most memorable. There is no obligation on the part of any star to make a lesser light feel comfortable, and in fact there are numerous stories doing the rounds of exactly the opposite occurring. Ernie’s manner and nature set him apart, and the respect and collegiality shown that day will not be forgotten.
Ernie hasn’t made the trip to W.A. this week for the Perth International. The good news is that his countryman and former US Masters champion, Charl Schwartzel, has. The opportunity to watch someone who was born to have their name on a golf bag is reason enough to attend, or to switch on over the next four days as Australia’s biggest prizemoney event gets underway.
A former Tour player, Grant Dodd is a renowned golf commentator for Network TEN in Australia, and ESPN Star for OneAsia. A columnist for Australian Golf Digest, he is also a wine lover and father of two.