Bobby Locke: South African Golf

As golf buffs, we can name a few high profile players from South Africa…Retief Goosen, Bobby Cole, Ernie Els, Fulton Allem, etc.  These and several others have an ongoing presence on the world stage of golf, but what else do they share in terms of lineage? Who was their inspiration? In large part, it was Gary Player, of course – no surprise there. However, like many golf enthusiasts, I grew up thinking that Player was the patriarch of South African golf, only to find out that although he was probably the biggest branch of the tree, he wasn’t the trunk. He, too, had an inspiration and national ancestor.

We don’t hear much these days about Arthur D’Arcy Locke, as his career in the United States was somewhat truncated, and he never felt entirely welcome to return. Part of the problem, so it is said, was that Locke failed to appear at some tournaments for which he had committed. American resentment had something to do with it as well, especially after he drained the prize money coffers dry in 1947, winning six tournaments, four of them in a five week period as part of his rampage of that year. He was also infamous for infuriating fellow golfers by playing at the speed of a glacier. They threatened him with everything, but he wouldn’t budge, and they didn’t go through with any of it.

Born into a family of Irish immigrants, the masterful golfer who would win the British Open four times and rack up fifteen PGA victories in a short time, is credited with coining the phrase, “Drive for show, putt for dough.” With only a little time off serving on a bomber crew in WWII, Locke won the South African Open nine times, along with the Canadian, French and German. At the Chicago Victory National in the U.S., he caused immense resentment with a sixteen stroke margin of victory.

The trouble started when Locke defeated Sam Snead in the Open, and invited him home for some one-on-one matches. Locke won twelve of sixteen, and followed Snead’s advice to hit the PGA trail. American golfers didn’t take to him much, and borrowed Snead’s down-home nick-names such as “Muffin Face” and “Baggy Pants.” He kept showing up and winning, though, and his late forties, early fifties ban for no-shows was a welcome relief to many of the home-grown PGA regulars.

Locke, in addition to an eccentric personality, had an equally bizarre golf swing. Where his descendant, Player, was generally draw-oriented, Locke just flat hooked it – all the time. The strangest part of it was that he hooked with the putter as well. Claiming that he’d learned a technique for “gliding” across the grain while he was in Egypt, his putting position resembled a hook stance for hitting a driver. He would catch the ball on the toe, giving it overspin, and try to kill it just at the lip, using the edges. There’s a marvelous demonstration of it by Player himself. No one laughed at him much, though. He was a first rate putter, calling it “half the game.” For Locke, it made perfect sense to turn three strokes into two through putting, especially since he was a short hitter by tour standards.

A Vardon Trophy,  Hall of Fame spot (’77) and a book later (Bobby Locke on Golf), he was undeniable by any means of rationalization, and Gary Player hails him as the greatest South African golfer to this day – not bad, coming from one who tore up the tour as he did.

It would have been fun to see Locke play longer in the States. He never quite got rolling in the majors, but he might have, given a little more time. His career puts South African golf into perspective, though, and he’s a fine ancestor. It wouldn’t have made sense for someone of Gary Player’s stature to come from nowhere at all. In fact, I can see the next generation of Americans watching him tee it up – “Oh no, not another one.” Bobby would get a kick out of that.


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