11 Sep 2020 | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: The day the game changed

by Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton hits his opening tee shot of the 1978 Australian Amateur final against Tony Gresham. Picture: Royal Queensland Golf Club archives
Mike Clayton hits his opening tee shot of the 1978 Australian Amateur final against Tony Gresham. Picture: Royal Queensland Golf Club archives

The 1978 Australian Amateur championship at Royal Queensland was significant – not because I managed to beat defending champion Tony Gresham in the final, but because it drew a line between traditional amateur golf and what it was about to morph into.

In the years since the first championship in 1894 until that point, only Jim Ferrier, Ted Ball, Bruce Devlin, Bob Shearer, Bill Britten and Terry Gale decided to forsake playing for trophies and, instead, play golf for money.

But as legendary Canadian Moe Norman once said after he turned pro: “What can you do with 27 toasters?”

Since 1978, almost every national amateur champion has turned pro and it’s simply an assumption the world's professional tours are the goal of not only the winner, but a significant number of his or her rivals.

Peter Senior played the ‘78 Aussie Am – he lost to Gresham in the later rounds – then turned pro within weeks and won the South Australian Open only four months later in what was the portent to a brilliant career.

Wayne Grady didn’t even wait to play at Royal Queensland, instead turning pro months earlier and in October he beat Shearer, Greg Norman and David Graham to win the West Lakes Classic at The Grange.

By the late 1970s, the economics of playing professionally were changing. The 1970 Australian Open was a $25,000 tournament, but by the end of the decade – fuelled by an injection of Kerry Packer money and early Norman charisma – the purse was up to $150,000. By today’s standards it looks like chump change, but the winner’s prize in 1979 would have gone a long way towards paying for half a house in Melbourne now worth perhaps $1.5million.

Gresham, though, was the last of the great amateur players. As his near contemporaries Kevin Hartley, Peter Toogood, Phil Wood and Colin Kaye had done, “Gresh” had a job and a “normal” life. Yet he played amateur golf with all the seriousness and dedication of the best pros in the country – and he could beat them, too.

Ben Crenshaw was the hot-shot American amateur at the end of 1972 when the best four players from each country were playing the Eisenhower Cup in Buenos Aires. The Americans beat the Australians by a mere five shots, but Gresham won the individual, beating Crenshaw by two.

A year later came the first of three shocking losses in the final of the Australian Amateur. By 1973, Gresham and Gale were the best amateurs in the country and, at Lake Karrinyup, Gresham looked a sure winner when he lined up against Ray Jenner – AKA “The Daylesford Draper” – in the final. (Remember, this was the era of Don Lawrence – the man who first assigned the moniker “The Golden Bear” to Jack Nicklaus – writing golf for The Herald.) But Jenner won reasonably comfortably, 4&2 in a result that precious few predicted.

The night before the final three years later at New South Wales, the Sydney press described Gresham’s opponent Peter Sweeney as “cannon fodder”.

Given Gresham was the reigning New South Wales Open champion – he’d beaten Billy Dunk at Manly – it was hardly an unreasonable position to hold. But the man who’d played at No.6 for Victoria in the previous week’s Interstate Series shocked the local with front-nine eagles on both par-5s and, in the end, Sweeney’s 5&4 victory margin was rarely in doubt.

The next year we were at Victoria and Gresham was again in the final, this time against Chris Bonython, the blue-blood amateur from Kooyonga and the 1975 champion. It turned into one of the great matches I’ve seen.

Playing the 35th hole, Bonython looked in serious trouble on the par-5 but he played an extraordinary, low, sliced three iron out of the right trees about 130m from the green to save a half.

The par-5 18th , then still a driver and long iron – was halved in birdies, as was the drivable opening (37th) hole. Pars followed at the next and then both drove into fairway bunkers at the 39th hole – one to the left (since filled in) and one to the right – from where both played incredible shots on to the green with middle irons.

The match ended at the par-3 40th when Gresham made a 20-footer for birdie. Finally, the best amateur in the country had hold of the trophy he most coveted.

I well remember a year later the Brisbane television newsreader – yes, back then the 6pm news covered amateur golf – saying Gresham was “almost certain” to be the first man in decades to win the championship in consecutive years.

As had been the “cannon fodder” assessment of Sweeney’s chances in 1976, it wasn’t unreasonable given earlier in the year, Gresham had beaten all the pros at the South Australian Open.

I was playing well, though, and didn’t think I was without a shot. Out in 35 in the morning and being 4-down was a shock, but he three-putted the 10th, I caught up, eventually hit the front, then hit a fluke shot from out of a bush way over the 34th green to save a half and just hung on from there.

A few months later, Gresham began the Victorian Open with an 81 at Kingston Heath. But by the end he was only a shot shy of joining Gary Player, Rodger Davis and Geoff Parslow in the playoff.

At 38 and playing the best golf of his life, Gresham headed to Hillside on the Lancashire coast to take on the British Amateur. He lost a close match to Scott Hoch in the semi-final, but he beat a few favoured players on the way through.

There is inevitable and unavoidable speculation about how “so and so” would have played on the professional tour – and the two I always ponder are Gresham and Hartley. Gresh is 80 this year and Hartley even older, but they were the outstanding career amateurs of my time playing amateur golf.

In 1966, Hartley played with the then US Amateur champion, Bob Murphy, in the Eisenhower Cup in Mexico. Murphy, who went on to win five times on the PGA Tour and the 1972 Wills Masters at The Australian, walked off the final green and said to Hartley: “What the hell are you doing here? You’re one of the best players in the world!”

Gresham wasn’t as precise a player as “The Dart”. Nor was he as intolerant of his mistakes, reminding me instead of the Zimbabwean, Mark McNulty. Both were brilliant putters who kept the ball sensibly in play and their minds always seemed to be well organised. Inevitably they made few mistakes.

One thing is certain, though. With the money on offer in this era – amounts unimagined to our generation – both Harley and Gresham would have played for money simply because the lure of the rewards are irresistible.

But they are perfect reminders of a time when players saw that playing as an amateur was an unpaid but very serious “career” in golf.

In some ways, they had the best of it.

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