26 Dec 2020 | Amateur golf | Feature stories |

Clayton: The legend of 'The Dart'

by Mike Clayton

Kevin Hartley bunker image
Kevin Hartley could have been a great pro, but chose to remain amateur.

When it comes to Victorian amateur golf one man sure to earn universal admiration is Kevin Hartley.

The Kooringal and Yarra Yarra man died just a few days before Christmas but he will be long remembered for his domination of the local amateur golf scene and being a constant presence in the Australian teams of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The amateur game has changed much since the era of Hartley, Tony Gresham and Doug Bachli. They, and their ilk, were career amateurs, the game was a serious business and Hartley as dedicated to its mastery as any professional of the time.

An engineer by profession, he would arrive at Kooringal most mornings just after sunrise and hit balls down a practice fairway so narrow it made the 12th fairway at Woodlands look like a football field. He would work on his game until a quarter to nine, be in the office by nine and eschewing the chance to use his golfing reputation as a way into a cushy job giving him time off to play.

The Riversdale Cup was the premier 72-hole amateur championship in the state and he won it 10 times (the first in 1958 and the last 20 years later) against the best of the local amateurs including Bachli, Tom Crow, Bill Britten, Don and Allan Reiter, Bob Shearer, Stewart Ginn and Ian Stanley.

He would usually tee off at first light on the morning of the opening round (always on a Friday with Monday a public holiday) so he could get to work by morning tea-time. His mastery of Riversdale was perhaps shown off best at the 1970 Victorian Open. Battling the club’s former assistant pro, David Graham, Hartley was one behind playing the par five, 15th. He pitched to four feet but Graham ran in a twenty-footer for his birdie, Hartley missed and second place was his lot that week in a field of the best Australian pros including Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle.

He won the Australian Amateur at Royal Adelaide in 1958, beating Sydney-man Noel Bartell on the 39th hole. Of that win he would later say: “It meant a lot at the time but some of the greatest clunks in the world have won it since.”

Always one to speak his mind, he harboured a long-time contempt for match play. So dominant was he with a card and pencil in his pocket almost any loss in a match was, by definition, to someone he considered a lesser player and he never could reconcile the seeming incongruity of the man-to-man game.

One important match he did lose was as he defended the national amateur championship at Royal Sydney. He went down in the semi-final to Bruce Devlin, a man he had not only a huge admiration for but also a life-long friendship.

“I decided if I could win the Amateur again, I’d turn pro,” he told me years later.

It seems silly in retrospect to determine the course of your career around the result of one 18-hole match but it was a much different time.

Even for the best players making a living on the professional tour of the late-1950s was a precarious existence and the security of a good job and a life playing serious amateur golf was not to be sniffed at. Who can criticise a man for wanting to sleep in his own bed every night and watch his family grow?

For Hartley there were overseas trips to Eisenhower Cups and Commonwealth Trophies, state and national amateur and Open championships, the ultra-competitive interstate series and each year the prestigious Ivo Whitton trophy awarded to the man with the season’s lowest stroke average. He would win it 11 times, one later in his career after not winning it for a couple of seasons in the mid-1970s

Presented with the trophy at the golf association’s annual dinner at the end of the pennant season he jabbed at the rest of us -- as was his wont. “Thank-you for this,” he said to the association’s president. “It’s nice to have this trophy back where it belongs – under my bed!” He was though a great source of advice and he was more than happy to share it. All you had to do was prove to him you were serious about the game and willing to work at it.

One of the best of my junior golf contemporaries was Trevor Henley, the 1975 Riversdale Cup winner as a 19-year-old. Henley could really hit – only Greg Norman was more impressive at the previous year’s interstate junior series – but like the rest of us he had much to learn.

Hartley perhaps sensed Henley’s reliance on talent over hard work and once, after they’d played, his advice was simple. “Come and see me again after you’ve hit 10,000 balls.” Years later he was playing with 18-year-old Brad Hughes at the Murray River Championship in the mid 1980s. Hughes, by then clearly a great talent, had a friend caddying and lining up the putts. “I missed a few in a row and Dart said as I picked my ball from the hole, ‘Get rid of that f---ing guy – you don’t need him to win this thing.’”

In 1966, he was taking up his regular place in the four-man Australian Eisenhower Cup team playing in Mexico City. The Australians won a high scoring event, beating an American team including Deane Beman (three years from a runner-up finish in the US Open) and the US Amateur champion, Bob Murphy.

The rotund American, who went onto a successful, five-win, career on the American tour shook hands with Hartley on the 18th green and said: “What the hell are you doing here? You’re one of the best players in the world.”

I for one have no doubt had ‘The Dart’ decided to play for money he’d have proved Murphy’s view to be spot on. He was a superior technician, a beautifully precise hitter, a wonderful scorer and given the constraints of a nine-to-five, five-day a week job as dedicated a worker as anyone in the game.

 

 

 

 

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