Norman Von Nida, the Australian Ben Hogan, golfed his way out of the meat works in Queensland, where his job was to separate bare-handed the cracked skulls of slaughtered sheep. Von Nida shoved his gnarly, nodulose hands under my nose one night at dinner in Canberra and said, "That's why my fingers are so strong—like steel bars." He said the prospect of going back to the slaughterhouse helped him hustle a lot of unsuspecting pros and win a lot of Nassaus in his time.
Von Nida is a tiny flame of a man who never weighed more than 140 pounds, but he took on all comers and gained a measure of notoriety in America for bouncing back from a sock on the jaw by Henry Ransom and then proceeding to throttle the bigger man right out on the golf course in Harlingen, Texas. He had accused Ransom of cheating on his score.
Often the hard way is too hard, however. A player named Bob Mesnil was charted as the new star of Australian golf a few years ago, only to drop out of sight; he was discovered some months later driving a soft-drink truck and playing on weekends with borrowed clubs. But if there was always more thin than thick, the essential qualities of the Australian golfer remained intact: appealingly coarse and individualistic. When the late Ossie Pickworth, a free spirit (or "larrikin") who once won six out of nine tournaments without ever owning his own jet plane, used to plunk his entire winner's purse down on the tavern counter and yell, "Shout for the bar!" it was probably all the cash he had in the world at that moment. Ossie, according to legend, was whisked from the jaws of fiscal oblivion many times, once by holding fast to the stub of a $20,000 lottery ticket.
Now, alas, more money is being made available every season for the Australian touring professionals and, predictably, more players are touring after it. The result is a growing influx of the kind of faceless, fuzzy-cheeked player that keeps popping up to take trophies away from the big names on the U.S. tour. There are even two or three Americans who have become resident fixtures on the Australian tour, having concluded, correctly, that the Australian dollar goes further.
One of these Americans is a former New Jersey professional named Ron Howell. Howell decided he'd never make it in American enterprise when he added up the receipts at his pro shop one year and discovered the president of the club had purchased the grand total of $46 worth of merchandise. "Everybody wanted a discount," Howell lamented. He moved to Sydney.
A marginal player, Howell figured to be a big fish in the smaller pond. I asked him over a hamburger at Surfers what he thought it took in winnings to get along comfortably Down Under. He said $10,000 a year, and a smartly dressed young Australian golfer sitting with us blurted out, "Two."
"Two? Two what?" Howell asked.
"Two thousand dollars. That's what I won last year," said the native pro.
The point is that although neither of these men will ever get rich playing the Australian circuit, where even a $50,000 tournament is something read about only in dream dispatches from America, neither will they have to serve their apprenticeships in a lumber camp or by grappling with the skulls of dead sheep. The eventual result almost certainly will be the pall of sameness that dominates the U.S. game, and something more will be gone from Australian golf.
Then, finally, one afternoon in Canberra on the edge of the 5th green at the Dunlop International tournament, I ran into perhaps the most ominous of all signs of this slippage: the immaculate blond specter of Mark McCormack. McCormack has been appearing with increasing frequency in the country, fluttering over the Yarra Yarra and Royal Sydney galleries like a huge checker-coated hummingbird. And as every golf fan knows, Mark McCormack does not travel 10,000 miles to look at koala bears. McCormack travels to extract the appropriate homage and fat guarantees due his stable of moneymakers wherever they may appear. I think of Mark McCormack as the ultimate harbinger of golf's excesses.