True to form, however, the Aussies save their best shots for their own. "We are a nation of knockers," was how one Australian friend explained the phenomenon. "We've always enjoyed booing our own mob. We don't let anybody get too big for his pants." He said that at the Davis Cup Challenge Round one year the home crowd cheered so lustily for the Indian team it was embarrassing. At Kingston Heath in 1970, Bob Stanton, one of the young Australian golfers approaching star quality, missed a shot out of the rough. There were two men in the gallery right next to him when he muffed it, and one of them said in a stage whisper, "This joker must be an amateur." The other man said, "Yeah, and a pretty bad one, too." Stanton said he dreaded going out to play the next round.
During that tournament I spent some time spectating from a tricky stretch of terrain between the 8th and 16th greens, vaguely concerned for my life as the gallery ebbed and flowed around me and the balls whined overhead, but satisfied in the knowledge that if I went I would take Ron Clarke, the Australian distance runner, with me. Clarke is a fellow agnostic on the subject of golf and was out for some fresh air. Kingston Heath happens to be a lush, lovely course—if not "championship caliber" at least tough enough for the pros to complain regularly about the sadistic pin placements. (Golf professionals do not want to just break par; they want to leave it in pieces. It enhances their image.)
It was an incredibly clear, crisp day in Australia, when the clouds are canyons of fleece and the shadows a man casts are so distinct they look like people chasing people. The magpies and butcher-birds were in full voice. It was an altogether perfect day to watch a golf tournament.
I kept edging around to keep Clarke between me and the line of fire, being extra careful not to fall in a bunker, so I am not exactly sure how the conversation started. I remember we had been talking about a golfer named Barnes who had attempted to putt from the 8th green to the 16th, just that day. This absurdity was so contrary to rules that we could not help but be delighted. Barnes had hit to the wrong green and had been told by an Australian named Dunk to "go for your life," to putt away, so apparently neither one of them knew the rules. Another man standing with us told of the time Ossie Pickworth hit four consecutive shots into casual water in a big Australian tournament. "Ossie was too stubborn to ask for a ruling," the man said. "He kept dropping balls and banging them into that puddle. Ossie knew if you were farther from the pin you got to shoot first, but the finer points of the game escaped him."
But it suddenly dawned on me, standing there, that what Ron and I had been doing while watching the progress of the tournament was criticizing the generally unathletic appearance of what seemed a steady stream of skinnies and fatties and babies and oldies. Indulging in our meanness, we speculated over which one could swim the English Channel or dribble a basketball with one hand.
Under normal circumstances, Clarke is a shy, rather diffident fellow, erectly handsome and prone to introspection, who rarely goes off half-cocked. To become a world-class runner—a record-breaker many times over—he suffered the Australian "hard way" for years. The athletic club that spawned him is a small condemned-looking building next to the Melbourne thoroughbred racetrack on which the runners run. Its one-spout stall shower can be entered either from the locker room or a tear in the outside wall. In the winter the membership showers quickly, if at all.
So he gave the impression he was not speaking just off his head, but had given it thought, when he said he couldn't really appreciate a sport (golf) that did not require great reflexes or the ability to think fast. Or speed of any kind. Or youth, or strength, or the need to be fit. Or the need to react immediately to an opponent's ploy. (He had obviously been storing up the argument for some time, waiting for an ally.) And that if the only real requirement was long hours of practice and strong nerves, and spectators who are sworn to an intensive-care-ward silence, then it was not a sport at all, but a game, commendable in that respect but no more deserving than pocket billiards or bowling on the green. The catch was, I said, having agreed to all this, there is no "par" in most other sports. Par is the fishwife that nags the once-a-week amateur into recognizing continually how far removed he is from the professional.
A few days later, in his column in the Melbourne Sun, Clarke summed up his feelings under the general heading "Eat, Drink and Be Rich." He said that although there were obvious exceptions—such as Gary Player, who makes a point of being exceptionally fit and no doubt benefits from it—golf was the only sport in which you could "reach the top with a pot"; the only sport in which you could "chain-smoke your way to...a fortune"; the only sport in which athletes and nonathletes could compete on equal footing.
The exception that Clarke happened to make—Player—happened to win the Melbourne tournament, and the one the next week at Canberra, too. After that Player took his leave of Australia and left the PGA tournament at Surfers Paradise for Bruce Devlin to pick up. Clarke's column, of course, clearly stamped him as a nonsportswriter. Sportswriters—golf writers—perpetuate the mysteries of golf and glorify its practitioners shamelessly, partly because most of them play the game themselves and like to brag about "having a round with Bruce" or "having a round with Arnie." (Football writers do not "have a game with Bubba," for obvious reasons.) Most Australian golf writers get carried away as easily as our own. One, apparently up all night turning phrases, welcomed Arnold Palmer to Canberra as "The God of Golf." God Palmer, for the record, finished tied for 12th. God-watcher Mark McCormack told him he ought to practice his chip shots.
Australian golf writers suffer desperately from the need to really let go. They don't get much space and their cramped, rather frantic style makes you think they have had to compose in a dumbwaiter, between floors. The day the Australian Open began there were seven pages of horse racing news and a single short story on the golf tournament in one Melbourne paper. The story was about one-tenth the length of a treatise on the inside entitled "I'm So Sick of Sex."