When Von Nida came to the 12th he quickly hit his shot and started to leave when, as a reflex, he casually picked up a tee that had been discarded by the group ahead of him. One of the staring inmates stopped him with a low, menacing voice: "Hey, you, put that back. It belongs to the fellow up ahead." Von Nida said he dropped the tee and hurried on.
At the end of the tournament, speeches were made, mostly polite and inoffensive. Then Von Nida—"The Von," he was called—got up and delivered himself to the occasion. "I spared them nothing," he says. He told the crowd it was the worst tournament he had ever seen. "I don't think Queensland is ready for the Australian Open," he said.
The evening spent with Von Nida in Canberra was easily the most stimulating in my brush with Australian golf, and made watching the various tournaments palatable. Von Nida told of the days when he caddied barefoot for Walter Hagen, when first-prize money was no more than two pounds ten. And how—shades of Lee Trevino—he won golf bets he ventured into without a dime in his pocket, and lost his shirt many times. And how he almost lost his knee when a player hit a trick shot off it and took more than the ball.
I asked him if he had ever written a book on golf, like everybody else.
Von Nida said he hadn't done an instructional, and wouldn't because they "are garbage."
I asked why.
He said, "Look at my hands. Do they look like Jack Nicklaus' hands? Am I built like Jack Nicklaus? There's no way for me to help my game by trying to swing like Jack Nicklaus. Player doesn't swing like Nicklaus, Hogan doesn't have hands like Snead. Palmer throws out a shank elbow. He should snap-hook everything he hits. How can you imitate them?"
I asked him, finally, for I felt the need for at least a modicum of expertise, what I could not know myself: if today's Australian professional golfers, carried along in the handbasket of affluence, were as good as they used to be.
Von Nida said, "Listen. I'm 56 years old. I only play in a few tournaments a year. But if I worked at it and got my game in shape, I could beat 'em all."
In my mind's eye, I can see Travis, or Travers, gladly allowing Norman Von Nida to slam balls into her backyard. Any day.