Tuesday, June 3

Bad Boy Bobby Locke, Part 1: 'The Man From the Jungle'

I asked John Coyne why he called Bobby Locke a "bad boy." Coyne said, "Locke wasn't liked on the PGA Tour. They blackballed him. Also, he was fired from his first pro job in Johannesburg." In this series, read how the South African golf legend made enemies by beating America's best.

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

South African great Bobby Locke
It was Gary Player who suggested I call Bobby Locke when I was in Johannesburg. It was the winter of 1969. I was traveling through Africa and I found Gary's name in the phone book and called him without an introduction and asked if I might interview him for an American golf magazine.

Player graciously invited me to his ranch on the outskirts of Johannesburg for tea on a Sunday afternoon. It was there, sharing with his father and stepmother their normal weekend visit, and sitting on the patio of his lovely home overlooking acres of brilliant, exotic flowers, that I mentioned how as an 11-year-old I had followed Bobby Locke for four days when he won the last Chicago Victory National Golf Championship, played at Illinois's Midlothian Country Club in the summer of 1948.

The Victory Opens began during World War II when the U. S. Open was suspended. By 1948, Midlothian was already famous as the site of the 1914 U.S. Open, when Walter Hagen defeated Chick Evans to win the first of his 11 majors.

I told Player that my family's farm bordered the country club and my five siblings and I had all had jobs there, so I'd become a caddie at an early age.

"Bobby would love to hear that story," Player told me, then added, "He's not in good health since the accident."

He was referring to the day in 1959 when Locke's car was hit by a train at a railway crossing. After that, Locke was never able to play top-flight competitive golf again. He suffered migraines and eye problems for the rest of his life, dying in 1987 at the age of 69. But first he had a big career, in America as well as Europe and Africa.

Bobby Locke first came to the U.S. in 1947. It happened this way.

After Sam Snead won the 1946 British Open, the first one played since 1939 because of the war, wealthy South African financier Norbert Stephen Erleigh, who had befriended Locke in '35 when the golfer was a teenage amateur, sponsored a tour for Snead in South Africa. Locke, who had finished second in the Open, would be Snead's competition, and Erleigh promised Locke that, when the tour was over, he would pay Locke's way to America.

It was not Bobby Locke's first invitation to the U.S. In 1936, Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood played with Locke during a six-week exhibition in South Africa and when it was over, Hagen, so impressed by the then-19-year-old amateur, asked him to come to the U.S. Locke's parents, however, said no, and while disappointed, Hagen advised Locke, "Young man, your golf might stay still or you may become a great golfer, but remember that your golfing education will not be complete until you have played golf in America."

Bobby Locke never forgot and 10 years later he was playing another American in South Africa, Sam Snead. The two dueled in 16 matches throughout the country. Snead won two, they tied two, and Locke won 12.

The U.S. golf world couldn't understand how America's greatest player was being beaten regularly, and as the sports reporters wrote, "by the man from the jungle."

Later Snead would say of that South African exhibition, "In some of the matches, my ball was inside his from tee to green on 15 holes, yet Locke would win, one up. He dropped 30 and 40 footers without thinking twice. He made me so nervous that in one match I missed eight putts of less than two feet."

Locke credits Snead with teaching him a lot during those matches.

"I learned to play not for the green but for the pin," Locke wrote in his memoir, On Golf, published in 1953. "Snead's long irons during the visit were a joy to watch, but my putting and my short game and my knowledge of local conditions gave me the edge."

What Locke never mentioned in his book is a story told to me by Dereck Mocke, the club historian at Maccauvlei Golf Club in South Africa. It was a story Dereck heard from his father, who followed the Snead-Locke exhibition matches.

In a bit of golf gamesmanship that foreshadowed his cleverness later in his career, Locke had his caddie switch the wood covers in his bag. In one match, Locke hit his tee shot very close to Sam's drive. Bobby played first, took his wood and smacked it onto the green.

Sam's caddie glanced into Locke's bag to see which club had been played, then handed Sam what he thought was the same club Locke hit only to have Snead's ball come up short. Bobby won the hole, the match, and Snead's respect. Sam, too, like Hagen, would tell Locke that he was good enough to play in the U.S. and so Bobby was.


John Coyne is a bestselling author whose latest golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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