Last week, the world of golf was rocked by Wayne Westner’s death, the cause of which was quickly confirmed to be suicide. Given the circumstances leading up to the 55-year old pulling the trigger, and the lack of public detail as to his reasons for doing so, there is naturally some level of reticence as to what is appropriate to say about the man. But there can be no shame in speaking fondly of Wayne Westner, the golfer, and acknowledging how tragic it is that his life should end in this horrible way.
In an interview with Westner a couple of years ago, what was most striking as a first impression for me was that his was an incredibly analytical mind, and he responded to all questions with a deep level of thought.
“I’ve always been a searcher rather than an acceptor,” he once said. And that was the overriding takeaway from our thoroughly enjoyable lunch that day. How big a role this relentless pursuit of perfection, and perhaps even a search for meaning, played in his death is something we will probably never know. But it arguably hamstrung him during what was still a quite brilliant – albeit curtailed – career as a player.
Westner, first and foremost, was long off the tee. Very long. In the early 1990’s, he topped the charts in Europe for driving distance. Indeed, in 1992 his stats eclipsed John Daly, who, at the time, was considered revolutionary when it came to distance and power.
But finesse and cunning were also an integral part of the Westner armoury, as he demonstrated so profoundly in the 1988 SA Open at Durban Country Club. For it was his exhibition with a 1-iron off the tee which paved the way to victory that year. In fact, during a scintillating third round of 65, he used his driver just once off the tee: at the short 13th, where he duly drove the green and two-putted for birdie.
That heady day in ’88 marked the start of an impressive decade for the Johannesburg-born maestro, which included a second SA Open title three years later, two European Tour victories, a sojourn with the top 40 of the World Rankings, and, of course, that memorable World Cup triumph with Ernie Els at Erinvale in 1996.
Given the political climate, the feel-good factor from the Rugby World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations successes, and the fact that Westner played such extraordinary golf that week (an aggregate individual score of 275, beaten only by Els’ 272), it is tempting to argue that this represented the high watermark of his career.
But it was arguably three years earlier at the Dubai Desert Classic where he demonstrated just how good a player he was, as he held off the charging duo of Retief Goosen and Seve Ballesteros to secure victory.
It was a dreadful injury at Madeira in 1998 which effectively ended his career though. During a pro-am, he was helping his amateur look for his ball, and leaned over the side of a water hazard which had a rotten retaining wall. It collapsed, causing him to fall six foot, and he severely ruptured his ankle as a result. As he conceded in that interview with me, he was never the same player again.
“I tried a few times to come back after the ankle injury, but I was scared of it. I couldn't get onto my right side properly, and then I would jump off it on my way down,” he concluded.
Certainly, physical injury was to blame for cutting his career short. But was it a cripplingly-analytical mind which prevented him achieving more during the good years? Many experts felt he would have been better served by simply ‘gripping it and ripping it’, without his self-imposed pursuit of technical perfection. But as a student of the game – and also teaching greats such as Bob Torrance and Mac O’Grady – it was the swing which fascinated Westner most.
As such, he opened a golf school in Ireland, and later replicated this on local shores with the Wayne Westner Golf College at Selborne Park.
Yet at the time of our interview, it was a new invention which excited him most – a golf coaching machine now referred to as ‘Instant Golfer’. This impressive device, which has an attachment to the base of the grip, forces the user to swing perfectly on plane, and thus reduces the swing to an entirely natural motion, characterised by its simplicity.
But simplicity wasn’t something that characterised Westner, and his life wasn’t without misfortune either. Having nearly died of typhoid as a teenager, he was diagnosed with epilepsy a few years ago – something which, to his dismay, meant he had to give up his pilot’s licence.
He is said to have often retreated to the bush by himself to sleep rough too, sometimes for days at a time. According to past quotes from the man, this was as much down to a quest for finding answers as it was a passion for wildlife.
Sadly, inner peace proved elusive, and unfortunately it has ended in tragedy. But the widespread tributes last week demonstrated Westner’s popularity among peers and commentators of the game, and his impact on the golfing fraternity will be an enduring one. Certainly my most abiding memory will always be his warmth, and generosity with his time during an interview with many laughs and smiles.
May you now rest in peace Wayne – gone, but not forgotten.