The Open's historic links with SA
South Africa’s historic situation as a former British colony resulted not only in the game of golf being imported via the Cape seaport but also that the British Open championship acquired an alluring mystique for local golfers.
The Open Championship, as the Royal & Ancient prefers it to be called, held a magnetic attraction for top South African players and many made the pilgrimage by boat and train to the great links of the misty isles to test themselves against the best players in the “home country.”
This fascination with The Open was fuelled by visits to “the union” by outstanding British players and a piece of this history remains entrenched in the South African Open.
A leading Scottish amateur golfer during the latter part of the 1800s was Freddie Tait, a multiple winner of the British Amateur and often leading amateur in The Open.
Tait was a soldier and in 1899 he was sent to South Africa as one of the officers in the 2nd Battalion Royal Highland Brigade, the famed “Black Watch,” to fight in the second Boer War.
After disembarking at the Cape his battalion moved north to Modder River, some 30 kilometers south of Kimberley. In the early hours of the 10th December, British forces on night manoeuvres came under devastating Boer fire. The battle of Magersfontein had begun. The Black Watch at the forefront of the March was decimated, 355 men killed or wounded.
Tait survived the onslaught with a thigh wound. After a period of convalescence he returned to the front in January 1900. On the 7th February at the battle of Koedoesberg Drift, Tait, while leading his platoon in a forward rush, took a fatal shot through the chest.
He, along with his fallen comrades, was buried in a simple ceremony on the bank of the Riet River at Koesdoesberg Drift. A small cross marked the spot. In 1963 he was re-interred in the West End Cemetery, Kimberley, by the War Graves Board. A plain marble cross modestly records his name, dates of birth and death.
News of the death of one of their favourite sons was received with great sadness at St Andrews, his home club, and it occurred to his friends and comrades that Tait’s memory should be preserved in a special way.
It took some years but the memorial to the soldier/golfer was finally created in 1928 when “The Freddie Tait Cup” was purchased from the surplus funds of the British amateur team’s tour to South Africa to be presented to the leading amateur in the SA Open. The cup bears the R&A Club die and crest and the medal die of the Army Golfing Society and today bears the names of many leading South African amateurs who used their national open as the springboard for great things in the professional game.
In 1936 Tait’s putter was presented to the Kimberley Golf Club by JH Taylor, one of the leading players of his time, and forms the centre piece of a memorial to Tait at the diamond city’s course.
These close connections with British golf imbued South African players with the desire to excel in The Open and it finally fell to Bobby Locke, in 1949 at Royal St George’s, to erect the first beacon on a road that would inspire subsequent generations to follow in his footsteps.
However, it should not be forgotten that some years earlier, in 1934, another leading South African player, Sid Brews, had shown that it was possible for a local player to travel overseas and mount a strong challenge in The Open.
Brews and his brother Jock between them won the SA Open 12 times and he was second to Henry Cotton when the renowned Englishman won his first Open at Royal St George’s (Sandwich) in 1934.
Cotton had spread-eagled the field with opening rounds of 67 and 65 (a score which for years was commemorated by the Dunlop 65 ball) but when his nerves started to get the better of him in the final round and he stumbled home in 79 strokes it was the South African Brews who chased him hardest.
The later years of Brews’ career would overlap with that of Locke’s but it would not be until the cessation of hostilities in another great war that a South African’s name would be etched onto the plinth of the Claret Jug as the “champion golfer of the year.”
Locke triumphed in 1949, 1950, 1952 and put the seal on his career at St Andrews in 1957, a feat emulated by Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 when he ran away from the field wearing shirts with the number “57” (commemorating a score he made at Mossel Bay) embroidered on one of the sleeves.
Locke’s deeds motivated Gary Player and the “Little Maestro” in turn enthused subsequent generations to provide southern Africa with 11 Open titles won by five different golfers.
The list of southern African winners is:
1949 – Bobby Locke, Royal St George’s
1950 – Bobby Locke, Royal Troon
1952 – Bobby Locke, Royal Lytham and St Anne’s
1957 – Bobby Locke, St Andrews
1959 – Gary Player, Muirfield
1968 – Gary Player, Carnoustie
1974 – Gary Player, Royal Lytham and St Anne’s
1994 – Nick Price*, Turnberry
2002 – Ernie Els, Muirfield
2010 – Louis Oosthuizen, St Andrews
2012 – Ernie Els, Royal Lytham and St Anne’s
*Nick Price is Zimbabwean.