By Brian O’Hare
(This is story will also appear in the November edition of Inside Golf)
GREG RHODES certainly didn’t begin his golfing career in a terribly auspicious fashion.
Taken to a course by his dad as a 13 year old one day to act as caddie Rhodes had a swing himself but it took three swipes at the ball before he made any contact at all.
“Yeah I started with two air swings,” the 56 year old Victorian said recently as he sat in the Manly Golf Club clubhouse in Sydney.
Rhodes had just secured by far the biggest win of his golfing life, taking the 2015 Australian Men’s Senior Amateur Championship by a single stroke.
Given he had taken those first tentative golf swings some 43 years earlier it is telling he so easily remembered them at the moment of his biggest golfing triumph.
“I have always been a very determined person so I started playing golf and it made me determined to improve and play the game well,” he said.
Rhodes certainly progressed and as member of Coomealla Golf Club near Mildura in regional Victoria was a prolific winner in the local area.
But, as he says, he was only ever a “country golfer”, playing in district and a few state events and in his 30’s just one national amateur championship.
That has all changed since he turned 55 last year and began playing in events with some of Australia’s leading amateur golfers on the elite senior circuit.
He arrived at Manly Golf Club in late September for his first Australian Senior Championship as one of the favourites after winning the NSW Senior Amateur Championship earlier in the year and being runner-up in the Victorian Senior Championship. He’d moved to second on the Australian Senior Ranking order of merit in the process.
At Manly things went to plan in the two opening rounds of the 54 hole event with back to back 2-under 69’s seeing him go into the final round with a three stroke lead.
But the golfing gods rarely like to see things go too easily and Rhodes admits the pressure of a likely debut national championship win started to tell. Perhaps even the scars from those first two air swings were creeping into the psyche.
His comfortable overnight lead quickly evaporated and after an uncharacteristic wayward drive on the 9th led to a double bogey he made the turn at four over for the round.
Behind him a number of very talented senior golfers were threatening, chief among them local Mark Pearson from just up the road at the Mona Vale Golf Club.
Pearson is known for his aggressive golf and was in an exuberant mood. Not, he revealed later, because he was so happy with his two opening rounds but because during the practice day his fellow club mate and three-time Australian Senior Amateur Champion Stefan Albinski had challenged him to a composite “9 Hole” putting competition on the practice green.
To his utter amazement and joy he won, finally beating Albinski in a golfing challenge. He was still working out what he was going to do with all the money.
“It was $2 and I’ll probably frame it,” he said.
Pearson, playing in the second last group, had started the day seven strokes adrift of Rhodes but with just a handful of holes to go had it down to just one.
After some toing and froing, on the par four 328 metre 18th it was back to two and Pearson knew he needed something special. He pulled out the driver and figured with the wind behind him and a bit of extra effort he could make up the 40 plus extra metres he needed on his regular drive length to reach the green in one.
“The day before I nearly put it on the green and I was two behind at that stage and I thought with the wind behind if I could bounce it off the back of the bunker I could get to the green,” Pearson said.
The ambitious plan didn’t work and he ended up needing to chip on to make par.
Behind him Rhodes pulled his iron tee shot left and had to negotiate a tree then a greenside bunker on the way to a scrambling bogie. It was enough for a one stroke victory.
“You’ve got to be delighted to win an event like this,” Rhodes said later. “I was disappointed with my golf today but I am happy to win. I set myself a goal to win, I guess we all do but I am very happy to have snuck in.”
“Well done to Mark who obviously played really well today. It’s disappointing for him but that’s the way it goes I suppose.”
The Manly course, which underwent a major revamp three years ago, was very well received by competitors and for spectators looked an absolute picture with its many water, bush and vegetation features.
The championship will be played in South Australia in October next year.
Pearson reckoned his back should have recovered by then from the damage done by the extra effort he had put into some of his shots.
“Maybe next year I can go one better,” he said.