HIGH on the list of things no golfer needs to be told: The Australian Masters is never going to be the most historically significant stop on the game’s worldwide schedule. Ceding precedence to this week’s national Open Championship, the Masters is also forever destined to be only the second biggest thing “Down Under”. It isn’t even the highest-profile event finishing today. The DP World Tour Championship in Dubai boasts a better and definitely deeper field.
And yet, over the course of its 36-year life, the Aussie Masters can surely claim to be one of the most unpredictable weeks in golf. Since the first playing at Huntingdale in Melbourne back in 1979, a wide range of stuff has occurred, both on and off the course.
Take 2006, when Arizona-based Aussie Geoff Ogilvy returned to his home city. After two days of indifferent play, the then-US Open champion arrived on the 18th tee needing a par to make the cut. It didn’t look good though. Two shots later, Ogilvy’s ball was through the green, under a hedge and all-but up against the wall of the clubhouse.
As luck would have it, an advertisement sign lay between ball and hole and Ogilvy duly asked for a free drop. Tournament director Andrew Langford-Jones was in attendance – along with a few thousand spectators – and, convinced the player had no chance of pulling off the shot, refused the request.
“OK, but what happens if I hit the sign,” asked Ogilvy.
Smiling, the rules official responded that such an eventuality would make him – Langford-Jones – look “a proper dickhead”.
On his knees, Ogilvy swung under the hedge and, closing the clubface at the last minute, duly hit the sign. Turning to the sizeable audience, he asked: “Can you tell him what he is?”
“You’re a proper dickhead” came the loud and unanimous reply.
Three years later, Tiger Woods was the star attraction at Kingston Heath, lured by a rumoured $3 million appearance fee.
“I learned a lot about Tiger that week, good and bad,” says Langford-Jones, who is celebrating 25 years of Masters officialdom. “On the Wednesday, I got a call telling me Tiger wanted some background on the course before his press conference.
“I told him how February is the best month for golf on the Melbourne Sandbelt, how we were in the middle of a bad drought and how the greens were running at 12 on the Stimpmeter. Half an hour later, he repeated everything I said almost word-for-word.
“On the other hand, a day later the identity of the young lady accompanying Tiger was revealed to me. I spent the next four days worried it was going to come out and ruin our biggest tournament ever. I was so happy when it didn’t, especially when, only two days later, the scandal broke.”
Back in 2005, Bubba Watson was another visiting American to give Langford-Jones palpitations. On the second day of the tournament, the now two-time Masters champion and Aussie Robert Allenby finished at the same time on opposite nines and, by chance, on the same score. On the way to the scorer’s hut, however, Allenby was asked to do a short television interview. So Watson signed his card first. No problem.
Later, after his manager had telephoned to hear his tee time for the next day, Bubba called back threatening to withdraw because the draw had been “rigged” in favour of the home players. Out in the penultimate group, with Allenby at the rear of the field, Watson felt the “first-in, last-out” tradition had been ignored.
Even after Allenby agreed to swap places, the left-handed Floridian still insisted he was “going home”. At which point Langford-Jones told him he had his tee time and it was up to him whether or not he appeared. Which was bad enough, but there was one last complication.
“One journalist had come in for a copy of the draw,” says Langford-Jones. “I found him in the media centre and asked to look at the sheet. He gave it to me and, without him noticing, I handed back the new version.
“Even then, it wasn’t over. I wasn’t sure if the original draw had been sent out. But I had to take that chance. I didn’t sleep much. But the second draw was in the morning papers and Bubba turned up. So it all ended OK without anyone finding out what was going on.”
All good fun and not nearly as disastrous as the cricket match Langford-Jones arranged between the players and the Melbourne Cricket Club in 2002. “It was held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, so everyone wanted to play,” he says. “Terry Gale and Peter O’Malley opened the batting. Stephen Leaney was number three. Stuart Appleby played. So did Craig Parry and Wayne Grady and Aaron Baddeley and Peter Lonard and Ozzie Moore.
“I warned them all before we started not to do anything silly. But they didn’t listen. Baddeley thought he was a real cricketer and bowled really fast – too fast, as it turned out. He threw out his shoulder and ended up not being able to play. Appleby hurt himself throwing the ball in from the boundary and had to withdraw. The wicketkeeper, Leaney, broke a finger. Moore did his hamstring.
“Parry scored about 70-odd runs before he too pulled a hamstring and had to be carried off. I actually wanted him to come off when he had 65, but he took the view, on his debut at the MCG, he wanted to score a century. ‘Go and get f****d,’ was his response to my request. We ended up losing six players from the Masters. The tournament promoters, IMG, were not happy.”
The saddest Masters story, however, belongs to Jon Abbott. In 2007, the young Victorian shot 96 on the opening day, before withdrawing on the 14th hole of his second round.
“I watched Jon on the second day,” recalls Langford-Jones. “He couldn’t get the ball in the air. But he tried on every shot until he broke down on the 12th hole. He was in tears. ‘I just can’t play,’ he said over and over. I asked him if he wanted to pull out, but he kept going for two more holes. Eventually, he couldn’t take any more and said he had a headache. That was all I needed to hear. I drove him back to the clubhouse. There was a crowd of media waiting. But I took him straight to his car. Golf can be such a cruel game.”
On a much happier note – although one now tinged with melancholy – the late, great Seve Ballesteros is still recalled with much affection by Masters officials. At a time when bush fires were sweeping Australia, the five-time major champion took himself on to the practice range and, in return for donations to the disaster fund, entertained the crowd with an ever-more unlikely succession of trick shots.
“Seve was hitting 260-yard drives off one leg, then the same off the other leg,” says Langford-Jones with a smile. “Then he was hitting shots off his knees, or calling fades and draws to order. It was amazing stuff to watch.”
Only at the Aussie Masters, the world’s most eventful golf tournament.