If you were asked to make a list of Australia’s most successful current athletes, it’s unlikely anyone would include a world champion by the name of Jason Belmonte.
The swag of Australian golfers making their mark in the USA, Europe, Japan and in Australia owe a great debt to the early professionals who toured the world ekeing out a living on tough circuits where the prize money was peanuts compared to today’s vast amounts.
One of these originals, Norman Von Nida, The Von, surely the best-named golfer ever to beat 70 in a round, has just died at age 93.
The Von was a great character and a great golfer. Between 1938 and 1955 he won or was placed second in nine Australian Opens. He won three Australian PGAs. And was invited by Bobby Jones, the Master, to take his place in the US Masters Tournament. Von Nida helped the young professionals like Peter Thomson, Bruce Crampton and Bruce Devlin early on their careers. He often, according to the veteran golf writer Peter Stone, shared his prize money with them to keep them going.
My favourite story involving The Von concerns his attempt to break the course record at the short but as tight as a miniskirt Northbridge course in North Sydney. To earn a quid from time to time The Von would announce that he was going to play a particular course with the intention of breaking the course record. There were a number of courses where he had done just this. A good crowd paying several shillings each woudl watch him take the course to the cleaners. So there was a good crowd gathered around him as he strode to the first tee at Northbridge.
The first hole as Northbridge is a short par four. All the holes in fact are short. But it is impossible to reach the green in one shot because a huge wire fence directly blocks the hole from a hitter on the tee. You have to lay up and then hit a chip shot at the dog-leg into a narrow green. Apparently The Von was not amused that his chance of a birdie at the first was so limited. The second involves a blind shot off the tee. More anger from The Von. Remember his volanic temper was legendary. The third hole involved yet another blind shot off the tee. The fourth was a straight forward shortish par four. Apparently The Von (who hadn’t seen the Northbridge course he started his record attempt) was still fuming when he reached the fifth hole.
Anyone who has played the Northbridge course will have dire memories of the fifth hole, a par three, and the shortest hole on the course. The tee is on the top of a hill. The green is about 50m below. You can’t see the green. You hit your ball into a vast airspace and hope that it drops like a shot bird on to the green. The ball can go into the harbour if it is hit too long. If it is hit short, it goes into rough from which even Tiger Woods wouldn’t be able to get the ball out, real tiger country. Or it skids away down the steep slopes that the green sits on.
The Von apparently was not impressed. Told what he had to do at the tee, he promptly gave up his record attempt. Those of us who have struggled and cursed our slow way around Northbridge feel an affinity with The Von for sharing, if only for a few holes, the anguish that ordinary golfers feel on every hole they play.
Farewell The Von. You were one of the champions of Australian sport, even if you couldn’t crack the Northbridge course.