Norman Von Nida once fought an American golfer allergic to grass

Matt Cleary Columnist

By Matt Cleary, Matt Cleary is a Roar Expert


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    English golfer Nick Faldo on left shakes hands with Australian golfing legend, 84 year old Norman Von Nida at the Australian Open Golf Championship at Adelaide, Friday, December 4, 1998. Von Nida gave Faldo a lesson after his first round of 77 and following the lesson had a 69 in his second round.(AP Photo/Russell McPhedran)

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    It’s folklore in the Cleary house that Mum’s uncle Oswald ‘Ossie’ Short beat Norman Von Nida in a matchplay event in 1938.

    Then came World War II and both men joined up. Ossie was killed in Libya at the Battle of El Alamein. ‘The Von’ survived and went on to be one of the greats.

    Von Nida was born in Sydney and grew up in Brisbane. He worked as a caddy and left school aged 14 to work in an abattoir.

    At the age of eighteen, he won the Queensland Amateur.

    At twenty, the Von borrowed £50 and beat the legendary American Gene Sarazen in an exhibition match at Royal Queensland in Brisbane.

    Von Nida was a caddie, stood five-foot-five. Sarazen was thirty-four years old and in his prime, had won six of his seven major championships and had skipped the first ever Masters to be there.

    Von Nida beat him 2-up, and shot 67.

    Over a beer in the clubhouse later Von Nida asked Sarazen, “Mr Sarazen, do you think that one day I will be a player like you and travel the world playing golf?”

    “Little man,” replied Sarazen. “Who did you just beat today?”

    “You, Mr Sarazen,” replied Von Nida.

    “That’s right,” said Sarazen. “And I am the best in the world.”

    Aussie golfing legend Norman Von Nida

    English golfer Nick Faldo on left shakes hands with Australian golfing legend, 84 year old Norman Von Nida at the Australian Open Golf Championship at Adelaide, Friday, December 4, 1998. Von Nida gave Faldo a lesson after his first round of 77 and following the lesson had a 69 in his second round.(AP Photo/Russell McPhedran)

    After World War II, Von Nida travelled to Britain in one of British Airways’ converted Lancaster bombers. From 1946 through 1948 he won 24 times in Europe and Australia. He finished T4, T6, T3 in the Open Championship. He’d turned up with 17 pounds. He left with pockets full.

    Watching at home in Australia was a young Peter Thomson who later said:

    “Had he not been the one to leave Australia and try to make a living playing golf tournaments, then I wouldn’t have gone after him and I wonder where we would be today. Norman Von Nida is really the hero.”

    Von Nida had just two starts in the US Open (T59, CUT) and never played the US PGA Championship.

    In 1950 he was invited to take the place of Bobby Jones (by Bobby Jones) in the Masters at Augusta National. In five starts he didn’t do better than T27.

    In 1948 Von Nida was involved in an actual fistfight with US Ryder Cup player Henry Ransom that resulted in Ransom’s disqualification from the Lower Rio Grande Open and suspension from the PGA Tour.

    Von Nida alleged that on the first hole Ransom had made an annoyed swipe at a very small putt – which Von Nida alleged had tapped the ball – and then tapped it in. Ransom recorded a four, not a five. Von Nida told the man scoring Ransom’s card, Frank Strazza, that he should not sign Ransom’s card.

    Ransom was incensed. “You mind your business, you son of a bitch,” said Ransom.

    “It is my business,” replied Von Nida.

    In The Argus, Von Nida wrote:
    “Ransom became heated and said he would like to punch my head in. I walked away. He followed and struck me. I naturally hit him back. They were the only blows struck.”

    Von Nida later wrote of the incident in his book, The Von. He said that as a boy working in the abattoir he had developed extremely strong hands and wrists.

    “I would break open the heads of sheep after their skulls had been partially split by a machine. My forearms, hands and fingers became incredibly strong. I was unbeatable in an arm wrestle against anyone my size.”

    And thus, when Ransom came at him, Von Nida felt well equipped.

    “As I stumbled back I managed to grab him by the throat and closed my fingers on his windpipe. My fingers were still like steel bars after my time at the meat works and Ransom was turning blue before the police arrived to break it up.

    “I was so worked up. I couldn’t let go of him and a sheriff had to bash my forearm with his hands a few times to make me loosen my grip.”

    Von Nida’s big beef was with the PGA Tour’s ‘winter rules’ which allowed players to pick up their ball, clean it and place it on a nice lie. Von Nida felt a man should play the ball as it lies. And he was not backward in coming forward with this opinion.

    He wrote that Ransom’s alleged cheating was “typical of many occurrences in the last two days that have made this the worst tournament in the history of the PGA”.

    “Many pros are openly violating the rules. In my opinion, Lloyd Mangrum, who is leading with 196 [and who would go on to win] should have been disqualified three times already,” wrote Von Nida.

    Such unvarnished honesty didn’t endear Von Nida to US pros who reckoned the foreigner’s sentiments were just sour grapes.

    Harlingen Golf Club professional, Tony Butler, said that Ransom had told him he was sick of Von Nida talking down American golf and its golfers.

    “After three hours, he was sick of it,” said Butler. “The little Australian is angry because everyone over here doesn’t bow and scrape to him. And because he hasn’t been shooting very good golf,” he added.

    Harvey Yale, sports editor of Harlingen, Texas Valley Morning Star told Australian Associated Press (AAP) that.

    “The consensus of opinion of several touring professionals is that Von Nida, failing to hit his stride since the winter tour began at Los Angeles on January 2, has been ill-disposed toward his fellow golfers and conditions in United States golf.

    “It seems that Von Nida, as a leading money-winner in England in 1947, resents the lack of attention shown him. His complaint is that Bobby Locke, the South African, has received all the acclaim.”

    Henry Ransom would soon retire from golf because of an allergy to grass. Norman Von Nida would mastermind the breeding of the famous racehorse Kingston Town (that won over $1.6 million AUS) and continued to play golf into his mid-80s off a handicap of five – while legally blind.

    He died in 2007 aged 93.

    The above is an extract from A Short History of Golf by Matt Cleary, with foreword by Greg Norman, published by New Holland Publishers. RRP $29.99. Contact for a signed copy.

    Matt Cleary
    Matt Cleary

    Matt Cleary is a sports writer from Sydney. He enjoys golf, footy and Four Pines Pale Ale, and spends as much time as conscience allows at Long Reef GC. Tweet him @journomatcleary, or read him at his website.

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