Bobby Locke: SA’s first golf great

Before Retief Goosen, before Ernie Els and before Gary Player there was another South African golfer who started the tradition of excellence among players of the southernmost country in Africa: Bobby Locke. He was the first South African to win a major, and the first to compete with and beat the best golfers in the world, both in Europe and the United States.

How was good was Locke? Well, in 1946 a series of exhibitions was arranged against Sam Snead, winner of 81 PGA Tour titles, including six Grand Slams. Locke won 12 times to Snead’s two.

Arthur D’Arcy “Bobby” Locke was born in Germiston in 1917, and from an early age showed a natural talent for the game. By the age of eight his handicap was 14, and by the age of 16 he was a scratch golfer.

He enjoyed a successful amateur career, but chose to enter the mining industry rather than become a professional. As fate would have it, however, his employer sent him to London in 1936, allowing Locke the opportunity to enter the British Open. He won the Amateur Medal.

Won the South African Open

Two years later he turned professional, and promptly won the South African Open for the first time.

He followed up his SA Open win with victories in the same tournament in 1939 and 1940, but the Second World War brought a temporary halt to his career at home, having halted his European career a number of years earlier. Locke served in the South African Air Force, logging just over 1 150 hours in the air.

Returning to golf after the war, Locke immediately established himself as one of the best players in the game, not least with his series of wins over Slammin’ Sam Snead in 1946. To put that achievement into perspective, Snead’s 81 wins on the PGA Tour is the most ever, beating even Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Also in 1946, Locke won the Harry Vardon Trophy, awarded to the leading player on the European PGA Tour, and, picking up where he left off, won the South African Open that had remained uncontested from 1941 to 1945.

Amazing run in the USA

It was in 1947, however, that Bobby Locke showed the American public what he was capable of. Locke captured seven titles and in one stretch won four events in five starts, his amazing play leaving him second on the money winners’ list.

In total, he spent just over two-and-a-half years playing in the USA, competing in 59 tournaments, winning 11 of them, finishing runner-up on 10 occasions, taking third eight times and fourth five times. His 16-shot margin of victory in the Chicago Victory National Championship in 1948 remains a PGA record to this day.

The South African ace was, however, banned from the PGA Tour in 1949 when he elected to stay in Britain and play a series of exhibitions and tournaments instead of honouring a commitment to play in the United States. Two years later the ban was lifted, but Locke never again felt welcome to play in the USA and instead campaigned in Europe.

First major victory

In 1950, Locke recorded the first major victory of his career, claiming the British Open title at Sandwich. He also secured the Harry Vardon Trophy for the second time. Locke repeated his British Open success the following year, this time winning at Troon. In both years he also won the South African Open.

After missing out on a hat trick of victories in 1952, Locke won his third British Open title at Royal Lytham and Saint Annes. Australian Peter Thomson claimed the title in 1954, while Locke claimed his third Order of Merit title. Thomson completed a hat trick of wins in 1956 before Locke picked up his fourth Open crown at the home of golf, Saint Andrews, equalling his championship record of 279 and becoming only the eighth player to have won the Open four times or more.

Only two years later South Africa would have its second major winner when Gary Player claimed the Open title at Muirfield in 1959.

Serious road accident

The following year, Locke was involved in a serious road accident in South Africa that severely affected the sight in his left eye, and was never again the same golfer.

Ultimately his career record included four major victories, 11 PGA Tour titles, 23 European Tour titles and 38 South African tour titles. In 1976 his brilliance was recognised by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club when he was named an honorary member.

Locke is still recognised as one of the top putters ever to play the game. He also coined one of the game’s most famous one-liners: “You drive for show but putt for dough.” Locke died aged 69 in 1987.

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