The week of the W.G.C Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, or its equivalent, over the past 18 years rekindles, for me, memories of what was previously known as the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth near London.
While the more recent version of the game’s most significant match play championship contains both a larger field and substantially more prizemoney, the original World Match Play produced some of the great match-ups and moments in the history of the game.
I was fortunate to caddy in what was then known as the Piccadilly World Match Play Championships on three occasions, the first in 1973 as a 20-year old on my first trip to Europe to caddy on the European Tour.
I had caddied for much of the European Tour that year for Australian golfer Bob Shearer but midway through the year became aware that Australia’s rising star, Graham Marsh, had been invited to play the event.
I wrote Marsh a letter which I sent via ‘snail mail’ in those days to Japan where he was a regular on the Japan Tour, expressing an interest in caddying for him if his bag was available. It was a pipe-dream admittedly but I thought it worth giving a shot although on not hearing back from him I all but gave up any hope.
However, three weeks before the event I headed north to Turnberry in Scotland and the John Player Classic where I had a pre-arranged caddying gig with Australia’s Billy Dunk who was making one of his very few trips to Europe.
Arriving in Turnberry nearly a week early, as there was no other event on at that time, I caddied in two practice rounds for Bob Charles who was there early as he had business to attend to in the days immediately prior to the event and was keen to familairise himself with the course as he would have little time during tournament week.
While returning Bob Charles clubs to the Turnberry Hotel one afternoon I noticed Marsh in the foyer and tackled him about the possibility of caddying at the World Match Play nearly three weeks later and asked if he had recieved my letter.
Marsh, too, had business to attend to (in France) in the days leading up to the John Player Classic and was at Turnberry early to get in a few practice rounds and asked if I would work those rounds for him.
Marsh had received my letter, but indicated that the Scottish caddie who had worked for him at the Scottish Open at St Andrews in July would have the bag at the John Player Classic, the Dunlop Masters the following week at St Pierre in Chepstow in Wales and the World Match Play.
Marsh did, though, add that if anything went awry with those arrangements I could have first option on the bag. That was a ray of hope but, honestly, the chances of that happening seemed remote as caddying in those three tournaments was a dream for a caddie, more especially at the World Match Play which involved eight of the game’s best players and a relatively good purse.
When Marsh returned to Turnberry after his trip to France, however, he sought me out and asked whether I would be available for the Match Play. His caddie had called him and indicated that his wife was ill and he was unable to be at Turnberry or the Dunlop Masters and although he would be trying to get to Wentworth was unsure whether circumstances would allow.
Marsh wanted surety heading into an event with the significance of the World Match Play and wanted to know well ahead of time of the availability of a caddie. You can imagine my joy on hearing the news.
Marsh was an emerging star in World golf and having won the Scottish Open in July and numerous events in Japan and Asia he was considered a potential worldwide star and as such the tournament promoters, IMG, felt he would make an interesting inclusion into the field.
The World Match Play in that era attracted most of the game’s greats with major winners that year at least targeted for inclusion. Tommy Aaron had won the Masters that year, Tom Weiskopf the Open Championship and with both in the side of the draw with Graham Marsh it appeared a daunting task for Marsh to make it past the opening round.
Matches were played over 36 holes and Marsh managed to beat Aaron in the opening round and then, up against Weiskopf in round two, he would again succeed.
None of this round robin stuff back then, Marsh was into the final on the Saturday against Gary Player who had won the event on four previous occasions and, up against a relative novice at this level, it appeared to many that number five was just a matter of course.
Marsh was, though, a tough competitor and in that regard carried similarities to Player and the final would be an epic, in fact it would go on to become the longest in this history of the event.
Two down with just six to play in the 36-hole final Marsh won the 31st and then Player surprisingly three putted the 34th and the match was back to square.
As the pair stood on the 17th (35th) tee, the first of two consecutive par fives to finish on the outstanding and intimate Burma Road layout at Wentworth lay ahead, and having won the previous hole, Marsh drove first and split the fairway on what is a particularly demanding tee shot.
Marsh agonising as his second to the 35th flirts with OB
As Player stood over the ball, Marsh advised Player he was ahead of the markers (which he was) and Player then replaced his ball and played the hole out with Marsh winning the hole and the underdog headed off to the 36th hole 1 up.
As the pair left the green Player walked over to Marsh waving his finger and said (paraphrasing); “I teed my ball up in exactly the same position as you back there on the tee but as far as I am concerned I don’t worry about petty things like inches so we will forget the whole thing”
Marsh was dumbfounded but the intensity of the match was certainly taken to a new level.
I invite you to view the youtube video (below) which beautifully highlights the outcome of the match and just how Player found a way to win at the 4th extra hole. Player’s bunker play and tenacity in the playoff was stunning not to mention my shoulder length hair !
This was match play at its best.