Denis Watson and George Harvey
RHODESIA has produced few world champions in any sport, so 18 August 1975, became a day to remember for all of the country's sport followers.
The scene was the fabulous but fearsome El Rincon golf course in Bogota, Colombia, where a slim, shy nineteen-year-old and his twenty-seven-year-old partner walked away with the World Pairs amateur title from seventeen other nations.
The triumphant Rhodesians were teenager Denis Watson, who won the individual title after leading from start to finish, and George Harvey. As a team they led the race for the World Pairs title after the second round and eventually won from second placed Sweden by the massive margin of 10 strokes. The achievement earned them the 1975 Rhodesian Sportsman of the Year award.
It was the perfect ending to an almost fairy-tale story. In June, the Rhodesia Golf Union had received a cable from the Colombian Golf Federation which advised that "acting on Government instructions we have no option but to withdraw our invitation to you". The news was bitterly disappointing but it was the sort of treatment to which all Rhodesian sportsmen were becoming resigned, in an era of political ostracism.
But some strenuous behind-the-scenes work paid off, as a month later Rhodesia Golf Union president Gerry Taylor, received a cable from the organiser of the event Enrique Semper, which said that visas had been granted for the Rhodesian team.
The late acceptance left Watson and Harvey with only two weeks of preparation before they left for Colombia on 9 August. They did have one advantage. Harvey had played on the El Rincon course two years before, when, partnered by Alan Shepherd, they finished the World Pairs championship 21 shots behind the winners, South Africa. Harvey was able to give his younger partner much advice on conditions and the vagaries of the course.
This time the Rhodesians were also fortunate in having a few days of acclimatisation before the championship began. The main problems that faced them were the daily rain and the altitude, 2 200 m above sea-level. They were often short of breath in the rarefied atmosphere.
The first round shocked the world. Watson, playing with assurance and aplomb beyond his tender years, completely mastered the tricky course to set a new amateur record of 67 and take a three-stroke lead in the individual competition from Sweden's Jan Rube.
Harvey did not fare as well, shooting a 78, but their combined scores kept them up with the leaders. Watson shot a second round 71 and Harvey improved to a 73 to take the team event lead three strokes ahead of Sweden. In the third round, Harvey came into his own and equalled Watson's course record of 67. All of a sudden attention was firmly riveted on the Rhodesian pair. In manager Gordon Mollett's words: "Everyone was very friendly, and when Denis broke the course record in the first round you would have thought we had come from the presidential palace.
"I told them they hadn't seen anything yet, and, blow me down, George does the same thing in the third round!" Watson returned a fourth-round 70 and Harvey a 74 to secure the world title. Watson won the individual title by five strokes and Harvey finished seventh.
Springbok, Neville Sundelson, who was one of the South African team, summed up the Rhodesian achievement when he said: "We would never have caught the Rhodesians, Denis Watson and George Harvey. They played magnificently, especially Watson, and they were worthy winners."
The two Rhodesians became local heroes and were feted by golfers and officials. When Enrique Semper presented the winners with their trophies, he said: "They handed out a four-day golf lesson to competitors and public during the tournament." The Bogota afternoon newspaper was also complimentary and headlined its account of the Rhodesians' victory with "They came. They saw. They conquered."
Victory at El Rincon was for both golfers the crowning glory on distinguished amateur careers. Harvey dominated Rhodesian amateur golf for five years, during which time few people knew that he was playing with sight in only one eye. He lost the sight of his left eye after an optic nerve infection when he was fifteen.
Harvey spent three years as a professional at Bulawayo Golf Club but in 1969 applied for a return to amateur status. He had to take a back seat for two years, and his opening tournament after reinstatement was the 1971 Rhodesian amateur championship. This was the first of three national titles which he won, and he went on to claim two South African stroke play titles and reach the semifinals of the South African match play four times.
Another milestone in Harvey's career was his selection in 1973 as the number one player for an eight-man international team which included the amateur champions of Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan and Brazil. In 1977, he turned professional again and made a vain attempt to realise his lifetime ambition of playing in the British Open. A wrist injury scotched his chances after he had qualified for the 1978 Open.
His trip to Britain that year was marred by a British Government decision to freeze any earnings the Rhodesian made. But the editor of the Sunday Express, John Junor, campaigned extensively on Harvey's behalf and presented the Rhodesian with a cheque for $1 259 — money sent in by Express readers who disagreed with the government freeze.
Watson took up golf when he was fourteen and used to practise with his father, Don Watson, who decided to play the game at the same time. Within a year Denis was down to single figures while his father remained a 24 handicap.
Another year of golf saw Watson get down to scratch, and he was picked for the Mashonaland junior team at the age of sixteen. In 1973 he captained a Rhodesian junior squad which toured South Africa and after winning the Slazenger junior tournament down there, he finished runner-up in the South African junior championships.
He again captained the Rhodesian juniors the following year, and his team made mincemeat of the visiting South African team, Watson beating the South African Johan Killian five and three at Royal. That was a big year for Denis and he represented Rhodesia in the Eisenhower Trophy and had the distinction of returning the lowest score in the team.
Watson turned professional in October 1975 — after winning the world title at Bogota and he had his first South African circuit in 1976. Like most new young pros he learned the hard way and his first cracks at the Sunshine Circuit and the European tour earned him little.
But with typical determination he rode out the lean times and really came into his own in 1979, finishing second to Gary Player in the PGA order of merit. This earned him the distinction of becoming the first Rhodesian to be invited to take part in major tournaments on the United States PGA tour in 1980.
Comments are welcome - please enter them below or send them to Eddy Norris at email@example.com
To view the Blog Home Page - Please Click Here.
(Please visit our previous posts and archives)