Bobby Locke – US trail blazer

Bobby Locke was not athletic in physique but had the most marvellous temperament

Bobby Locke has always been a hero to me, even though he was a few months younger. His record in the USA does not look as spectacular as Gary Player’s but is remarkable if you consider the circumstances.

He was the first overseas player since early in the 1900s to make a big impact on the US circuit. He used to make the Americans incandescent by arriving out of the blue, winning several tournaments and considerable prize money, and then disappearing again.

His first tournament on US soil was the 1947 Masters and he finished 15th. He then went on to play 12 more US tournaments that year, winning 6 of them, being runner-up twice and never finishing below 7th place. He was joint third in the US Open that year.

You have to remember that most of the US pros had continued to play golf throughout the war, although Lloyd Mangrum was an exception, being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. This was why we were wiped out at the 1947 Ryder Cup match. Locke had been flying Liberator bombers on missions in the Middle East.

Introspective press

On the British circuit, all the publicity would be about the overseas players arriving to compete. We British pros often complained that we were not getting our fair share of attention. It was probably a relic of Empire; there was an affection for Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Canadians.

In the United States it was the precise reverse. All the publicity was about the home pros and the US press were always reluctant to give coverage to the achievements of overseas golfers. Bobby was a trail blazer and achieved his victories against considerable odds.

He won the Tam O’Shanter tournament at Chicago in 1950. Although not a major, this tournament was one of the most lucrative on the circuit.

He came close to winning it a second time, when I was playing in the match behind. He needed a 4 at the final hole for victory. A wide stream, coloured artificially blue, ran in front of the green and there was a tall tree on the right hand side, in front of the green.

For those who may not know, Bobby had a remarkable way of playing the game. Every shot from tee to green was hit out to the right and drawn back on line; the longer the shot, the greater the curve.

Bobby’s 6-iron shot came in from the right and caught the very top twig, falling down on to the sloping bank and into the stream. The crowd, to their shame, cheered. But Bobby, as always, remained impassive. He calmly dropped a ball behind and chipped up to complete the hole and I think still finished second.

Bobby never won the US Open but when he became a major threat it was remarkable how the pin positions on key holes seemed to be on the right hand side, close to bunkers and other hazards. He came close to winning it even then.

I play trick shots myself and can curl a ball into the green from the right, but when I do it the ball tends to jump off the green to the left. I cannot make it stop.

But Bobby’s ball would curve in from the right and jump to the right after pitching. I have never worked out how he did it.

Flat swing – no slice

No one liked Bobby’s swing, which was said to be too flat and inside-out. But if all club members in the world were to swing like him, most would halve their handicaps. A high swing is all wrong for high-handicap golfers who are always battling against a slice.

I once heard a well-known television commentator say that Locke “even hooked his putts.” I could have throttled him.

Bobby was the finest putter the world has ever seen. He might have looked as if he was hooking his putts but I played with him for 40 years. While he drew the putter back around him, he then did an outward loop so that the line of the putting stroke was perfectly straight.

I never used to practice all that much as a tournament pro, relying on the groundwork I had done in my ‘teens and early twenties. But Bobby was remarkable.

Putting lesson

During the British Matchplay tournament one year at Hoylake, he was off his putting. “Max, come and have a look at me,” he asked. “I can’t find out what it is.”

We walked to the 16th green close to the clubhouse and he had three balls with him. His first putt was hit very badly and it was immediately clear to me what the trouble was.

“Look,” I said, bending down. “The toe of your putter is off the ground; I can nearly get my finger under it.”

“Yee-es,” Bobby said in his quiet voice. His next putt touched the hole on the left hand side and his third touched it on the right.

“Thank you very much,” he said. “That’s it.”

I walked forward to pick up the balls and when I turned round to throw them back to him, he was already walking back to the clubhouse.

“Hey, aren’t you going to hit any more?” I asked.

“No, that’s enough for me,” he replied. “I’ve got it now.”

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