ALWAYS self-effacing, Bob Shearer reckons he ‘got lucky’ 35 years ago when he lifted the Australian Open trophy at The Australian Golf Club.
“I think Greg Norman pulled out with a virus,” Shearer grins, when asked to reminisce how he went head-to-head with the legendary Jack Nicklaus in 1982, before keeping at bay the Golden Bear and the late Payne Stewart on the final day.
Shearer, now 69, is sitting in the magnificent clubhouse at Southern Golf Club in Melbourne, where it all began under the watchful eye of resident professional Harold Knights more than 50 years ago. No prizes for guessing Shearer is the club’s favourite son. A pictorial diary chronicles his illustrious career on one side of the foyer and the clubs he used to lift the Stonehaven Cup in 1982 reside in a glass cabinet on the other.
His wife Kathie, the gregarious media manager at the Australian Open again this month, insists Bob was chaired from the original old clubhouse by members after their wedding reception at Southern while she balefully trailed them. He still laughs about it and says, somewhat sheepishly, that it is true.
By this time the talented Shearer had established himself as one of the most gifted young golfers in Australia. He had set out on the European Tour in the early 1970s when he and fellow Australians Jack Newton, Stewart Ginn and Ian Stanley travelled together and “caused havoc” in Europe – on and off the golf course. “A lot of the time it was, ‘Get through the round as quickly as possible and get to the bar.’” Shearer says. “We didn’t even know where the practice fairway was. But we all woke up to ourselves pretty quickly that we weren’t going to get anywhere if we kept going down that path.”
Still, it was not until a decade later that Shearer achieved a boyhood ambition by lifting the Stonehaven Cup as the Australian Open champion.
“The weather was really good, not too windy like it can get at The Australian. Perfect weather, really. The golf course was perfect and I played with Nicklaus the first two rounds, which was fantastic. Playing with Nicklaus kept you on your mettle. You didn’t want to make a fool of yourself. I played with him in the last round, too.
“In 1969, when I won the Australian Amateur, I had a week when I hardly hit a bad shot. And I had that same sort of week at The Australian in 1982. For some reason I found the groove with the irons. I hit good iron shots all week. And that’s essential if you are playing The Australian, to be able to get on the greens in regulation.
“The whole game was pretty good that week and I was playing with Nicklaus three days, which made me concentrate. And at the same time he relaxes you. He was, and still is, that type of fella.”
He had first played alongside the Golden Bear in the 1969 Australian Open, also at The Australian, where Shearer was the reigning Australian Amateur champion. “He spotted that I was nervous, which I was. He just put his arm around me and said, ‘Son, we both go to the same bathroom. Let’s have a little bit of fun out here.’”
Thirteen years on from that soothing pep talk from the Golden Bear, Shearer was a seasoned international player but still drew confidence from playing so well alongside Nicklaus on the first two days.
“I had been trying to win the Open for 10 years and The Australian wasn’t a golf course I had done very well on. So it was a godsend to be drawn with him. You saw how it could be done and sometimes you could do it yourself. I completely enjoyed it.”
Mind you, as well as he played in the first round, Shearer called a two-shot penalty on himself at the 15th where he hit a poor bunker shot and then hit the sand in disgust. “I thought the ball was out of the bunker but it had rolled back into the bunker when I hit the sand. I thought it had hit the grassy face (of the bunker) and stopped there. Jack was marking my card and stood up for me, saying it was not a penalty, but it was and I had to take it,” Shearer says. He signed for a three-over 75.
However, golf karma was to play its part in his eventual triumph. Shearer was holding a commanding lead playing the 14th hole on the final day, when a fan fell out of a tree as Shearer was at the top of his swing on his 3-wood second shot. “The branch broke and I pushed it into the trees on the right.”
He hit a great shot over a long bunker to 50 metres from the green and pitched it in for a birdie. “Nicklaus walked past, belted me on the back and said, ‘Give a bloke a break!’”
Shearer reckons you know it’s your turn when ‘little things like that happen’.
The day before, on the third hole, the golf gods had smiled on him again. The hole features water right of the green and a deep pot bunker at the back. The pin was only 10 or 12 feet from the back of the green. “I tried to hit an 8-iron in the centre of the green, get a bounce and end up somewhere near the flag. But I nailed it and I was screaming, ‘Get down! Get down!’ because I knew it was going to land at the back and jump in the back bunker. It went straight in the hole on the full and stayed in. I turned a five or six into a two.”
Shearer says the victory meant everything to him because he joined a select handful of golfers to have won the Australian Amateur and Open titles. “That was the pinnacle for me,” he says. “I have not had a bigger win. Every golfer that plays the game wants to win his national open.
“I think I had tried too hard to get it but for some reason that was not on my mind that week. I remember coming up the last hole, the clubhouse had been burnt down that year, and there was just a sea of people – not for me but to watch the Golden Bear.
“Jack Nicklaus had drawn them through the door and I just happened to be playing with him.”
Forever the humble champion.