No one lived a golf life quite like Bob Shearer
There are golf careers and then there are lives immersed in golf. A successful, multi-faceted, colourful life in our sport ended when Bob Shearer passed away from a heart attack on January 9 at age 73.
A playing résumé highlighted by an Australian Open victory over Jack Nicklaus included 27 professional titles in 27 years spanning 1974 to 2001 in what was a stellar career. In 2020, for Australian Golf Digest’s 50th anniversary, we ranked Shearer 42nd among Australia’s 50 Greatest Golfers Of All Time.
Shearer is one of just three golfers to have claimed the Amateur, Open and PGA championships of Australia. Only Bruce Devlin and Greg Chalmers can also claim membership to that elite club. On the PGA Tour, Shearer won the Tallahassee Open in 1982 and lost the Houston Open in a playoff the same season. Earlier, his two European Tour titles both came in 1975 before Shearer returned to Europe’s over-50s circuit in his senior years to win four times between 1998 and 2001. At home, he was an 18-time champion on the PGA Tour of Australasia in a 12-year stretch.
His peers knew him as “Shears”. He played like a gentleman and was among the most likeable and popular touring pros to come from our shores. Shearer was also a man for his era. Fond of the occasional ale, especially during his time on the European Tour in the 1970s, he was not alone in his off-course pastime there. He had ample help from the likes of Jack Newton, Ian Stanley and Stewart Ginn as they travelled, played, celebrated and commiserated together.
“A lot of the time it was, ‘Get through the round as quickly as possible and get to the bar,’” Shearer told Michael Davis in 2017. “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.”
This writer had the good fortune to chat with the ever-genial Shearer on numerous occasions during the past 20 years, which was not unusual on two counts. One, he was always great company and gelled easily with anyone in the golf media, and two, he essentially was one of us, as his much-adored wife Kathie has managed the media centre at Australian tournaments for decades. They were the first couple of golf.
Our most formal chat came in November 2008 for a lengthy interview that appeared in this magazine in 2009. He was playing in the New South Wales Open at The Vintage Golf Club in the Hunter Valley and prior to the official interview, I joined Shearer, Rodger Davis and Lyndsay Stephen in the clubhouse for a few glasses of Hunter shiraz. Later, when the stories began to flow as easily as the wine had, I felt somewhat guilty that Bob had been a little too liberal with the retelling of a few tales – most notably his admission to battling the yips his entire career. However, I ran the transcript past Bob and Kathie before publication and both gave it their blessing.
We spoke most recently last August in what may have been his last ever interview. On that occasion Shearer reminisced mainly about his Open Championship career, including the 1978 Open at St Andrews where he flirted with the lead on the back nine on Sunday before his putter betrayed him and Nicklaus took a third claret jug.
Shearer would get his revenge, to a degree, four years later by staving off the Golden Bear – on a course Nicklaus had designed, no less – to win the 1982 Australian Open at The Australian Golf Club. Yet in his typically humble way, Shearer maintains he was the beneficiary of good fortune that week. It began when Greg Norman withdrew with an illness before the tournament then continued when Shearer holed an 8-iron on the fly for eagle at the par-4 third hole where he thought his ball was sailing long. The next day, in the final round with Nicklaus as his playing partner, he pitched in again at the 14th.
“The funny part was,” Shearer recalled in 2008, “we flew on the Monday from the Gold Coast down to Sydney and I was with Kathie, and Kathie was going on to Melbourne and I was getting off, so I said to her, ‘I’ll see you Friday night.’ She said, ‘Why do you say that?’ I said, ‘I hate The Australian Golf Club and I’ve never played well there, ever. I’ll be home Friday night.’ Well as it turned out I got home Sunday night with the cup.”
Arguably his most impressive victory came at Royal Melbourne at the 1974 Chrysler Classic. Shearer walloped a star-studded field by nine shots on the Composite course in the tournament etched in notoriety for Lee Trevino’s declaration that he’d never return to Australia’s most revered layout.
On the biggest stage, Shearer contested 22 Majors, half of them coming at The Open, with a lone top-10 result: that tie for seventh at St Andrews in 1978. At the Masters, a piece of 35th place in 1977 was his best result from four outings at Augusta National, while at the US Open he shared 16th spot in 1978. That year also drew his best finish at the PGA Championship with a T-26.
After departing America to focus on his two sons’ education and upbringing, Shearer played more locally and turned to course architecture before embarking on his senior-tour campaigns in Europe. Throughout, he remained indelibly linked to Southern Golf Club, the Melbourne course where he undertook his PGA apprenticeship and remained a fee-paying member during the club’s leaner financial years despite being awarded honorary membership. Fittingly, Southern is where he played his last round, just three days before his passing.
“I’d like to say he was what he needed to be,” Kathie Shearer said. “He was golf. It was his life and his love.”
Her husband’s final response in the 2008 interview said it all. When asked about the most important thing he’d learned from a life on tour, he said: “It was reasonably hard when I first started and you’re a youngster out here on your own. It teaches you pretty good values on life and it taught me that you don’t give in, you just keep firing at it and if you give in you’re never going to get there. If you keep firing at it, maybe that good fella upstairs belts you and belts you and belts you just to see how strong you are and if you keep going at it, you’re released and you get the rewards.”
Robert Shearer, golf’s supreme gentleman, took every hit the game served up and persevered to reap his rewards.