THERE IS a little tradition that takes place each year at The Masters at Augusta National.
It’s not “unlike any other” – but it’s just as special for those fortunate enough to experience it. It’s not even in the tournament proper. And it’s not for the pros.
The annual custom happens during the Wednesday Par-3 Tournament, when tour players allow their guest caddies to putt out at the last hole. For some, it’s 15 feet of fame.
Not that retired international rugby union icon George Gregan needed any more notoriety – six Bledisloe Cup victories and a Rugby World Cup triumph took care of that.
Yet here he was at Augusta in 2010 – a former Wallabies scrumhalf looping for Michael Campbell and facing a six-foot birdie putt at the little course’s ninth green.
‘Cambo’ had nearly holed out his tee shot, so Gregan almost missed out on the ritual. A substantial crowd was watching.
“Six feet, straight up the hill, inside right edge,” recalls Gregan. “I made it. It was a real buzz with the crowd cheering. If lightning struck the next day and knocked me off, I would’ve died a happy man.”
SO rare was the moment, Gregan wondered why it had taken him five years to accept the invitation to don the famous white overalls for his Kiwi mate.
In fact, it was the last leg of a five-year Masters Tournament exemption awarded to the New Zealander who’d held off Tiger Woods to claim the 2005 US Open.
“Cambo had a 10-year exemption into the Majors and five years to The Masters,” Gregan tells Australian Golf Digest. “For years, he was saying to me, ‘You have to come to Augusta.’
“But every April I was playing in Japan, so for the last year in 2010 I finally made the trip. It was awesome; the experience was fantastic and as a guest of Michael I got access to areas most people don’t and that made it unique.
“Carrying Cambo’s clubs for the Par-3 Tournament was so cool after you’ve seen it on TV.”
Yet The Masters wasn’t the only Major championship the 139-Test rugby veteran visited that year. Two months later, Gregan found himself face-to-face with Woods on Pebble Beach’s practice fairway at the US Open.
“I was lucky enough to meet Tiger on the range,” recalls Gregan. “Tiger likes his rugby, and other sports, and knew who I was. (Kiwi) Steve Williams had explained the cross-Tasman rivalry, so Tiger joined in the banter. I was really impressed by the short moment I talked to Tiger.
“Then I watched him hit a few 8-irons on the range. You could’ve thrown a towel over where they landed. His shots just made a totally different sound.
“Then, during the tournament, I was watching when he hit that famous slice with the 3-wood from under the tree on 18 – when he aimed it at the ocean and cut it back. It was special.”
Hooked On The One-Man Code
So how was a young Aussie of Zimbabwean heritage – who grew up playing the 15-man code in Canberra – introduced to the game of golf?
“I got the bug when I was about 11 years of age,” says Gregan. “I was in Zimbabwe with my cousin and he introduced me to golf. We played his local course and I hit a 7-iron over water to a par 3. I cleared the water and landed on the green and I thought, this is a cool game.
“That was it, I was absolutely hooked.”
Gregan fed his golf addiction at one of the best layouts in the nation’s capital, Federal Golf Club. Years before he would guide the Brumbies to two Super 12 (now Super Rugby) titles, Gregan couldn’t get enough of belting a much smaller ball around the tree-lined, hilly fairways of Federal.
“I grew up in Canberra. It was a year or two after my cousin gave me the golf bug that I joined Federal Golf Club. It was a great course to grow my love of the game.”
As the international career of one of the most decorated Wallabies blossomed, so did his golf game. The wiry halfback found golf to be a great escape from the monotony of hotel rooms around the world – and the spotlight of rugby’s Test arena.
“During my playing days, golf was a great way to get out of the hotel on a training-free day and help prepare for a Test with a really nice distraction,” recalls Gregan. “I was lucky enough to experience courses in South Africa, the UK and Europe, New Zealand and South America. It was also a bit of competition with my teammates that we all enjoyed and bonded over.”
Golf also played a small role in keeping the Wallabies vice-captain relaxed during one of his greatest accomplishments – the 1999 Rugby World Cup victory, particularly leading up to the final against France.
“We had a base in Dublin during the ‘99 World Cup, so of course I had to play Old Portmarnock,” says Gregan. “I love traditional links, so I loved Portmarnock. “It’s a very special course with a huge history and I actually really enjoyed the weather. When it’s raining or windy and cold, that’s golf at its ultimate.”
Hanging Up The Boots
George Gregan officially retired from rugby union in 2011 as one of the most recognisable faces in the sport’s history. Choosing a single highlight of the agile scrumhalf’s career is near impossible. There are accolades: four Rugby World Cups contested, one of them victorious; winning two Tri-Nations series and six Bledisloe Cups; being made a member of the Order of Australia in 2004; and induction into both the Sport Australia and IRB Hall of Fame. Then there are the folklore rugby moments: that try saving tackle on Jeff Wilson in 1994, and who could forget the 80-kilogram Gregan pulling the late Jonah Lomu’s enormous frame over the sideline in 2000.
Now, the 43-year-old juggles his hospitality empire with a 6 handicap. He and wife Erica founded the Sydney-based Gregan Group, which has grown to 16 cafes, as well as wine bars, bistros and a thriving catering business.
When he’s not fuelling Sydney’s coffee culture or commentating on rugby union for Fox Sports, Gregan’s treasured pastime is hitting his favourite Aussie courses.
“I’ve played Royal Melbourne and some of the Sandbelt courses, but Barnbougle and Lost Farm would be my favourites. I also love the old Coolum course because I used to go up there play the pro-am when Peter Lonard was at his best. Playing in December, I was on holiday mode back then.”
Gregan the Golf Geek
Gregan does his best to play as regularly as he can post-retirement, occasionally with former US PGA Tour player Paul Gow. ‘Gowie’ recently witnessed Gregan’s best round of the past few years at Terrey Hills Golf and Country Club, on Sydney’s northern beaches.
“Only a few weeks ago, I shot a 2-over par 74 with Gowie and I three-putted the 18th! It was my best round since I played the Coolum pro-am a few years ago and shot a 1-over 73. My handicap still hovers around 6, and the lowest I’ve got to is 5. My short-game needs a little work, though.”
Perhaps Gregan’s most common playing partner is, ironically, Justin Marshall – his opposite number for the All Blacks during arguably the greatest era of cross-Tasman rugby union.
“Justin is a good mate, so whenever I’ve been to New Zealand we’ve played some of the Queenstown courses like Jack’s Point, The Hills and Millbrook and when he comes to Australia I’ve shown him around Terrey Hills and New South Wales Golf Club. I’ve also been lucky enough to play a round at Paraparaumu Beach near Wellington with (former All Blacks star) Christian Cullen.”
Regardless of whom he tees it up with, Gregan is just glad to be competing in a sport that isn’t so brutal on the body.
“Now I don’t play a heavy collision sport, golf is a way to compete without banging into someone that’s 40 kilograms heavier than you. Like any sport, there’s always something you can improve on and I love that about golf.”
Though rugby is ‘the game they play in heaven’, you can bet Gregan is hoping there are a few layouts up above the clouds.
“It’s a wonderful game, golf.”