What Really Happened?

Wayne Riley’s reputation was in tatters 15 years ago. On a flight to Perth from Johannesburg, the former Australian Open champion was involved in a mid-air confrontation with another passenger.

The incident created headlines around the nation and overshadowed Perth’s Heineken Classic after it emerged the ‘Wild Colonial Boy’ of Australian golf was at the centre of a heated verbal altercation. No charges were laid. However a 3 1/2-hour disciplinary hearing found him guilty of bringing both the Australasian and European tours into disrepute. Riley admitted to a phobia of flying that caused him to drink to excess. He agreed to undertake treatment and to “resolve my behaviour problems”.

According to Riley, the incident was blown out of proportion. “I can laugh at it, but I could laugh at it then,” says Riley back in Sydney where he lives in the southern suburb of Oatley on the Georges River.

So what really happened in 2001 on that South African Airways flight?

“It wasn’t a plane flight from hell,” corrects Riley. “What really happened was I got on there and was having a couple of beers with a mate. Then all of a sudden, I get up to go to the toilet and I come back and this guy’s sitting in my seat next to this good-looking girl. They’re both South African . . . He was trying to get on with her.

“I said, ‘Oi, you’re in my seat.’ And he told me to piss off. He had ear rings [coming] out of his tattoos.”

When the passenger refused to move, Riley gave him a piece of his mind: “What I said is public knowledge . . . I was just calling a wanker, a wanker. That’s what I said to him. And that got me in trouble. It’s something I wouldn’t do now.

“So we’re having an argument and then the boss of the European Tour says [calm down]. So I had to go [and sit] somewhere else.”

Riley took umbrage when an effeminate flight attendant arrived on the scene and dangled a set of handcuffs in front of him and the other passenger. Wisely, Riley sat somewhere else for the duration of the flight.

Upon landing in Perth, two Federal police officers boarded the plane and escorted him off to keep him away from the other passenger while they went through customs and onto the baggage carousel. It was all rather civil according to Riley, who says the police “actually asked me for tickets to the golf” just before helping him into a cab.

The following day, the Tuesday, about 10 journalists confronted him on the practice range at The Vines, seeking clarification about the incident. [In a letter of complaint, which was leaked to the media, the flight attendant described Riley as “the most violent, ugliest, most rude human being on the earth”.]

“Next minute it’s in the press. ‘Escorted off the plane. Wayne Riley’s this, Wayne Riley’s that’.”

The story dragged on to the following week’s Greg Norman Holden International in Sydney. Riley was summoned to appear before the PGA Tour of Australasia, which reprimanded him for bringing the game into disrepute.

“I paid a fine from the PGA Tour of Australia and it’s one of my biggest regrets, paying that fine,” Riley says. “They didn’t disclose how much it was. But I’ll tell everyone. Back then it was $3,000 and I shouldn’t have paid it. I should have walked into that meeting with a solicitor and went, ‘Was I charged?’ And I wasn’t.

“I paid the money to make it go away and I was silly because I showed a sign of guilt.”

The Reinvention of Radar

Riley endured a somewhat love/hate relationship with golf writers and the media in general. It can be sourced back to Leeds in 1985 during one of the then 22-year-old’s first European tournaments. After missing a putt on the 17th green, Riley punt kicked his golf ball towards some screaming kids. It earned him the nickname ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ from the British media.

The late Tom Ramsey, News Limited’s chief golf correspondent for more than a quarter of a century, once wrote that Riley walked over courtesy cars in his golf spikes after winning the 1991 Australian Open. A Current Affair even ran a promo questioning his sexuality. The reporter asks, “So have you got a girlfriend?” “No.” “Have you got a boyfriend?” To which Riley breaks out in a fit of laughter. Television gold. The promo ran all weekend and into the following week.

Lovable larrikin or obnoxious yobbo? Riley remembers playing in a pro-am with a woman at Concord Golf Club. She said, “You’re nothing like what they sometimes write about you in the papers.”

The father of four has reinvented himself since retiring in 2002. He came home to Sydney and managed a par-3 golf course in Sylvania Waters for a year while undergoing a divorce. His big break came when Graeme Rowland, with the urging of Jack Newton, brought him on board as an on-course commentator for Channel Seven’s coverage of the Australian summer of golf.

Riley’s offbeat, candid style was a hit. It brought him to the attention of Europe and since 2005 he’s been a fixture with BSkyB (British Sky Broadcasting), the UK’s largest pay-TV broadcaster with 11 million customers. This year Riley will be on the road to cover 27 tournaments across America, Europe and Asia.

It’s ironic how Riley, now 53, has parlayed his edgy public persona into a successful broadcasting career. Along with Ian Baker-Finch, he is one of two Australians who travel the world to commentate on men’s professional golf. Apart from his best three seasons in Europe, Riley earns more now than he did as a player.

So did the controversy and attention actually pave the wave for Riley’s transition into the media? “I’d say that’s fair,” he concedes. “To be honest, they couldn’t have done me a bigger favour. Maybe, if you really look at it, that could have shaped me into who I am – to become thick skinned. But I brought it on myself a little bit, too. I’ve always had something to say. That’s just me.”