With the tragic passing of cricket legend ‘Warnie’, golf lost one of its greatest ambassadors and most fanatical players.
Wayne Riley choked back tears as he opened his iPhone to show the last message he received from Shane Warne. The popular Sky Sports golf commentator, affectionately known as ‘Radar’, had been messaging his good mate Warne only days prior to March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.
“He was obsessed with golf,” an emotional Riley told Australian Golf Digest at Bay Hill Club just hours after Warne, 52, died in Thailand of a suspected heart attack. Warne’s management had confirmed the death while Australians were still asleep but while players in Florida were arriving at the course.
Riley, the former larrikin tour pro, had known Warne for decades and the pair developed a bond through golf. Warne had recently played the famed Seminole Golf Club in Florida and messaged Riley about playing the Donald Ross-designed Golden Age course.
Riley urged Warne to join, given he was a member of prestigious courses like Sunningdale outside London and Cathedral Lodge in his native Victoria.
“I said you have to join Seminole, mate,” Riley said with a lump in his throat.
Warne was an avid watcher of European Tour golf, where Riley does the bulk of his commentary work, and would regularly text Riley while he was on air and sledge him about things he’d just said.
“He had a way of making every Australian feel like they knew him. He was all of us, but he happened to be one of the greatest cricketers ever. I’m gutted.”
Riley was forced to work through the grief during the second round of Arnold Palmer event, and was asked to deliver some words about Warne on-air. Social media reactions said unanimously that Riley did Warne justice with a brilliant speech.
Riley wasn’t the only golfer devastated at the news of Warne’s passing. Adam Scott had played golf with Warne at Queenwood Golf Club in England during summer last year and was visibly emotional after his round.
“It’s amazing how shocking it is when someone as important as Warnie dies. It’s hard to get your head around,” Scott told Australian Golf Digest outside Bay Hill’s player locker room.
“I just played golf with him last summer. I’m really shocked and really upset. He was an absolute legend.
“He spent the whole round encouraging me to keep playing good golf into my 40s and trying to get me to believe in myself more than anything.”
The 2013 Masters winner said he would think about a particular trait of Warne’s personality to get through the ensuring days. “Reflecting on it, he lived his life. It was epic and it was a good reminder to all of us that you never know when it’s up. He didn’t die wondering; he lived life to the fullest. I feel for his family. It makes me happy to think what he squeezed into 52 years.”
Golfers at the Palmer tournament found out about Warne’s death at various times throughout the day, not all of them ideal. Marc Leishman heard the news while on his second-last hole of the second round.
“I found out on the eighth, my 17th. It was really shocking,” he said. “He was one of the greatest cricketers of all time and a friend of mine. I loved Warnie growing up; I was at the age when he came on the scene and I loved the way he bowled. I’m thinking of his family. It’s just devastating and my heart goes out to them.”
England’s Paul Casey didn’t know the bad news until asked about it and was overcome with emotion. The 15-time European Tour winner and three-time PGA Tour winner composed himself and shared his favourite memories of Warne.
“I played bad cricket as a kid growing up and spin bowlers were my nemesis; seeing what he was able to do with a cricket ball was mind-blowing,” Casey said. “The Gatting Ball [in the 1993 Ashes series] was one of the most marvellous things I’ve ever seen. He gave England nightmares, didn’t he?
“He was brilliant. But it was also the bravado, the hair and the sledging. I got to meet him several times at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and he seemed like a total lad. As an Englishman, you never warm to Aussie cricketers too much, but Shane was different. You couldn’t help it. It’s sobering; you think of his family and friends. It’s too young.”
Although only 26 years old, Australian Lucas Herbert, who wore all white in honour of Warne in the second round, racked up a series of invaluable memories with the King of Spin. Warne was quick to message Herbert congratulations after his maiden PGA Tour victory in Bermuda in October.
“He messaged me after all my wins, but I have one memory that I’ll never forget,” Herbert recalled. “A couple of years ago, I played the Alfred Dunhill Links tournament in Scotland. I played a practice round with Warnie and he noticed that I custom-printed ‘23’ on my TaylorMade golf balls.
“Because 23 was Warnie’s number in cricket, he was stoked when he saw the balls. So, I went to the TaylorMade truck and got, like, four dozen balls and brought them to his hotel. I thought I’d be there for five minutes, but we ended up eating pizza, drinking wine and chatting for three hours in his hotel room with his kids looking out over the 18th green at the Old Course at St Andrews. You can’t put a price on that.”
The Alfred Dunhill celebrity pro-am in Scotland was a European Tour event Warne hardly ever missed. In 2013, he shot a one-under par 71 at the Old Course. That night, he had a few beers with Riley to celebrate.
He asked Riley, “Mate, do you think I should try for the seniors tour in a few years?”
Riley responded, “Mate, you’re one of the best cricketers ever but… no, you shouldn’t,” Riley said through laughter.
“But that was Warnie. He didn’t think anything was impossible.”
Rest in peace, Warnie.
Did you know?
Warne scored his first ever hole-in-one at golf’s hallowed turf – Augusta National. He said of his ace at the par-3 16th: “155 yards to a back-right pin, into the wind! Hit a 6-iron, one hop and in. Can’t believe it! Was my first ever hole-in-one and what a place and pin to do it.”