It is a remarkable coincidence that The Handicapper and I have a significant connection to the little town of Oakey on Queensland’s Darling Downs. I spent my high school years there. Her great great grandparents farmed land just a few kilometres to the north-east, at Hillgrove on the Acland Road.
That land has remained in the family, almost-forgotten for periods of time. The original house, a verandahed Queenslander on low stumps just high enough to keep the snakes out, has been rejuvenated over the last 30 years to become a weekend retreat. You can’t make a living on the 280 acres, but you can still try. Some family members did in times past, living the subsistence life of the old Australian bush, until The Handicapper’s grandfather Jack had the sense to try his hand as a pharmacist.
When I first met The Handicapper the name Schull didn’t ring a bell, but when the connection was made to Jack Schull, it really pealed. Those coincidences invite you to question sensible and rational approaches to understanding the world. The Handicapper was first taken to visit the farm as a new born in August 1972, the very month we arrived from Victoria to live.
As it turned out, we had our wedding reception in a marquee on the farm, after a service at the little Lutheran Church at Aubigny in the middle of the wheatfields, where my father had been the pastor for a decade.
We love going back to Hillgrove, taking the kids.
We arrived in January to find they’d had good rain around Oakey. The grass was knee-high in places and shin-high in most; it was three weeks since anyone had been there. We got the ride-on mower out and, in the balmy late afternoon, I started to mow.
The smell of cut grass is a powerful thing and given the make-up of this yard – an un-manicured combination of couch close to the house and Queensland paddock grasses everywhere else – I was reminded of some of the yards I used to mow for pocket-money as a teenager.
One particular aroma, I suspect from the cut carrot weed, mixed with the gases released when the blades strike fallen eucalyptus, took me back to Monday afternoons at Zupps Corner at the foot of Gowrie Mountain on the way to Toowoomba. Every week one of my parents took my brother into town for his classical piano lesson with Miss Childe – I grew up in a house of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart as well as Bourke, Barrot and Clay – and most weeks I would be dropped off at Mrs Grant’s place. I’d mow the yard and then be picked up when the Mazda 626 came back through.
Hillgrove and Mrs Grant’s yard have a lot in common and in the happy meditative state into which mowing can place you, I was transported back to that world of youthful hope and possibility.
I was going to be a sportsman. Nay, I was a sportsman.
Mrs Grant was getting on in years. Her husband Percy had died before we arrived. Percy had been a radio man in the war and then served a vital role in the community: he was the technician who looked after the 4AK radio tower on the hill outside Oakey. No transmitter, then there was no ‘You Picked a Fine Time to Leave me Lucille’, no ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You Baby’, no ‘Devil Gate Drive.’
Percy Grant was not just an electronics boffin. He had also designed the Oakey golf course, 18 holes cut from the wilga and mulga and brigalow on a piece of flat land on Doctor’s Creek not far from Jondaryan. The course had sand greens.
Rain began falling in the early 1970s and didn’t stop for a good while. Doctor’s Creek flowed and deposited pippies the size of your fist on the yabby-holed banks. There was a swamp where your second shot finished on the par five eighteenth.
The committee, made up of local farmers like Les Wicks (some of whom were cashed up from the good seasons), and businessmen like Q.M. Falconer who had the Ford dealership, and a publican or two like Cornelius Leahy from the Commercial, and a tyre mechanic called Des Bradford, and maybe even a sergeant from the local army-aviation base, decided that it was time to put in grass greens. They started with the back nine, and so the heavily wooded front nine – with its many koalas – was de-commissioned.
I was particularly disappointed because a hole that meant a lot to me was no longer in use. In October 1975 I was playing with two of my brothers – Peter and David – and Noel Leahy. I took out my five iron at the 138 metre par three ninth (it was too far for a seven and too short for a three) put down my Spalding Rocket (number 2) and caught it in the screws. It went dead straight and Noel Leahy said: “That’s gunna go in.”
It landed before the sand green, bounced truly, and headed straight for the pin.
“It’s in,” we yelled.
I threw my five iron in the air and four boys, the oldest being me at thirteen, bolted to have a look. There was the track on the sand green, and there at the bottom of the cup was my ball. A hole-in-one.
About a season later, after I stopped playing junior rugby league, I started competing against the men. There were some great characters. A couple of footballers: Lenny Lockett who had just finished his career helping out in reserve grade; Cec Docherty, the first Aboriginal man I really got to know; Sandy Hoopert (who survived 50,000 volts through him ina work accident but was killed when struck in the temple by a cricket ball) and his son Boof, (who once stood in front of another kids drive when denied the honour and wore a B51 in the chest) among others.
Looking back now, I realise some of the old blokes would have been born in the 1890s. They had lived colourful bush lives. My favourite was a bloke called Stan Hart who was born in 1900. He’d come to the big smoke, Oakey, to retire. He had been everything a bushie from Up North could be, from drover to crocodile hunter (long before Paul Hogan was one), and probably a cane-cutter and a railway man. Stan had the skin to prove it. Left-handed, his trick was to slice a ball around the telegraph pole, which was out of bounds, on the thirteenth, and bring it back onto the fairway.
One day Stan got to the course early and, I’m not sure why, said, “Come on young fullah, let’s go.”
Just the two of us whizzed around and it was barely half past two when we putted out at the eighteenth. Dad wasn’t coming to get me until after five. We sat together as he told me stories for all that time. I can’t remember them specifically but he was jumping trains, and playing cricket and living upstairs in pubs. He drank thirteen six-ounce beers, and he bought me thirteen six-and-a-half ounce bottles of Coke (the classic little bottle of yesteryear). The empties were lined up on the bar when Dad arrived.
I learnt to play at the Oakey Golf Club, in my own way: a cricketer with a smack over long-off or, when I tried to correct the push-slog, an insipid slice. And no mental strength whatsoever. My failing was enforced almost weekly when, having played well enough to be in contention, I would look down the eighteenth with its out of bounds all the way up the right, and feel the pull of the fence; a pull that was just too strong for me. I was in the hands of the golfing gods, and they liked to toy with me, as my drive would bobble around, deviating towards the wire.
There was one moment of triumph. I was playing in the mixed foursomes championship, where you play alternate shots, with Mrs Sowden. Mona Sowden was sixty, short, and bosomy in that 1970s grandma sort of way. She was a good golfer and we’d had a very good day. Reports were that so had a couple of other pairings, already in the clubhouse. Coming down the last we thought we’d need a birdie to be anywhere near the mark. Mona teed off, a low, scuttling line-hit to third base which put us just on the edge of the trees – on the left. I had absolutely no shot. I would have to aim out of bounds and hook one back.
I hadn’t hit a hook in years. In fact, possibly, ever.
We surveyed the shot.
“What will I do?” I asked, thinking I could bunt a three-iron about 80 metres up the fairway.
“Go for it,” said Mona.
I recalled what Billy Casper’s manual had said. I turned my left hand over, I closed the face of my Slazenger 4-wood (with the red plastic insert), took it back inside, and ballooned one out over the gum tree on the right, and over the fence. It started to hook, and kept hooking, and kept hooking until it landed just in play and kept running. Mona chipped from 60 metres to about 8 feet and I drained the putt for a birdie. We won by a shot. It was The Percy Grant Memorial. I still have the trophy: a set of pewter champagne glasses in the flat style.
What I remember about those people is their dedication to the cause: their determination to keep that little course going despite the tough conditions (farming conditions and golf conditions) which followed for years; despite the cracks from which your ball might ricochet; despite the crows which would come and steal your ball on the seventeenth; despite the decade of drought.
Having mown the lawn, we are free to enjoy the following evening, so I play the nine holes of the Oakey Golf Club. I seem to finish in the same palces I always did.
After completing the round I find the old ninth, which is still identifiable, however sadly. They slash the front nine every couple of years.
Later we bring the kids for a stroll.