It’s an overcast morning in Melbourne. Oddly, the cloud doesn’t suggest rain. I am at a truly great golf course, Metropolitan, one of the famous sandbelt tracks. I am having a hit with the former AFL umpire Derek Humphery-Smith, who has arranged the game, David ‘Ox’ Schwarz, and Matt Finnis.
I am cutting the time fine, but I have managed to get there with minutes to spare and I am reassured when I see, in the distance, a large bearish figure in shorts. That’s Ox. I also see a grey-haired version of John Bracewell. That’s DHS. And a fit looking bloke in a red polo. That’s Matt Finnis.
We greet and head straight for the first tee. DHS hosts beautifully. “Harmsy wants to play two-man ambrose,” he says.
Translated, this is: “Harmsy (the sook) wants to play two-man ambrose.” This a shameless attempt attempt at mental disintegration to elevate himself above No.4 in the group’s rankings. I’m happy to wear No.4. I’m not getting out on the course enough these days.
If you listen to The Run Home on SEN you’ll know that Ox plays often, and is a genuine 5-marker. Matt is flat out in his role as AFLPA CEO and with his family. Like me, he’d love to play more often.
DHS is always on the links somewhere, often exotic, and usually gratis. He claims to be in the law but he actually plays golf for a living. He is a man who has engineered, structured and honed his professional life in such a way that, as he is leaving home, he can tell his (long-suffering) wife Kythe that he’s meeting clients. This is completely true, in the way that anything a lawyer says to you is true. But what he fails to add in his farewell to Kythe is the bit in brackets: “…on the practice putting green at Metro.”
DHS is well brought-up, so we do play two-man ambrose. I particularly like this form of the game because I am mentally fragile and cannot putt. DHS is a good judge.
DHS throws the balls in the air and I am hoping mine lobs next to the ball of someone who is mentally strong and can putt.
I am relieved when mine comes down a significant distance from DHS’s. Matt Finnis and I will fly the flag for the workers against the silvertails.
The handicaps are discussed. Ox has had a recent sub-par round (which he has described blow-by-blow on radio – three times) and I know DHS is one of the great protectors of a handicap in greater Melbourne and plays off a very handy 12. I am also off 12. Matt’s off 27. He is in the business of negotiation and so it’s decided we will receive nine shots in a match-play scenario.
Ox takes the honour in the way that a bloke who once lit up the MCG in a headband deserves the honour. He stands over the ball. He is huge. He looks like a cross between Lance Cairns and the sculptured curly-haired Nordic god in that fountain outside the Exhibition Building.
Ox’s driver looks tiny in his hands. His stance is slightly open and it looks like he’s just going to guide the ball up the first; just drop the club on it a la Lee Trevino. He purses his lips and starts a slow takeaway. It is momentarily smooth and rhythmic. But then the red meat takes hold. It becomes a full attack: his hands have started down before the club is at the top of the backswing so the shaft has a wicked bow. There is a fair bit of the O’Toole’s in it: Ox should be wearing Dunlop Volleys. The result is beautiful contact: the ball splits the fairway a squillion metres ahead.
Matt and I look at each other. A crow squawks by the ninth green.
DHS steps up. I have played a bit of golf with DHS and I will never forget the first time I saw the technique. So idiosyncratic was his grip and stance that, as he stood over the ball, I couldn’t tell if he was right-handed. I nearly said to him, “Derek, I think you’re aiming the wrong way. The hole’s up there.”
In those days his ridiculously closed right hand meant he played with a semi-harnessed duck hook, ballooning the ball over extra cover and bringing it back to the centre of the fairway.
DHS has worked on his game since then. Now he strikes them over mid-off.
Matt and I bunt ours down the fairway. Actually, not quite: Matt goes bush and I find the sand on this delightful par-4 opener. Somehow we get out of that one, thanks to the shot we have, and then hang on at the second as well.
There is no sledging but you can tell who has run around on the MCG and who hasn’t. DHS claims to know every blade of grass of the hallowed venue. He was, of course, a visionary umpire. Afflicted with a text-book case of the yips, he was the first umpire to recall a bounce. The only trouble was the laws of the game didn’t permit him to do that at the time. He was sacked. Although, really, he was martyred. His sacrifice was a forerunner to the rule change. Now they recall the occasional bad bounce. Where is the natural justice?
At the third I chip to gimme distance and DHS and Ox have to hole a sliding 25 footer downhill left-to-righter to halve. Ox misses but shows DHS the way. DHS strokes his spot-on for line, at the pace, and in she goes. They are pumped.
We lose the fourth after Ox smashes his drive about 320 on the short-five, and both Matt and I are stymied when our seconds have run through the green. DHS, trying not to smirk as we contort ourselves around branches, then surveys his eagle putt from just off the green, and does enough. They’re thinking: how far?
We get that one back at fifth, and are in contention at the par-5 sixth until Ox punches a full sand iron straight over the pin. It sucks back close and the birdie is enough. At eight, another par 5, Ox’s second rolls just off the green and the boys get up and down to beat our two-putt par.
There’s been a fair bit of footy talk all morning. Rules talk. Umpiring talk. Free agency talk. Matt and I do a lot of listening.
We’re one down going up nine, one of the many beautifully-designed holes on the course: a dog-leg right which requires a solid drive and a crisp mid-iron, or for us, a long iron. Both teams wind up putting from just off the front-right of the massive green. Typical of these fantastic greens the borrows are subtle and not one of us has the belief to start the 60-footer far enough right. We are all narrow and long, but they make the one coming back. We are two down.
Ox and DHS, elite sportsmen that they are, are thinking, “How far?”
But we get a 6-iron to 20 feet on the long par-4 tenth, and have a shot. They have to make birdie to halve, and you can see that they’re thinking about that. Too much to ask. Ours. One down.
The eleventh is a neat little postage stamp. We all hit it close, Ox’s shot is on the pin the entire trip but just skips past. No-one makes the putt.
At twelve we have a shot and Matt makes a clutch 5-footer for par. All square.
They are cackling as we both hit the sand at the par-3 thirteenth. They admire theirs on the green. “Tough choice, boys?” they say.
We opt for the longer shot from the deeper trap as it’s up hill and somehow we get it to the pin.
“Was that a fist pump?” Ox asks. “Derek, the boys are fist-pumping.”
Matt Finnis holes the 10-footer. Half. Nerves of steel. “Matty Finish,” says DHS. “Unbelievable.”
We halve the fourteenth and the boys have us on toast at the 410 metre fifteenth. They make a regulation two-putt par. We have an 18-footer for par with a shot. Matt Finnis. Matt Finnis. Matt Finnis. It drops from the low side!
Ox spits it. They’re one down.
The sledging is ramped up now. On the tee Ox has a go: “So big fella, what are you going to do here?”
It’s a neat little short-four and we all hit the green. No-one makes the downhillers. Halved in pars.
They need to come back. DHS is bringing his drives back from the right, as expected. Some don’t come back. Ox is just smashing them. And he gets on to this one. Miles down the right. We are tucked away in the middle. I hit a 7-iron to a respectable distance and it catches the slope on the left and is channelled around towards the pin. It keeps rolling, every revolution seen as tin-arse from our gracious opponents. It comes to rest 20 feet from the pin.
Ox and DHS are only 100 out but the pin is obscured by the famous line of trees. They are one down and we are handy for nett one. It’s too much for them. Ox’s wedge is solid but it’s not close enough and Matty Finish closes it out with a solid two-putt. It’s all over on the seventeenth green. We enjoy Metro’s beautiful closing hole.
Of course DHS, sportsman and rationaliser, feels he and Ox have played the better golf and have been beaten by good fortune on the greens.
Matt and I say nothing.
It’s been a terrific morning on a superb track. Good format. Good golf. Good result. A lot of laughs.
I learn that Matt is a god man to have on your side. He’d be a formidable opponent across a table I imagine.
I learnt that DHS loves his job.
I learn that Ox can really play. He has tremendous eye-hand coordination. He’s strong. And his short game is OK. I reckon there’s only one thing that would improve his game.
He needs to return to the headband.
John Harms @ratherbeatlunch