Backspin: Spain 1971
Dale Hayes’ record as the youngest European Tour winner was broken by Danny Lee this year. We look back to 1971.
2009 has been the Year of the Teenager as first Rory McIlroy claimed a maiden victory on the European Tour, then Ryo Ishikawa became the youngest ever invitee to the Masters.
But New Zealander Danny Lee trumped both of them, becoming the youngest-ever winner on the European Tour when claiming the Johnnie Walker Classic at the tender age of 18 years and eight months.
And as the tour returns to the Iberian Peninsula this week for the Open de Espana, it is worth recalling the story of the youngster whose record Lee broke – South Africa’s Dale Hayes.
The tall Pretorian-born Hayes was just 18 years and 290 days old when he won the 1971 Open de Espana at the El Prat course in Barcelona.
Unlike Lee, who burst through the field on the final day, Hayes had dominated the event from the first day when his five-under-par round of 67 gave him a share of the lead with Clive Clark and the legendary Argentinean Roberto De Vicenzo.
Thereafter the young South African went head-to-head with the 1967 Open winner and crowd favourite De Vicenzo.
The Argentine took a one-shot lead into the weekend but Hayes fought back on the Saturday to pull level and the two were joined at ten under par by the local player Tomas Lopez.
During the final round the Spaniard slipped away, leaving the stage empty for a shootout between the old-timer and the young buck.
Hayes shot 69 to win by one, a victory that catapulted him into a decade-long run of success that had observers predicting great things for him.
Gary Player continued to win majors in the 1970s, but many believed that the South African mantle would be taken up by Hayes in the 1980s because with every year that passed his stock rose.
In 1973 he finished fourth on the European Tour Order of merit, in 1974 he improved to second and twelve months on, having won the Swiss Open, he topped it.
Still only 22, the ambitious Hayes took himself across the Atlantic to prove himself in America. It was to be the first time he encountered difficulty on what had thus far been an almost absurdly easy career path.
In that first year he made 18 starts but could manage only one top twenty at Doral. In 1977 he made another 23 starts, finishing second in the Florida Invitational and sixth at the Tallahassee Open.
But it wasn’t enough for Hayes who felt discontented with being average.
His return to Europe reaped immediate success – in 1978 he won the Italian and French Opens on the way to finishing second on the Order of Merit.
In 1979 he once more claimed the Open de Espana and was fourth in the end of the year rankings.
But the seeds of doubt were creeping in and after slipping to 16th on the money list in 1980 the 28-year-old astonished the golfing world by retiring.
Speaking about the decision years later he said he ended things at the same age as the great Bobby Jones. “The only difference,” he laughed, “was that I didn’t win any majors, nor did I have any money, so I had to go out and do some real work.”
The fact that he claims to have had no money seems absurd today, but the truth is that a golfer as successful as Hayes was in the 1970s could not afford to rest on his laurels.
His additional problem had been the boycott of South African sportsmen which meant that it was often difficult for him to play in European Tour events.
“Although no golfers were affected as badly by the politics of South Africa as the black golfers like Vincent Tshabalala, there were others that were affected, albeit in a much smaller way,” he wrote.
“We were never sure if we would be allowed in a country. I got fed up with the uncertainty of playing under such conditions – and travelling too, which is not something everyone copes well with.”
He also admits that he was not cut out to be a full-time golfer. “I got to a level in golf and I believed I could get no further,” he said. “I could win national opens but I did not believe I had what it took to win a major.
“I lacked the single-minded devotion required to be a top-class golfer. Winning must be everything. It must be at any cost. There are not a lot people around like that. I wasn’t like that. I got bored and frustrated by not getting involved in other things.”
An acute observer of golfers, Hayes tells a fascinating story about his friend Bobby Cole, who was challenging for the 1975 Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Walking up the 13th fairway Cole turned to his caddy and said: “I don’t know if I want to win this thing. Can I handle everything that goes with being the British Open champion?”
He finished third.
Hayes might have retired from golf but he never retired from life – since 1980 he has been a broadcaster, magazine editor, internet entrepreneur and course designer.
His story stands as a cautionary tale amidst the glory of this year’s teenage wunderkinds. Not all of the young hotshots will succeed on the course. They may not realise it – they may not even like it – but their greatest success may lie somewhere else entirely.
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