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Professional Golf

The Professionals Matchplay Championship


The first professional golfers in South Africa were Walter Day (Cape GC), appointed in March 1893, and a short while later Jack Johnson (Port Elizabeth GC).   When the SA Tournament was played in Port Elizabeth in 1893 it appears that Day accompanied the Cape GC contingent and, as part of the week’s activities, he played an exhibition match, very likely a challenge match, against Johnson.  Johnson won this first encounter by 2 holes after the two had ‘both scored 78 in the first round’. 

(Note:  There is some doubt as to whether his surname was Johnson, Johnston or Johnstone, all three spellings appear in the records, and his first name Jack or Jimmie.)

The following year the SA Tournament was again staged in Port Elizabeth and again Day made the trip, no doubt amongst other reasons to avenge his loss to Johnson the previous year.  This he succeeded in doing.   This rivalry continued and the challenge match between these two became a regular feature of the annual Tournament, not only when it was played in Port Elizabeth but at other venues as well, such as East London, King William’s Town and Kimberley.  With regard to Kimberley in 1899, there is evidence that for the first time there were four participants, Walter Day, Ben Day, Jack Johnson and Lawrie Waters, the last newly arrived from the UK.   Ben Day and Waters were beaten in the first round and so again it devolved into a match between  Walter Day and Johnson to determine the final winner.  It was won by the former.   Exactly who Ben Day was is not known – perhaps Walter’s brother on a visit from the UK?  His name doesn’t appear again anywhere in the history.

Day was the more successful of the two and by 1902 had won six times to Johnson’s two.  There was no contest in 1900 and 1901.   These matches were the small beginnings of what was to become the SA Professionals’ Match Play Championship in 1923 and also, some would argue, the first beginnings of the SA Open.

SA Open Championship

The challenge matches between these two came to an end in 1903 when the South African Open Championship was inaugurated in Port Elizabeth that year.  By now there were several professionals in South Africa, names such as Waters, Moore, Stewart and others, and the time had come to launch a stroke play championship open to all amateurs and professionals alike. This first event was won by Lawrie Waters.

But the inauguration of the SA Open did not bring an end to the playing of challenge matches.  The professionals were always ready to pit their strength against their peers and not infrequently against the best amateurs as well.  The Open in the early years was played over 36 holes in one day and the professionals who made the long journey to the Tournament would want to get more than just a single day’s golf.   Challenge matches arranged on an ad hoc basis were the order of the day.

Typical would be the match played at East London in 1906 between amateurs Lieuts. Hambro and Ballinghall and professionals Gray and Waters.  The East London Despatch reported that this match “attracted the most attention” and described it as “as fine an exhibition of golf as has ever been seen in South Africa.  Match play is far more exciting to watch than medal play and the spectators watched every stroke with the keenest interest, applauding every good shot.”  The report went on to describe the contest hole by hole right through to the 18th which Ballinghall birdied to square the match.

A press report reviewing the 1908 SA Open at Port Elizabeth reads: “During the many preliminary friendly matches among the professionals, Waters and Fotheringham had led everything that came before them”.   One of these matches is described, the two mentioned taking on Gray (Port Elizabeth) and Gray (Kimberley) for 5 pounds (R10) a side.  This match also finished all square.

Another interesting challenge match at the 1908 meeting was that between amateurs Ben Wynne and Jimmy Prentice (SA Amateur Champion) and the same two professionals Lawrie Waters and George Fotheringham (SA Open Champion).   It was held at the Walmer Golf Club away from the main action with Walter Day in attendance to see fair play. No doubt there was money at stake.  Sadly, the record doesn’t say who won!   A photograph of this historic event has survived.

A Match Was Played  -  or Better Ball Medal

On a more formal basis at the 1908 Tournament in Port Elizabeth “a match was played by the professionals” with prize money of 25 pounds (R50) raised by subscription, augmented by the Club.  Rather than being a match, this was more in the form of a competition involving all the professionals and it attracted much interest.   The players, eight in all, were drawn in couples and played better-ball medal over 18 holes.  The winners were Waters and Wilkins on a score of 73, followed by Gray and Fotheringham on 77.  The winning share of the prize-money was 12 pounds (R24).

This was probably the first time such a “better-ball match” had been arranged but it was not the last.   While there is not a great deal of evidence in the records to show what happened in the intervening years, certainly at Royal Cape in 1923 what was described as “The Professionals Purse” formed part of the programme.   A record purse of 250 pounds (R500) had been raised and the format was exactly as in Port Elizabeth in 1908, namely better-ball medal played in drawn pairs.  Six pairs took part and the winners were Tosh and Tomsett on a score of 70.   Local professionals Jangle (Metropolitan) and Smith (Royal Cape) were second on 71.   


6. Argus Newspapers competition.

First and Second Rounds.

Open to Professional Golfers only. 18 Holes Match Play on knock-out principle.
Final round of 36 Holes.

In the event of a halved match, play to be continued until the match is won.

First prize, £50; second prize, £30; third and fourth prizes, £10 each.

Entries close at 5 p.m. on Friday, 28th September.
No entrance fee.

(Use the red entry form.)

WW1 came and went and in the post-war years the game gained enormously in popularity.   More and more professionals were taking up positions in South Africa and the time had come for the paid ranks to be properly represented.  Accordingly in 1922 the South African Professional Golfers’ Association was formed with Harry Peck, pro at the Johannesburg GC, as President.   It was also becoming increasingly clear to the SAGU Executive that more should be done for the professionals at the annual championship tournament.   The SA Open was now four rounds of golf played over two days but this was not enough to attract all the best players round the country. They needed a greater incentive and, in order to cover costs, more opportunities to win money. 

Accordingly, at the SA Tournament held at Royal Cape in 1923 a Professionals’ Match Play Championship was added to the programme.  Above is a copy of the conditions attached to the new event, which was sponsored by The Argus Newspapers.   The prize money for the winner of the SA Open was only 25 pounds (R50), albeit plus a gold medal; 50 pounds (R100) for the winner of this new event was generous indeed and a real incentive to the players.   Each year as the SA Tournament moved around the country a new sponsor had to be found.  With the example set by The Argus in Cape Town it was often the local newspaper that came to the party.  The sponsorship remained unchanged at 100 pounds (R200) right through to 1940.

There was a total entry of 14 for this inaugural championship in 1923, six matches being played in the first round with two players going through on byes.   Jock Brews, SA Open Champion that year, was beaten in the second round by A F Tomsett who in turn was beaten by Johnstone.  Both finalists were from Pretoria, J Johnstone (Pretoria GC) and B H Elkin (Pretoria CC).   Elkin was the winner by 4 and 3.

(Is this the same Jack Johnson (or should it have been Jimmie Johnstone?) the Port Elizabeth professional who played in that challenge match against Walter Day way back in 1893, 30 years ago?  Surely not?  Perhaps his son?)

The pros exhibition better-ball competition described above with its impressive purse of 250 pounds (R500) must have been a significant added incentive for the pros attending the championships.