New Record-Holder Paid Price
It was time to get out of Africa. He was 17 years old and had just heard about something called the Junior World golf tournament at Torrey Pines near La Jolla, Calif. He heard also that $500 worth of air fare was thrown in free. “So, I got down on my hands and knees in front of my mother and said, ‘Give us a chance, luv,’ ” said Nicholas Raymond Leige Price.
His father, an army major who served the British in India during World War II, had died in 1967. In the seven years since, Nick Price’s older brother, Kit, had become the man of the house. Kit turned to his mother and told her to let Nick go to America. “You gotta do it,” Kit said. “You gotta get golf out of his brain.”
“Talk about floating,” Nick said. “The whole trip wound up costing me something like $250. For that, I got to travel halfway around the world-- to play golf!”
And then he won.
He beat Hal Sutton and Gary Hallberg and other juniors who would join him among the golfers at the Masters later on, golfers who would give anything to do what Nick Price did Saturday--break the course record at what is arguably America’s most famous course.
But most would not want to go through what he did to get here. They would not want to endure the racial strife and political upheaval that changed Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and turned the world’s attentions to the 19th-Century social attitudes of South Africa.
There were sanctions that kept young athletes like Price from competing internationally, and there were laws that forced young men into military service--or, as Price described it, “time in the bush.”
At 19, two years after golfing in California, he began a two-year hitch in the Rhodesian Air Force, mostly as a radio operator. The rank of Aircraftman was as low as you could go, but Price and his closest friends liked it that way. They had an understanding--"the less conspicuous you are, the better.”
It was bad enough that they had to spend 16 weeks in the jungle, sometimes hearing gunshots in the distance, and having “a couple of close shaves, nothing much,” but at least they were not among the officers who were giving orders and resisting the necessary changes in white-is-right Rhodesia.
“My generation bore the brunt of the previous generations’ mistakes,” Price said Saturday during a quiet moment away from the crowds that wanted to know only about his round of 63. “We wanted changes, but the powers didn’t. We wanted to play sports, but we had to do time in the bush. All we wanted was the war and the tension to end. Nobody in his right mind wants to live like that.
“Zimbabwe is a beautiful place, and I certainly love it. It’s my home and always will be my home. I go back for at least two months every year. It’s a beautiful, sophisticated, peaceful place. The image you probably have of Zimbabwe from the movies is nothing like it really is.”
Nick Price was born in South Africa, carries a British passport and has applied for U.S. residence, currently making Orlando, Fla., his base. When his brother Kit asked him to caddy when he was 8, Nick whined: “I don’t want to carry your bags. I want to play.”
After that, he never did get golf out of his brain, nor did Kit, who is the head pro at the Royal Harare Golf Club in Zimbabwe and recently hit the “Safari Circuit,” playing in the Ivory Coast Open, Kenyan Open, Zambian Open, Zimbabwean Open and Nigerian Open, none of which were ever sponsored by Bob Hope or Bing Crosby.
So many of the movies shown in Zimbabwe theaters were from Hollywood that Price said he knew America well before he ever got here. Asked what he thought of “Out of Africa,” Price said: “It was very realistic, a very good film. It showed exactly the attitudes of the people at that time, how the British were toward the blacks and so forth.
“I don’t normally like to talk politics, but things always catch up to you, don’t they? Someone does something 70 years earlier and you get lumbered with the problem, whatever it is. And it always takes another 20 years to change it.”
Price, 29, is grateful for changes that have freed him to play pro golf. That, too, has been a struggle. “In other sports where you prove yourselves in college, a fellow comes by and says, ‘Here’s a contract.’ People say golfers win too much money, but they don’t realize the gamble you take. My first three years as a pro, I don’t think I made more than 15,000 pounds.”
Fame and money first came one weekend in 1982 when Price led the British Open at Royal Troon in Scotland by three strokes with six holes to play. Four bogeys let Tom Watson take the title.
“I honestly don’t feel like I choked,” Price said. “Every time the ball hit the club face, I felt it was going in the direction I wanted it to. The shots felt right. I was perplexed, dazed, stunned, you name it, when I walked off 18 and knew I’d lost it. These things happen, I suppose.”
So do 63s, but not often.
“I’ve shot 63s before, but never at the Masters,” said Bruce Lietzke, Price’s playing partner Saturday.
No one had. And if anyone was going to, it certainly did not figure to be Price, who had opened his 1986 American tour with an 83 at Pebble Beach and had carded only four rounds under 70 in the eight tournaments before this one. Even his opening round of the Masters had been a miserable 79.
The guy had to shoot a 69 the next day just to make the cut by a stroke. A couple of bad putts Friday would have put Price on a plane instead of in the history books.
It was goof-free golf. Lietzke shot a 68 but said: “I had to get an eagle just to get honors.” There were 10 birdies for Price in all, and there would have been 11 had his putt at the 18th not lipped out.
On the other hand, that putt was too hard, probably, and could have gone several feet past the hole had the cup not slowed it. Lietzke, who had avoided the subject of the course record during the round, like a baseball pitcher’s teammate during a no-hitter, said of the putt: “I’d have lagged, but that’s how you get a nine-under-par--by being bold.”
The cup itself had been freshly painted for television, which has been a point of contention among players who claim the paint makes the fringe of the hole stiff and fast. “If you think the hole’s going to spit the ball back, what’s next?” argued Price, laughing off the complaint. “Even if they put concrete around the hole, a good putt should go in.”
At Warren Hills, the club in Zimbabwe where he learned how to play, and at other nearby courses, typically 7,000 yards long and 5,000 feet high, occasionally the greens felt as if they were paved with cement. But Price was a good enough golfer that he shot 63s twice in his homeland, once at the Vaal Reefs Open, once at a pro-am in South Africa.
But men played the Masters for 50 years without shooting a 63.
“I’m sure my record will be broken,” Price said. “I wish I could do it myself. Any fortune tellers around?”
No, but sometimes a new generation must come along before changes can be made.