As pictured in the South African Golf Hall of Fame-Inducted 2011
Murray Leyden recalls one of South Africa’s finest amateur golfers and one of life’s true gentlemen
We all have our sporting heroes and I’ve had many, not just in golf. But my first was undoubtedly the late Jannie Le Roux, one of South Africa’s finest amateur golfers who was to have such a positive influence on my own formative years as a young golfer at neighbouring Royal Durban. I first met “Mr Le Roux” in 1961 when, as a pint-sized 8 year old already bitten by the golf bug, I joined the club as a junior member. A fairly common occurrence today, but not so in those days. It was also the year 33 year old Jannie Le Roux, by then already a Springbok with an impressive amateur record, won the Natal and South African Amateur Championships.
As drawn by Jock Leyden, Murray’s father and iconic Durban cartoonist.
Born Johannes Gerhardus Le Roux at Caledon in the Eastern Cape in 1928, but always known as “Jan” or “Jannie” to family and friends, Le Roux was my idol and I hero-worshipped him, often just sitting and watching him hit practice balls in the evenings after work (and I after school) or walking with him during Saturday afternoon club competitions. I was hungry to learn and here was a champion golfer virtually all to myself. Admittedly, we never had television in those days, but when last did you see a youngster watching the club champion play in a monthly medal or a league match?
Jannie Le Roux achieved a great deal in an all too brief amateur career, which probably began in earnest when he finished second to Springbok amateur Reg Taylor in the 1954 South African Open at East London Golf Club, later to be the scene of his own national amateur championship title. He won the prestigious Freddie Tait Trophy for leading amateur in the South African Open in 1957 and again in 1959. Among his many titles were the Natal Amateur in 1961 and 1962, the South African Amateur in 1961 and the coveted Proudfoot Trophy for leading qualifier in the SA Amateur championship in 1958 (tied with Arthur Walker), 1959 and again at Durban Country Club in 1963 after a tie with the young, classy Barry Franklin, who had lost to John Hayes in the final of the previous year’s national championship at Houghton.
Former Springboks Dorian Wharton-Hood1 and the late Murray Grindrod were Le Roux’s contemporaries. “Jannie was one of our greatest Springbok amateur golfers” recalls Dorian, finalist in the 1964 South African Amateur championship. “Jannie was not a particularly long hitter, but had an uncanny knack of being deceptively long down-wind, and he seldom strayed from the fairway. He was a fantastic putter, among the very best I have ever seen, right up there with the likes of Mark McNulty.
1Dorian was one of the founding trustees of the SA Golf Hall of Fame
“Although I knew Jannie very well, the only time I played against him was in the quarter final of that 1964 SA Amateur at Bloemfontein, when I consider myself fortunate to have beaten him at the 21st hole. Our careers were geographically almost identical, but strangely we were never in the same place at the same time. We both went to Stellenbosch University, represented Boland and Western Province and then Transvaal, South Africa and ultimately Natal, where we both played for Royal Durban, although I only joined the club after Jannie’s death. We both moved around more than most and the only place I lived where he didn’t was Port Elizabeth! He was a few years older than me and I watched Jan play quite often in the Cape when I was a youngster and was always a fan of his. He in turn was something of a mentor for me. I remember that when I was in contention for the 1964 national team, Jan persuaded me to come to Durban to play in that year’s Natal Amateur and he hosted fellow Springbok Bob Williams and me in his flat on the Berea. He was in every respect the truest of amateur golfers, a real competitor and a great sportsman, who always played the game in the right spirit.” High praise indeed from the 1968 Natal Amateur champion.
One of my own earliest golfing memories was the 1961 Natal Amateur championship at Royal Durban where the final was contested between two of the country’s best amateur golfers of the time, Jannie Le Roux and Murray Grindrod, so I simply had to chat to the losing finalist about that year’s champion.
Fortunately, I did just that a few years ago. “Jannie learned his golf on sand greens at the Caledon Golf Club before he was transferred to the Transvaal and later to Durban to head up the regional office of Bonuskor, a financial house with a predominantly Afrikaans speaking clientele” recalled Grindrod of his rival who was so proud of his Afrikaans heritage.
I remember how strange it seemed when some of the older Royal Durban members used to call him “Johnny”, presumably having difficulty pronouncing its Afrikaans equivalent, amazing as that might now appear even in “the last outpost”. Not that Mr Le Roux ever seemed to mind. In fact, the members revered him and today there is an excellent photograph of the club’s three time champion with the hickory shafted mallet putter I remember so well proudly displayed in Royal Durban’s wonderful men’s bar. “He was a very consistent golfer with enormous powers of concentration” Grindrod added. “He drove the ball well and although his iron play was perhaps the weakest part of his game, Jannie more than made up for it with his excellent short game and sublime putting. He really was a phenomenal putter. I sometimes wondered if it had anything to do with learning the art on sand greens! He would study the line of a putt interminably and never played before he was ready. Perhaps that was the key.”
“I had great respect for Jannie and we had many exciting matches against one another and defeating him was always hard earned and highly prized,” said Grindrod. He and Le Roux were team mates with Reg Taylor and Arthur Walker at the 1960 Eisenhower Trophy at Merion in the USA where Le Roux’s 72 hole score of 295 with rounds of 74-75-72-74 was the best of the Springbok quartet.
Prior to 1982, when other clubs were added to the roster, the Natal Amateur championship venue alternated each year between Royal Durban and Durban Country Club. I watched every stroke in that 1961 final at Royal Durban between current Springboks Grindrod and Le Roux. Grindrod was the reigning South African Amateur champion, having beaten Cobie Le Grange at Mowbray the previous year, and Le Roux would go on to win the national amateur championship by defeating John Hayes at East London Golf Club a few months later.
That 1961 Natal Amateur final was a hard-fought encounter and Le Roux eventually edged home 2/1. Grindrod believed the afternoon’s short 15th hole really decided that championship. “I had been putting indifferently all day and was one down playing the hole, our 33rd. My tee shot ended up within three or four feet of the flag, while Jannie hit a poor approach and came up short of the green in the rough. A weak chip just made the green, but he promptly holed from 30 feet and I missed mine. That hole was crucial and, when I didn’t make par at the 17th, it was all over.” I have to admit, my hero had won and I was over the moon.
Jannie Le Roux again represented his country at the 1962 Eisenhower Trophy in Japan, this time not faring quite as well with a score of 303 (73-79-77-74). He was capped seven times for South Africa between 1957 and 1963 and was a member of the team that won the Commonwealth Trophy at Royal Johannesburg in 1959. His final international appearance, before failing health took him out of contention, was in the 1963 Commonwealth Trophy in Australia.
I asked 1967 Natal Amateur champion and former Waterman Cup winner Walter Pitt for his recollection of Royal Durban’s 1961, 1962 and 1964 champion. “I never played much golf with Jannie Le Roux, apart from a number of nine hole games after work, when I learned a great deal. He died just before I got into the Natal team, so I never experienced interprovincial golf with him. However, such was the impression he made on me that whenever anybody asks me who was the best amateur golfer I ever played with, my answer remains ‘Jannie Le Roux’. The only event I can remember we both played in was the 1962 Natal Strokeplay Championship at Natal Estates, later Huletts Country Club, now Mount Edgecombe Country Club, always a difficult course on which to score well in strokeplay. Jannie won by 9 strokes with an excellent score of 292. Within a short while, Jannie was to disappear from the club, no doubt consumed by the cancer which tragically ended his life at such an early age.” said Walter.
“What else do you remember of him?” I asked, pressing Walter for more as I too remembered Mr Le Roux literally disappearing from the club. One day I had watched him play, the next he was gone. Forever. What did I know about life and things like cancer? I was just eleven years old when he died. He had always been so kind to me, encouraging me whenever he could, taking a special interest in my own progress as a young golfer.
Then Walter added “Jannie to me played golf as it should be – moving the ball at will, from left to right or right to left as the situation required. His ball control you don’t see today and that was what set him apart from the others. To give an example, when playing the old first hole at Royal Durban (now the tenth), he would always hit at the left fairway bunker with a fade, leaving himself a 4 or 5 iron to the green from the middle of the fairway. It was truly amazing how he did this every time and it left a lasting impression on me. His putting was great – slow and deliberate.
To mark this aspect of his game, the club still plays for the Jannie Le Roux putter”. If anyone knew him, it would have been Walter Pitt, whose own provincial career spanned several decades.
David Suddards is unquestionably the best putter I ever saw, but Jannie Le Roux was definitely in the same class. He just seemed to make it look so much harder than David did, that’s all. Le Roux would glance toward the hole so frequently and with quicker and quicker, shorter and shorter, exaggerated eye movements just before taking the putter back that his head would become like a metronome, something my late father captured so vividly in a caricature he drew to accompany a prized autograph from “my friend” Jannie Le Roux. Might just have been the origin of that expression “putting the eyes out of it”!
When I spoke to him, the late Murray Grindrod fondly recalled the story of how, on the eve of his first Transvaal Amateur final at the Wanderers Golf Club, Jannie had apparently consumed twelve whiskies with friends and members in the clubhouse bar. “He went on to play superbly and take the title the following day and so is said to have repeated the ritual on the eve of every subsequent championship final in which he played” said Murray with a smile, before adding “but that’s probably apocryphal”.2
2Meaning of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true
First diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1962, Le Roux would undergo surgery more than once, but, accepting the inevitable, he returned to his beloved Cape, quite literally, to die. His last tournament was the 1964 Boland Open at Hermanus when he lost in a playoff to Ivor Dorrington. Gaunt, drawn and by then painfully thin, he literally had nothing left physically after 72 holes. He was to die six months later on 18 March 1965 when still a young man, leaving us all to wonder just what he might have gone on to achieve. He was just 36 years old and in the prime of his life. In recognition of the man and his contribution to the amateur game in this country, the men’s national interprovincial trophy is named after him. In its long and illustrious history, Royal Durban Golf Club has had many great champions, many of them Springboks. But I must ask “Was JG Le Roux the greatest of them all?”
He was among Compleat Golfer magazine’s top ten South African amateur golfers of the 20th century. He was inducted posthumously into the Southern African Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. I was once “his friend”.