No fewer than six amateurs pegged the ball up on day one of the 104th South African Open hosted by the City of Ekurhuleni, and there is more than just pride on the line for these men at Glendower this week. Indeed, the historic Freddie Tait Cup, and a place in SA Open folklore, beckons for the highest-placed amateur.
The story of Frederick Guthrie Tait (1870-1900), and the trophy which honours his memory is a unique one, and adds yet another special dynamic to this fine tournament.
The Edinburgh-born Tait made a name for himself as a big-hitting amateur in his early playing days. The 5ft 11in star really turned heads at St Andrews’ Old Course in 1893, blasting a drive that landed 250 yards away, only for it to run a further 91 yards on the frozen fairway. Interestingly, 250 yards was also the exact distance his father, a physicist, had declared humanly possible in a paper published two years earlier, even though the longest drive on record (in terms of carry) at that stage was only 180 yards.
Tait broke the course record at the Old Course the following year, firing a 72. Yet his two victories at The Amateur in 1896 and 1898 were undoubtedly the crowning achievements of his career; one that also included third-place finishes in 1896 and 1897 at the Open Championship (an event in which he finished as the low amateur on six occasions).
Yet the most legendary tale of all was a bet Tait made in 1898, declaring that he could get from Royal St Georges in Sandwich to Royal Clinque Ports Golf Club (a distance of 3.2 miles) in fewer than 40 strokes. It was an outlandish and obscene suggestion for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that the average driving distance at that time was around 190 yards. Yet, true to his character, Tait defied the odds, and achieved it in just 32 shots.
First and foremost though, Tait was a soldier, and in 1899, he boarded the Cape-bound SS Orient to fight in the Boer War as one of 29 officers in the famed “Black Watch.”
His battalion was decimated at the battle of Magersfontein in December 1899, but Tait survived a wound to the thigh, and recovered to lead his platoon at the battle of Koedoesburg Drift near Kimberley a month later. It was here that he tragically died though, suffering a fatal shot to the chest while leading a forward rush.
News of the charismatic Tait’s passing stunned the Scottish public, as his legacy had extended beyond just golf. He was buried on the banks of the Riet River, where a small cross marked the grave-site. In 1936, his putter was presented to the Kimberley Golf Club – the course closest to the point of his death (as per his request in his will).
It was in 1928 though, that the Freddie Tait Cup came into being. Surplus funds from a British Amateur Tour to South Africa that year allowed the touring contingent to purchase the trophy (which bears the R&A Club die and crest, and the medal die of the Army Golfing Society), and it was agreed that from the following year, the best-placed amateur at the SA Open would be awarded it.
The first man to etch his place in such history was Bernard Wynne, who won the trophy at Royal Cape in 1929. Since then, esteemed players such as Bobby Locke, Jock Verwey, Denis Hutchison, Dale Hayes, Ernie Els and Trevor Immelman have gone on to win the prestigious honour, leading one to draw the conclusion that winning the Freddie Tait Cup is a sign of things to come.
However, this year’s sextet will have to step up their game on Friday, as not one of them were able to get inside the top 70 after day one. Should they all fail to make the cut, the trophy will not be awarded to anyone this year, and we will have to wait until 2016 to add the name of a new rising star to this distinguished list!