We last engaged in sporting combat about 47 years ago.
He was a promising leg-spin bowler. Opposed to an impetuous left-hand bat with a glaring weakness against the turning ball, he left me stranded, out of my crease. Ray Smart, the Wangaratta ‘keeper did the rest.
John Southwell has fond memories of his cricket career and, in particular, the ‘bag’ of wickets he picked up against Rovers that day. The reason it’s so clear in his mind is that it was his last WDCA game……
In the interim he has, of course, become a legend of local golf.
He won his first Championship at Waldara in 1976 and is the reigning title-holder. That’s an incredible span to be at, or near, the top of your sport.
So what prompted him to dispense with the cricket bat, in favour of a set of golf clubs ?
“Well, Dad was a good cricketer in his day and was mates with Max Bussell, who talked my brother Ray and I, into playing with Wangaratta. But Mum and Dad were also mad-keen golfers and we spent a lot of time out at Waldara ,” John recalls.
“Mum said :’You’d better make a choice between the two’. It was a no-brainer. Golf won out.”
His parents had teed up a few lessons with Brian Simpson, the Head Pro at Yarrawonga (and now of Victoria Golf Club), who had originally spotted John piercing the fairway with one of his mum’s irons.
“I had about five lessons with Brian, who’s a fantastic teacher. He worked on some aspects of my game that have stood me in good stead over the years – like the ‘Get out of trouble’ shots and the importance of a good short-game.”
“At the end of my final lesson he asked me what I intended to do with my life. I told him it had always been my ambition to become a pro.”
He said : “Do you think you can become a Top 10 player.” “I doubt it,” I replied. Brian’s response was as blunt as a sledge-hammer : “Well, forget it, there’s no money in it.”
So instead, John left school and started a builder’s apprenticeship with Southwell Constructions, the business his dad had originally begun with Les Anderson.
It was hard yakka, with long hours, and he doesn’t really have fond memories of his early days in the building caper.
But at least he had his golf, even though he didn’t spend a lot of time on the practice fairways and greens .
“I’ve never been big on getting out on the course during the week,” he said. “Instead, I had a full-length mirror and I’d devote about 10 hours a week to making sure everything was comfortable . Setting up is critical. Your swing is automatic. If you’re swinging well you don’t need to change anything.”
John was 17 when he finished third in the Club Championship. Two years later, he was part of the Waldara team which won the Club’s first Division 1 pennant for 22 years.
He was 25 – and had already won a North-East title and 5 Open tournaments – before he broke through to win his first Wang championship. Once the ‘floodgates’ opened, however, he made the event his own, winning the next seven straight, and, even more emphatically, 12 in 14 years.
Those who have seen him at close quarters over the years testify to his thirst for the contest.
“He loves to compete. A social round of golf doesn’t have the same appeal to him,” they say. That probably explains why John travelled to tournaments throughout Victoria and southern New South Wales during his younger days.
When I quiz him on how many Open amateur events he won, he admits : “About 65.”
His game revolves around good driving and Iron-play and reliable putting. That, and stringent preparation. It stood him in good stead during 23 years of Country Week golf, the last 13 of which he was North-East’s captain.
John reckons he got his biggest thrill in the sport when he led North-East to the Age Shield in 1986. They’d been trying to win it for 19 years and were pitted against a strong West Gippsland team.
“It had been really tight all day and it eventually boiled down to my game. I came out on top on the 19th. To be captain and to win for the team – there could be no greater honour. Then we went on to win it for the next two years. It was a good time to retire from Country Week,” he said.
The Life Membership he received from the NEDGA at about this time, was recognition of his contribution to the Association.
About a decade earlier, John had received a phone call ‘out of the blue’ from someone associated with Northern Golf Club. “Would he be interested in playing State Pennant for them ?”, they pondered.
It was, I suggested, similar to a country footballer being drafted, sight unseen.
Northern had just been promoted to Division 1 and were busy recruiting. He was invited down for a trial and, having never seen the course, went around in 4-under. He was promptly installed as their No.1.
“It was a great experience, playing against the state’s outstanding amateurs, on some of the world’s best courses, every week. An opportunity to test yourself against the best,” he recalls.
His performances earned him selection in the state Amateur squad.
“The first two years were great, but in the third, it became a real grind. I was heading to Melbourne on a Friday night, returning late Sunday. In the end it got too much.”
John’s most prestigious win came in 1983, when he took out the 36-hole Victorian Country Championship, at Kingston Heath.
With the wind blowing a gale, he adapted to the conditions, kept the ball low and put together a reasonable score, while the big names behind him imploded. This led to his selection in the Vic.Country team which played the touring New Zealanders at Cobram.
By now his enthusiasm for golf had begun to wane, even though he had recently won another Club Championship and clinched his fourth North-East title.
So he took up cycling at the age of 40. He loved it, but wasn’t just content to go out for a leisurely ride. Veteran Dave Wohlers soon coaxed him into road-racing. Again, his competitive instinct took over.
But in the late nineties, after a nine-year hiatus, John succumbed to the persistence of his young next-door neighbor Xavier Palamaczuk , who convinced him that, if he came on board, Waldara would be a ‘monty’ to win another Division 1 Pennant.
That they did. In a strange quirk, though, it was Xavier who foiled his bid for another Club championship by beating him in the play-off, thanks in part to a course record round of 65.
Four years later John chalked up his 13th title when he defeated rising star Andrew Kelly in an epic 36-hole match-play battle.
Again he packed his trusty clubs away and jumped back on the bike for exercise, although arthritis in the neck was giving him hell.
Southwell Constructions, which he had taken over in 1986, had kept him ultra-busy, but regulations in the building industry were stiffening up and, ultimately, John didn’t feel like learning a new set of skills. He decided, instead, to get out whilst he was on top and retired in 2007.
It allowed him to concentrate fully on his passion of Woodwork.
If you’re lucky enough to see the magnificent pieces that he’s crafted, you’ll comprehend why some of them can take up to 5 months to complete.
They’re meticulous in their detail and I surmised that he undoubtedly adopts the same precision to his golf.
John made his second golfing ‘renaissance’ about three years ago, and says he’s enjoying the game as much as he ever has. He has won the last two Club championships (making it 15 in total) and is heavily involved administratively.
He has held the Board portfolio of Director of Greens at Waldara for 3 years and is the Chairperson of the proposed new Clubhouse development and new Course construction.
And his golf ? “I’m playing for the fun of it, striking the ball okay, and still playing off scratch. And I’m probably putting better now than in the old days. Why retire ? ” Wangaratta’s golfing legend says.