Heard the one about the British formula one driver who became pally with an Australian golfing legend and wangled his way into the Australian Open? No? Neither had I until recently. So imagine my surprise when I was researching another piece only to stumble across the story of the time in 1988 when Nigel Mansell found himself stood on the first tee at the Royal Sydney Club, playing in the Australian Open, with nerves aplenty, and doubting Thomases watching his every move.
Mansell was hardly a shoddy golfer - as a member of the Rowany Club on the Isle of Man, he had a handicap of 1.9 - but his wildcard entry owed a lot to his friendship with Greg Norman, the Great White Shark able to pull a few strings and persuade the Australian Golf Union to extend an invitation to his friend. Naturally some were suspicious and wary of such a stunt, questioning whether Mansell would break 90 on the testing par-72 course. The pressure on Mansell from some professionals in the field, the club members and press was bad enough, but Mansell was putting himself under enough strain which hardly helped his state of mind.
The night before his big debut indicated just how stressed Mansell was with the situation. "I'm virtually a teetotaller but I had a double brandy before I went to bed," he informed the press, before adding, "It didn't send me to sleep at all. I just tossed and turned." Indeed, such was his anxiety that Mansell would only get to sleep at 6am before waking up at 8. The man who would risk his life week in and week out was fully out of his comfort zone and it showed. He was human after all.
Mansell's mood barely improved on reaching the course, although his caddie, Greg Allbright, tried to relax him by saying "Let's have some fun." As kind as these words were intended to be, fun had probably not even entered the thoughts of Mansell, as the minutes ticked down for his moment of truth on the first tee. Under the watchful eyes of the club members, who sipped gin and tonics outside the grand clubhouse, Mansell made his way to the elevated tee, his heart pounding and his breathing scrambled, as the shot that he had undoubtedly played hundreds of times in his head neared.
"I was so uptight I could hardly breathe. I was panting. I was gripping the club as tightly as you grip a racing car steering wheel," Mansell would later admit, as the clock ticked over to 1.19pm and a world famous sportsman stood over his ball, quivering like you or I would. Unsurprisingly, Mansell's tee shot was poor - the Daily Mail's Ian Wooldridge described it as terrible - the ball coming out of the heel of the club and travelling 180 yards. On its way, Mansell's ball had nearly taken out two spectators, and it would settle just a yard from a wire fence. Not the most auspicious of starts, but understandable given the circumstances.
Luckily Mansell had landed in ground under repair and was able to get a free drop, gathering himself and managing to save par, before parring the next two holes too, albeit without visiting a fairway. When he birdied the par 4 fourth to move to one under par, Mansell's name stood proudly on the leaderboard. "It was one of the greatest triumphs you could have witnessed of sheer iron-will determination over some decidedly dodgy technique," wrote Wooldridge, giving a compliment with one hand whilst taking it away with the other. Mansell punched the air in delight and it looked as if he was now enjoying himself, as Allbright had originally suggested he should.
Whether the enormity of the moment got to Mansell or not is debatable, but at that point he froze, as he would profess in his own words. Locked arms and a tight grip led to a tugged tee shot at the fifth, his ball finding a bush and resulting in a double bogey. Two more dropped shots on the front nine meant he reached the turn at three-over-par, by no means a disgrace, especially considering just how nervous he had been. 39 shots on the front nine at the Royal Sydney Club was not to be sniffed at.
Naturally Mansell's presence did attract attention, although one fan, showing an alarming lack of awareness, approached him during his round to ask for an autograph. "Not now, I'm playing golf," Mansell informed the obviously confused spectator. "I'll re-phrase that I'm trying to play golf." In truth though, Mansell was unnecessarily beating himself up, as his front nine emphasised that he wasn't as bad as he was making out.
The back nine was just as successful, culminating in a spectacular finish on the last hole. Mansell's eight-iron approach finished inches from the cup, cheers ringing around the green as members on the surrounding clubhouse balconies showed their appreciation for a superb shot. The resultant birdie gave Mansell a first round total of 77, just five-over-par, only two shots worse off than Ian Woosnam. He may have been struggling to make the cut, but Mansell had not embarrassed himself, and if nothing else, he had at least experienced the euphoria of his moment of glory on the last.
"I had first, second and third degree burns on the buttocks from petrol spillage in my first Grand Prix but it was still a lot easier than this," joked Mansell afterwards, as he got ready to go through it all again just 24 hours later. Unfortunately things would not go quite as well on day two, although Mansell could point towards an arm injury as a possible excuse for his poor second round.
A ruptured muscle in his left arm hardly helped his round, Mansell forced to use an ice pack to try and ease the pain. Therefore, a second round of 86 was not totally unexpected, especially as strong winds swept across the course throughout the Friday. Yet there could be no shame in Mansell's performance, after all he had broken 90 twice, something that many felt he couldn't possibly do.
The Royal Sydney professional, Charles Pettit, had written an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the morning of the first day entitled 'How to whip up the perfect round in the Open'. Playing with Mansell, he could only card an 87 during the first round, which gave Mansell's scores even more credit.
Once the dust had settled, Mansell was ordered to rest before the start of the next Formula One season, his debut year with Ferrari. Understandably golf was pushed to one side, as Mansell's determination to win the Formula One World Championship, at first with Ferrari and then with Williams, finally brought him success in 1992.
Mansell would play in other professional golf tournaments, for example the Balearic Open in 1989 where he shot 87 and 82, and the South Australian Open at Adelaide in 1992 (79 and 80), and he also attempted unsuccessfully to ply his trade on the European Seniors Tour. Although these efforts suggested that he should have kept his clubs locked away, Mansell should not be mocked for falling short. His status as an international sports star afforded him the opportunities to realise an ambition, to play in professional golf tournaments, and he may have struggled, but you can't really blame him for taking advantage of the situation.
I'm amazed that I had no recollection of Nigel Mansell participating in the 1988 Australian Open. But that is the beauty of writing this blog, in that from time to time I discover something that I have either forgotten about or had no knowledge of in the first place. A Formula One driver playing with the likes of Norman, Woosnam and Calcavecchia, in a prestigious event like the Australian Open. It makes you wonder if a similar thing could happen nowadays if Adam Scott became best mates with Jensen Button or Lewis Hamilton.