Golf: First Singapore Open champion in 1961 took home the money but not the trophy

Australian golfer Frank Phillips holding the first Singapore Open trophy in 1961.
Australian golfer Frank Phillips holding the first Singapore Open trophy in 1961.PHOTO: ST FILE

This week's SMBC Singapore Open will be the 50th staging of the golf tournament.

The first edition was held in 1961 at the Royal Island Club course (now the Singapore Island Country Club).

It was won by Frank Phillips and the Australian, now 83, shares his memories with The Straits Times in a telephone interview from his home in Moss Vale, a town in New South Wales, Australia.

Q. What do you remember most about that victory?

A. It was my first trip to Singapore and I played really well (he shot rounds of 67, 69, 67, 72 to win by eight shots in a field that included British Open champions Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle).

After the third round, I had an 11-shot lead but I was still nervous and thinking, 'I could still lose this.'

Australian golfer Frank Phillips holding the first Singapore Open trophy in 1961. PHOTO: ST FILE

Thankfully I didn't and I still have the newspaper cuttings from that victory as well as for 1965 (when he won the Open for the second time).

Q. Do you still have the trophy or medal?

A. In those days, they used to give very big trophies and I didn't want to take it back with me as it was too expensive to transport on the plane.

So I left it at the club. I did the same in 1965 and left the trophy behind when I went home to Australia.

Q. What did you do with the $5,000 prize money you won?

A. It went straight to the family. I had a wife and three kids. I was playing and earning a living for them. It was good money in those days but nothing compared to what it is today.

I remember reading when Adam Scott won the Singapore Open in 2010 the prize money was US$1 million (S$1.44 million) and I thought to myself, 'My God, imagine winning a million dollars.'

Q. You won 45 tournaments worldwide, including many in Asia. What was the secret to your success?

A. I was a long hitter and averaged 300 yards off the tee. Back then, there weren't many players who outdrove me.

I was a pretty good iron player as well, and usually only needed a short iron into the greens. That made me hard to beat.

I also liked the heat and humidity in that part of the world. It loosened me up and I settled very quickly.

Q. Who's your favourite player of all time?

A. I played with many greats like (Ben) Hogan, (Sam) Snead, (Arnold) Palmer and (Jack) Nicklaus. For me, Nicklaus was the best player I've ever seen.

I played a lot with him and we became friends. His concentration on the course was second to none and his record of 18 Majors proves it. People also forget he was second in Majors 19 times.

Q. And of the current batch?

A. I like Rory (McIlroy). He's got a wonderful golf swing. If he stays fit and healthy, he's got a great future.

Q. Biggest difference between golf then and now?

A. Tournaments were 72 holes across three days instead of four now. We used to play 36 holes on Saturday, that was the norm. But we were young, fit and strong so it was nothing for us in those days.

Q. How often do you still play golf and what do you shoot now?

A. I still play twice a week at my home course at Mt Broughton Golf and Country Club in New South Wales. I don't keep score these days as my game isn't very good.

I have a bad back and can't turn it when I swing. Reaching a par-three is a challenge. I did hit a hole-in-one in 2012 and have had about 12 holes-in-one in my lifetime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'First champion took home the money but not the trophy'. Print Edition | Subscribe