On this day, January 4, 2017, the greatest golfer you’ve never heard of, Wayne Westner, committed suicide at his wife, Alison’s eldest son’s home in Rahle Road, Pennington, South Africa. He had driven from Johannesburg with his laptop and a 9 mm handgun. Two days before he composed a farewell letter to his family on his laptop computer.
It was early morning when Westner pulled up to the house in Pennington. He tried to bash down the front door, then, run to the back of the house. He shot through a window in the living room and entered the house. Alison, her son from a previous marriage, his wife and their five-year-old daughter were terribly frightened, so they locked themselves in the bathroom.
He began banging on the bathroom door and yelling for Alison to come out. Her son shouted through the door for him to please stop, to not hurt himself or them. Her daughter-in-law begged for him to let the child out, so she wouldn’t be exposed to all of that. Westner agreed to that, and so Alison opened the bathroom door. Westner was standing there with the gun pressed to his forehead. As soon as he saw Alison he pulled the trigger. He wanted her to see him do it.
He died at about 8 am.
Wayne Brett Westner was born on September 28, 1961, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and began playing golf in 1971. His father Eldrid was a lefty golfer of great potential but unlike his friend and rival Gary Player, he never made it into the professional tours. He had two sons, Wayne and Brandon. Wayne won a number of amateur events before turning professional in 1982, at age 21. He joined the European Tour in 1983.
Having a swing of unsurpassed power and grace, he began competing successfully on the world stage. He won the South African Open in 1988. He took his national championship again in 1991, beginning a long-anticipated ascent into one of the best players in the world. He won European Tour events in 1993 and 1996. At the 1993 Dubai Desert Classic, he shot rounds of 69, 66, 69, 70 for a total of 274, 14 under par, and a two shot victory over compatriot Retief Goosen. Severiano Ballesteros was three shot behind in a tie for third with Barry Lane. He also lost to Nick Faldo in the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff for the 1992 Irish Open at Killarney. He earned a lot, spent even more. Ernie Els said, “He moved into Sandton, which is kind of the Bel-Air of Johannesburg. He liked the fancy cars and houses and all that.”
Wayne was a man for whom golf and competition was everything. From 1990-1996, he won eight tournaments on the South Africa based Sunshine Tour and topped the Order of Merit on the Sunshine Tour for the 1995-96 season, climbing as high as N0 40 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But it was the 1996 World Cup that cemented his legend in his home country. At Erinvale Golf Club, in Somerset West, Ernie Els and Westner went 29 under par across four rounds, 18 strokes better than the runners-up, the United States team, comprised of Tom Lehman and Steve Jones, the reigning British and U.S. Open champions. Els said, “He was really on his game, and that pushed me to play my absolute best.”
He competed in the Open Championship seven times, with his best finish coming in 1993 when he was in a tie for 33rd spot. He placed 50th at the United States Open in Oakland Hills Country Club, in 1996.
He studied the golf swing, spending long periods of time in the South African bush, not to hunt animals but to observe them. He believed the way they moved could offer clues to a more natural way of swinging the golf club.
In 1998, during the pro-am at the Madeira Islands Open, a European Tour event, Westner was helping a playing partner fish a ball out of a hazard at the 11th hole when the wooden retaining wall on which he was standing crumbled. Westner plunged some six feet, shredding his ankle when he hit the ground. His game would never be the same again. He missed more than a year of action and never won again. Alan Shipnuck wrote in Golf Magazine, “Els turned into the player his World Cup partner was supposed to have been, and Westner slowly faded away, one of the game’s most tantalizing what-ifs.”
While not traveling the European Tour, he spent his time in Celbridge, in Co Kildare, Ireland, teaching the sport during nine years at the Wayne Westner Golf Academy, where some 1,100 students received lessons. He returned to South Africa in 2006. He was also the driving force behind the Instant Golfer, a training machine designed to teach all aspects of the golf swing. From his first wife, Kathy Victor, he had three children, Jeni Crator (now 34), Chane Todd (27) and Matthew (24). Alison had been his wife for four years.
His death, at age 55, sent shock waves through the tightly knit fraternity of South African golf. Gary Player described him as “one of the most physically gifted players I have ever seen. The way he got through the ball reminded me of Ben Hogan, and I don’t say that lightly.”
Claudia Mazzucco, January 2, 2018
Claudia M. Mazzucco is a researcher at Golf Channel and teacher of History of Golf at the PGA of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. She is the author of Legendary Lessons (2016), El Golf de los Tiempos, A Novel (2002) and The Guide of Golf Courses in Argentina (2003). She received the PGA Award from the PGA of Argentina in 2005