Golfer Phil Tataurangi shaping a new destiny

MARGOT BUTCHER
Last updated 05:00 23/02/2014
Phil Tataurangi
Getty Images
TAKING HIS OWN PATH: Phil Tataurangi.

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It feels like Phil Tataurangi has been around forever. But at this year's New Zealand Open, his name will be absent from the starting field. A busy man, the one-time golfing prodigy is loving life and has plenty of irons in the fire.

It was 1986 and one of those moments that stick with you for life. His first time playing in the Doug Sanders Under-18 International Championship - a 15-year-old dimpled greenhorn in Queensland, which was as good as another universe away from the sleepy Te Awamutu greens where stalwart club ladies had taken Phil Tataurangi under their wing and taught him the etiquette of golf.

It was a whole six years, still, before he would be the leading individual among the quartet of young men who became the first New Zealand team to win the world amateur Eisenhower Trophy, and the golf that day has rusted from memory, but watching Doug Sanders speak - that's like yesterday. Sanders is arguably most famous for losing the 1970 British Open. The distinguished American pro was 50 then and, Tataurangi recounts, "he stood up and professed that he was the richest guy in golf, but it wasn't about the amount of money he had made. It was the richness of the relationships and friends he'd made though playing the game. That resonated with me even though, at that time, I had no idea I was going to play professionally. I thought, ‘That sounds like a pretty good aim."

In the Eisenhower days, team coach Mal Tongue was given to gushing that Tataurangi was the biggest talent, had the best swing of the lot of them - and this was the team that featured future US Open winner Michael Campbell. But Tataurangi's pro career would be wounded by injury, the worst a herniated disk at the base of his spine, in 2003. Now 42, he looks nothing like his years - it's those boyish dimples, but the back tells a different story. For the first time that hasn't had anything to do with an injury, this month he has made himself unavailable to play in the New Zealand Open.

Of course golfers never use the "R" word, because golfers never retire: they just move to the senior tour. But after a career both blessed and blighted, it's a significant mental shift for one of New Zealand golf's latter-day torchbearers. He netted one precious US PGA Tour victory, the Australasian PGA Tour Championship before that, and tested his mettle in a host of unexpected ways. It's a tough living in the USA when you're not regularly potting paydays, let alone playing, or fighting your way through the Nike Tour. But cold, hard trophies? He insists that was never what it was about.

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"I was blessed that my parents introduced me to the game, and I'm very grateful to all the people who helped develop me. The combination of the people in the game, the game itself and my family is what it was for me . . . not creating achievement on the golf course. Those forces shaped me as a person, and the game affords you that. For me that's far more important."

You want to believe him, partly because he's speaking with the same measured authority that blew people away when he stood up to collect the 2014 Halberg Award on behalf of Lydia Ko - a speech he didn't even rehearse, since he'd only been tapped on the shoulder about the possibility shortly beforehand. Certainly he's been tossing a few other irons in the fire, all of which spell out "moving on". Tomorrow you'll spot him co-presenting a new weekly show on SKY, Kordia Golf Focus, with Brendan Telfer, that will review top golf around the world. And, although he's now settling down in Auckland, where his eldest has just started at St Kentigern's, he'll be continuing as an international commentator at perhaps 15 tournaments a year overseas. "Something I never initially pictured myself doing," he says candidly, "but the game is a conduit to catching up with everyone, and keeping in touch with people is the big thing . . ."

We get talking about what he's been up to in Auckland, besides slugging it out at "crazy" real-estate auctions for a permanent family roof. A partnership with Brett Thomson (who helped design The Hills and Clearwater Resort) led to successfully tendering to Manukau Golf Club, which is uprooting from its 80-year-old, 112-acre suburban base to a new, 142-acre rural fringe site in a housing deal with Fletchers - the completion date September 2016. Discussing the nitty-gritty of the imagined approach to the new 18th green won't get you through too many coffees with Tataurangi, however. Golf is people, people. He's straight away off on the social tangent, how societal changes affecting rootstock golf clubs are pretty much the same as those that forced cricket to renovate itself with Twenty20. Two sports that, at the highest level, unfold over a luxury of days, like a four-act play - but few people have that kind of time, any more, to even watch.

"Clubs are looking at declining revenue and membership, versus increasing costs, and a big part of the Manukau project for me is taking a responsible approach to that, not just designing a fancy course for the sake of it. How do we make this course, and therefore the club, work long-term for them, as a true community facility? If people don't have time to play the traditional 18 holes any more, just want to play nine holes, why do we start at hole one? Why not have two loops returning to the clubhouse, and social three-hole loops, six-hole loops - whatever it takes to get people onto the course?"

New Zealand still sports the second highest number of courses per capita (after Scotland), but he cautions that near-universal availability is not something we should take for granted. The sport has long been elitist overseas: we're lucky. He was lucky. "We have 399 courses and about 125,000 members playing nationally, but it's slowly declining. I have a son who plays and a daughter who plays every now and then. I ask myself if clubs are continuing on the traditional full 18-hole model, how do we get children learning this game? How do we get families on courses now? One of the biggest things we don't pay much attention to here is learning and practice facilities - and that's more than a putting green or a chipping green. It's important to learn on dedicated facilities that are similar to the course, so that's another area where we can adapt to ensure golf stays accessible - and also, to be potentially more than just the participation sport it's in danger of becoming."

Patron of the New Zealand branch of The First Tee, a charity which promotes character development in youth through golf, someone might as well give Tataurangi an honorary title as New Zealand Ambassador of Golf - he's that passionate about the game and what it can teach us all, especially young people. "I mean, for some businesses the golf course is their second boardroom. It's very effective because people are naked when they play golf: the game is so reflective of who they are as a person, their strengths and weaknesses psychologically, as it puts them under different situations and stressors. The 30 seconds between shots, where those conversations can end up going . . . I know I haven't done business with some people after playing golf with them!"

There's no hiding that the great metaphor for life that is golf intrigues him now as much as it ever did as an 18 year old. It's the process, not the outcome. But with all his accumulated life lessons and mana, is he hiding, somehow, still, the disappointment of what might have been, as a competitive sportsman? "You never want to stop believing you can," he says poignantly. "Basically I'd go silly if I didn't have some sort of competitive challenge. I guess what I'm doing now has its own challenges, and I take the same diligence and approach to using my skills there."

He still catches up with Eisenhower teammate Grant Moorhead on the course a few times a year, and Campbell "through the wonders of social media. Stephen Scahill is the only one I haven't seen for a number of years, just because we've been in different places." It seems like a long time ago now. He's taking an Elite Tours group to the US Masters this year, too, "and I never thought I'd do that." The dimples momentarily deepen.

- Sunday Star Times

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