The Round of his Life – Simon Athey
During the late 1980’s, the New Zealand Fire Service devised, what has become, the premier sporting event for firefighters from around the world. The ambitious plan was to initiate a World Firefighters Games (WFG) Obviously, such a major undertaking required strong international backing, so, a committee was formed which contacted firefighting authorities worldwide to test reaction to this unique proposal. Their enquiries met with a great deal of enthusiasm, the general feeling that this was a brilliant idea, long overdue.
Having secured the necessary support, the New Zealand authorities promptly organised the inaugural World Firefighters Games, which were held in Auckland in 1990. Over 1800 competitors, representing 17 countries participated and voted the event an outstanding success. It was decided that WFG should become a bi-annual event. From 1992 onwards, therefore the games have been hosted by the USA, Australia, Canada, South Africa and France and in 2002 by New Zealand, once again, this time in Christchurch, South Island.
Incidentally, Whilst New Zealand is the birthplace of the WFG, these days the governing body has its HQ in Perth Western Australia. The reason is, that the organising committee for the 1994 Perth games learned, that commercial interests had registered the name of the games etc thus securing the lucrative business rights. They instantly realised that this was destroying the original concept of the WFG, which was to be an event organised by firefighters for firefighters. Therefore, the committee immediately negotiated the rights to the games and bought them back from the business owners. Western Australia still own the rights and the governing body sanctions each bi-annual event, ensuring that any profits are directed to fire related benevolent causes.
From the outset a Golf Tournament featured in the WFG, the format being 54 holes of medal play spread over 3 successive days. Each round to be played on a different course – for part time amateurs that’s ‘real golf!’
In the year 2000, France was hosting the Millenniu,m Games and the golf would be contested just outside Paris. In late 1999, a South Yorkshire firefighter, Simon Athey, a long time member of the NFB Society and former chairman, decided to enter the tournament. As a four-handicap player, Simon had twice been Northern Fire Brigade’s champion and taken the main nett award at three FSS&AA National Individual Championships. He readily appreciated that a world event was a far greater challenge and his hopes and expectations were refreshingly realistic. He just wanted to play good golf and knew he would enjoy meeting fellow firefighters from across the world – end of story. The thoughts of winning the world title never crossed his mind. Any medal, whatever colour, would be a bonus.
Come July 2000 and Simon eagerly set off for Paris in plenty of time to become acclimatised. When the opening day of the competition dawned, it was rather wet and windy and at over 6,350 yds par 70 the links like Vaucouleurs course would be a tough challenge in the conditions. The Competition Scratch Score had been set at 72. To stand any chance, in the main scratch event, it was essential to grind out a sound opening score. Consequently, Simon was extremely pleased to find that he was playing solidly and despite the weather, he returned an excellent two over 74. An Australian was the pace setter with a superb 71, whilst a South African, Hanni Botha, held second place. From an entry of almost 100, Simon felt that there was just the possibility he might do reasonably well, if he could remain focused for another 36 holes, a tall order. At that point, he had no idea that the next day he would play, as he would later describe it ‘the best round of his life’.
The following morning play moved to the decidedly tougher Guerville course where a tricky wind made correct club selection extremely difficult. Guerville has a tight parkland layout and at 6,400 plus yds was rated a CSS72 that day, a tough proposition.
On starting his round, Simon quickly discovered that he was playing out of his skin. From somewhere that day a succession of near perfect shots just flowed, it was uncanny, so easy, it was almost like being on cruise control, simply amazing. After 14 holes, he had dropped only one shot and with birdies at the 6th, 11th and 13th stood on the tee two under par. The tee shot at the 235 yd 15th was directly into a head wind and as the green was guarded by water this was a very dangerous hole indeed, without doubt, a potential card wrecker! Wisely, Simon decided to play to a bail out area, well clear of the water, from where he pitched close to the pin, narrowly missing his par. Playing the 16th, 17th and 18th Simon found them equally challenging and taking no chances, he completed his round with a couple of well- earned pars and yet another tactical bogey, for a 72. Scratch golf just at the right time, heady stuff, but would it last?
This was certainly the round of a lifetime, on an unfamiliar course combined with the added pressure of this prestigious tournament. These factors, together with the mischievous wind, had certainly caused havoc amongst the competitors. First class players had been dropping shots like confetti and virtually the entire field had literally been blown away. For sure Simon would never forget his round at Guerville.
At the end of the day, Simon held a 6ix-stroke lead. Three players were tied for second, including Hanni Botha, who had salvaged a 79.
Scanning the leader board that evening Simon realised that he could afford the luxury of a last round in the mid seventies, which would leave his nearest challengers struggling to overtake him. However, someone could have the round of his life, who knows? The trouble is that, particularly with golf, one thing you can be sure of, you cannot be sure of anything!
The final day play returned to the Vaucoulers, when this time it was the extremely demanding Riviera course which provided the challenge. At well over 6,700 yds, par 73 this magnificent parkland course has lush rolling fairways together with lightening fast undulating greens and water everywhere, a scary prospect!
After not sleeping too well, a mixture of nervous anticipation and knowing that he was out at 7.30 am, Simon arrived at the course to find that the wind had finally dropped. Concentration and patience would be the key element to a solid last round. If he could just play sound golf then the title should be his, or would it?
Fortunately, his round began with a superb drive and incredible as it may seem, that single stroke set the tone for the entire 18 holes. Any nervousness quickly disappeared once he found that he was playing steadily, doubtless a spin off from the preceding day. By the turn, he had dropped just two shots and so continued to play steadily over the inward half for a workmanlike 77, but had he done enough he wondered?
Now all he could do was to wait nervously for the others to finish. The waiting seemed endless. At last, just over two hours later, it was all over. He could not quite believe it at first, he had actually won the World Firefighters Golf Title, and with it the gold medal! Runner up, five shots behind, came Hanni Botha. The South African had challenged from the start, and by taking chances, in this final round had hoped to snatch the title. Initially all went to plan and he began to narrow Simon’s lead, however, as the holes started to run out so did his luck. The odd chance, which did not quite dome off, cost him dearly and whilst his 76 was a brave effort, it was too little too late. At last, it was time for Simon to celebrate, the Millenium Champion, what a tremendous feeling. He was delighted he told me. I have it on good authority that he was ‘over the moon’ and rightfully so.
That concludes the Paris saga, except to relate the champion’s final thoughts. He was extremely pleased on at least two counts. Firstly, he had never expected to win the tournament, so it came as a complete surprise, initially bordering on disbelief. Secondly, by only dropping 6 strokes over 54 holes, it was very satisfying indeed to have produced a truly ‘real golf’ performance, but then Simon had already proved his worth as two Northern Fire Brigade’s champion wins testify.
Around 4000 competitors from 56 countries competed in France, by far the largest entry since the games began, the majority of events being held in and around Mantes-la-Jolie.
Two years later Simon travelled to New Zealand where he successfully defended his title from an entry of around eighty this time. His consistent scoring, each round in the seventies, proved just too good for the rest of the field and he was well satisfied with his defence. Several competitors returned excellent scores, but no one posed a constant threat, as had been the case in Paris. When it mattered, Simon had generated ‘real golf’ once again.
Both the South Yorkshire Fire Service and the Northern Fire Brigade’s membership are very proud of Simon’s achievements and everyone wishes him continued success, he certainly deserves it.
Now what about this years WFG?
Strong bids to stage the 2004 event were submitted to Perth by Brazil, Italy, England, Taiwan, and the USA with England being successful. The 8th WFG will take place in and around Sheffield South Yorkshire with certain events contested within Humberside. The Humberside Fire Brigade and the South Yorkshire Fire Service are co-hosting the games. This years programme embraces almost 60 events from Saturday 28th August to Saturday 4th September 2004, the entire re3gion will be awash with international firefighters, upwards of 5,000.
The golf will be contested over three excellent courses. Hillsborough, Hallamshire and Lindrick. It was Lindrick where in the late 1950’s an unexpected home victory occurred in the Ryder Cup, but that is another story.
The main WFG organising team is based in Sheffield with, you guessed it, Simon at the helm, and he just loves the challenge. As WFG Co-ordinator, appointed in 2003, Simon has a nucleus of full time staff together with an army of volunteers. Organising such a large-scale event is invariably a big headache, but I am confident that Simon and his troops will cope admirably with this huge operation.
Simon’s responsibilities mean he is unable to defend his title and he is hoping the British entry will figure well in the tournament. NFB Society members in particular, are ideally placed to do a spot of reconnaissance, so, with any luck, I could have another success story to report. You never know, do some homework and it may well be your story.
Just think, maybe the ‘round of your life’ is just around the corner, now that would be something!
Best of luck
British Fire Service Golf Champion 1974 – Retired Firefighters Champion 1999
Acknowlegement: With grateful thanks to my daughter Janet Myers for preparing this article for publication.
For further information visit www.worldfirefightersgames.co.uk
The tale you are about to read was written many years ago but was never published due to the NFB annual magazine being discontinued.
Simon saw the account for the very first time a few weeks ago and was delighted with it but being an extremely modest and humble fellow was somewhat perturbed that it would be going public.
However, when it was explained that the sole purpose of letting it see the light of day was to Inspire the current crop of NFB golfers to achieve national and international success, he saw the logic.
I should add that he was subjected to some gentle persuasion before he eventually relented and now he hopes that it will have the desired outcome – only time will tell.
Tony Brown our Secretary, himself a former British Champion, has sent a slightly edited version to the FSS & AA and it will appear on their website in due course.
I must add that I wish all the Humberside Golfers ‘All the very best’ and hope they will be equally inspired by Simon’s achievements.
The Humberside Fire Brigade co-hosted the 2004 games and did a sterling job.