Those closest to David Mercer will tell you; it wasn’t what he taught but how he taught it that made him one of the most endeared figures in the history of the PGA of Australia.
A Life Member of the PGA and of Killara Golf Club, Mercer passed away on September 12 aged 89, his son Richard’s final words a gentle encouragement to round out a heavenly foursome with Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle and Arnold Palmer.
One of eight children, David and his six brothers – including fellow legendary PGA Professional Alex – were drawn to golf in part due to their proximity as kids to North Ryde Golf Club, the other a chance to make pocket money by selling balls dredged up from the course’s lakes.
Their sister Jean wanted no part of it yet by the time the youngest Mercer boy was 16, the highest handicap of the seven – including the two who suffered from polio – was just four.
A traineeship that began at North Ryde in 1951 was soon transferred to Killara Golf Club where Mercer began to learn his trade under Jim McInnes.
When McInnes moved to Royal Sydney Golf Club Mercer followed to complete the final year of his apprenticeship but prior to leaving received an offer from the top brass at Killara that would come to define his career.
“They loved Dad so much that when he left to finish his apprenticeship at Royal Sydney they told him to come back in a year to be the club’s Head Professional,” explains Richard Mercer, himself a 43-year PGA Professional whose love for the game developed as a six-year-old while watching his father teach.
“Dad was only 21 or 22 at the time but he came back and was there for the next 43 years.”
As he began to entrench his place at Killara, Mercer continued to mix with the leading players of the day.
Although suffering what became known as the ‘Mercer Curse’ – an affliction that affected only the shortest club in the bag – his playing ability was of the highest calibre.
He bested Open champions Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle to claim the Killara Cup shortly after becoming the club’s Head Professional, he twice won the NSW PGA Foursomes Championship with close friend Len Woodward (1958 and 1967) and led the qualifying at Lundin Links to play his way into the 1973 Open Championship at Royal Troon.
Joining the caddy ranks at Killara as a 12-year-old, Rodger Davis was invited to carry Mercer’s bag in a pro-am at Moore Park Golf Club and saw first-hand just how talented a player he was.
“Except for the odd shot he’d hit on the practice fairway I hadn’t really seen Dave play and had no idea how good a player he was,” says Davis of his coach of some 40 years.
“On the first tee he blistered this thing with a little draw down the middle and I just thought, Wow!
“He was a hell of a player from tee to green. From tee to green he was one of the best.
“The ‘Mercer curse’ was the putter, it certainly was.
“I remember ‘Thommo’ saying to me one time when Dave Mercer’s name came into conversation that he was the best ball-striker we had. That was Peter Thomson!
“Even though he was a great coach and great with people, I think he would have loved to have been a tour player.”
Mercer would regularly host the likes of Thomson, Nagle, Billy Dunk and Col Johnston in his home yet his greatest contribution would be the way he encouraged players of all abilities to find enjoyment in the game he held so dear.
By pure chance Greg Hohnen attended Forestville Primary School with Richard Mercer, the invitation for a game inside the exclusive Killara enclave facilitating an introduction that would change Hohnen’s life forever.
Perhaps the only Australian professional to have undertaken a traineeship with both David and Alex Mercer – Hohnen did his first six months under Alex at Royal Sydney – Hohnen would become business partners and then David’s long-time successor at Killara, carrying forward the Mercer legacy.
“It was his rapport with people,” says Hohnen, who has been at Killara for 43 years this year and the Head Professional since 1995.
“He used to do 50 lessons a week every week and he was booked out six weeks in advance.
“He had incredible knowledge of the game but lessons with Dave were centred around enjoying the game no matter what your handicap was.
“He would tell people, ‘You’re going to get a lot of enjoyment out of the game, you’re going to meet a lot of great people and you’re going to have a lot of fun.’ It was his ability to relate to people and encourage them at any level.
“Not everyone is going to be a great player but as long as they enjoy their game of golf, that’s the No.1 priority.”
Two of Davis’s finest moments as a player came following a five-minute refresher from his coach.
On the Wednesday of the 1981 State Express English Classic at The Belfry Davis was on the practice fairway “hitting it sideways”, calling Mercer back in Australia desperate for a swing fault he was unable to fix himself.
“I was on the phone for two minutes and he said, ‘I think your right elbow is flying a bit with the shots you’re telling me you’re playing. Keep it tucked for a little bit and then forget about it’,” Davis recalls.
“I beat Seve (Ballesteros) and Greg Norman by two shots and won the tournament and he fixed me in a two-minute phone call without looking at my swing.”
Six years later, on the eve of the 1987 Open Championship at Muirfield, Davis received some surprise input from his coach that very nearly etched his name into golf immortality.
“I’d been there for a couple of hours after playing in the morning and I’m just about to pack it in when a security guard came over to me and said, ‘Mr Davis, there’s a fellow over here that says he’s your coach’,” Davis says.
“And it was Dave! He came over and said, ‘Same old problem, your right elbow is starting to fly a bit.’
“Straight away I started hitting it good. The next day, the first round of the tournament, I set a course record 64. I finished second that week to Nick Faldo by a shot.”
Decorated PGA Professionals such as Hohnen, John Halliday, Tom Linskey and Jimmy Ballard were among the estimated 35 PGA Trainees who graduated to the Professional ranks by virtue of Mercer’s guidance and leading tour players regularly sought his counsel.
When Hohnen introduced the David Mercer Senior Classic to the Legends Tour schedule in 2014 – “He thought that was the best thing ever,” adds Richard – the crème of Aussie touring pros converged on Killara, the 2020 edition scheduled for November 12 sure to be an emotional occasion if it can go ahead.
“Dave was one of life’s true gentlemen. An incredible family man, mentor and friend,” says 1991 Open champion and PGA of Australia board member Ian Baker-Finch.
“He set the standard for all PGA Professionals in Australia as a player, coach, club pro and a great bloke!
“He was just a regular guy that did everything the way it’s meant to be done.
“Dave was an excellent leader and role model.”
Whether it was advising his sons Richard and Gregory to steer clear of flashy cars, showing his trainees how to keep calm in the face of challenging members or simply steer rebellious youngsters into a more productive pastime, Mercer’s influence went far beyond the swing plane.
“When I was 14, 15 I was going down the wrong path,” Davis reveals.
“Dave brought golf into my life and set boundaries without me really knowing and manoeuvred me away from the path of destruction.
“At 16 I got in the state junior team and became a member at Pymble Golf Club.
“All of a sudden golf opened all the doors and the path of destruction closed.”
As he copes with the loss of his father with the support of wife Sharilyn, sons Andrew and Stewart, family and friends, Richard Mercer reminds himself of the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If’ and the passage his dad would often recite.
“If you can walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch, you’ll be a Man, my son!”
David was preceded in death by his siblings Don, Jim, Jean and Ivan, and son Gregory. He is survived by his wife of 66 years Barbara, son Richard (wife Sharilyn), siblings John, Alex and Kevin, granddaughter Rebecca, grandsons Andrew (wife Jordan), and Stewart and great grandchildren Hayden, Fletcher and Grace.
David’s funeral will take place on Sunday, 20 September at midday (AEST) at Knox Grammar School Chapel in Warrawee, NSW.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a maximum of 60 people can attend to the funeral and has been limited to close family contacts.
A live stream of the funeral can be viewed via https://www.funeralvideo.com.au/DavidMercer
Images: Killara Golf Club