Rassie Theron survived an air crash, and represented South Africa at the World One-Arm champs. By William de Reuck
In 1968 Rassie Theron was set to receive his wings in the SA Air Force. The teenager executed a final run “flying blind” in zero visibility east of Johannesburg, near the town of Devon, with only his instruments to guide him. His instructor suggested they complete an additional rocket attack simulation.They climbed to 800 metres and put the Harvard into a dive, simulating an evasive manoeuvre. However, the instructor mistimed the recovery and the Harvard hit the ground, rolling over 400 metres with the wings, tail and engine torn off, before exploding. The instructor died; miraculously, though, Rassie survived. However, his harness belt had trapped him in the wreckage. Only once it had burnt through could he escape.
Rassie suffered third-degree burns and was hospitalised for seven months. He lost his right arm and his right leg had irreversible burn damage. But with an iron will he not only learned to walk again, but realised his dream of receiving his wings. He might have been beaten, but he was never broken.
Rassie had played golf at school in Bloemfontein, so needing to stay active, and not being able to play sport, he started hitting balls. “The first shot travelled better than expected, so I hit another,” he recalls. It struck him that this might be something he could do.
After weeks on the range, he took his game to the golf course. One of his first challenges was his putting stroke. “I had to figure out a way to hold the putter further down on the grip and lock it against my left arm. This forced me to create a brushing motion and eliminated any wrist movement.” He became highly efficient around the greens, and fellow golfers started calling him “Chip and Putt Theron.”
In 1993 he received an invite to represent South Africa at the World One-Arm Championships at Carnoustie in Scotland. “Walking out of the clubhouse and seeing so many people with one arm was the strangest thing I have ever experienced,” laughs Rassie. “It felt like I was on an alien planet.”
Now 67, Rassie has undergone 45 operations. Today, living in Plettenberg Bay, where he enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer and in real estate, he plays off a 17 handicap, dividing his golf between Plett Bay CC and Goose Valley. His robust humour is a signature. He’ll pass comments on the first tee such as, “Remember, it’s five fingers against 10.” He has a fearless approach; going straight at pins over bunkers and attacking par 3s as if there was no water. He loves hitting his driver. It may cost him strokes at times, but the joy is worth it when he pulls off a sweet shot. His longest drive was measured at 271 metres, and several times he’s driven the green of the short par-4 14th at Plett Bay.
Rassie married his high school sweetheart, Melanie, and they have three sons and six grandchildren. He continues to fly, and owns a Van’s RV-7. His favourite route takes him from Plettenberg Bay along the coast to Wilderness, then inland to Oudtshoorn, before returning home.
“I refused to die in that hospital bed,” he chuckles. “Probably out of fear that my wife would take another man.” It is this sense of humour and never say die attitude that has powered Rassie’s recovery, driven his career, and served as an inspiration to other golfers.