Rassie Theron sur­vived an air crash, and rep­re­sented South Africa at the World One-Arm champs. By William de Reuck

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Gallery -

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.

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