1 Dec 2019

White Silence: The 'gloomy' golf tournament overshadowed by the Erebus disaster

6:55 am on 1 December 2019

By Michael Wright for Stuff

The day after the Erebus disaster, Air NZ was due to host a professional golf tournament. Somehow, it went ahead.

Wreckage at the site of the Erebus disaster.

Wreckage at the site of the Erebus disaster. Photo: Fairfax Media NZ

This story is part of White Silence, a six-part podcast series from Stuff and RNZ to mark the 40th anniversary of the Erebus disaster. You can listen to White Silence on RNZ and the RNZ app, on Stuff, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed.

On the morning of Thursday 29 November 1979, Phil Aickin was nervous. He got up early, had breakfast, then left the house. He was heading for the Royal Wellington Golf Club at Heretaunga, in Upper Hutt, where, as an 18-year-old amateur, he was about to play in the biggest professional tournament of his life.

Somewhere in his morning routine, he caught the news on the radio. Like just about everyone else in New Zealand, he heard with horror the details of a story confirmed overnight: An Air New Zealand DC10 had crashed into Mt Erebus in Antarctica while on a sightseeing flight. All 257 people on board were killed. It was New Zealand's deadliest peacetime disaster.

It was terrible news, but Aickin didn't think too much about how it might affect him. As he arrived at Heretaunga that morning, he got an inkling of what it might mean. Flags were flying at half mast. He could see men out working on the course. More than usual. The reason there were so many of them was because Aickin was about to play in the Air New Zealand-Shell Open and the course was blanketed in the sponsorship signs of the national carrier. Many of them featured its slogan, Nobody does it better. In light of events, there was no question they all had to be taken down.

Read more:

  • White Silence: 'you form a circle and protect each other'
  • A sense of 'relief' from Erebus families after Jacinda Ardern's heartfelt apology
  • Erebus: NZ's gigantic, unresolved mess
  • Erebus and the aftermath - the fallout continues
  • White Silence: 'had to grit your teeth and go do it' - Erebus recovery captain
  • White Silence: Remembering Christine
  • White Silence: Former Deputy PM's biggest regret after Air NZ Erebus crash
  • The 1979 Air New Zealand-Shell Open is one of the more remarkable sub-plots in the Erebus saga. Viewed through a 2019 lens, it seems astonishing it even went ahead. But it stands out mostly because of how it captured the New Zealand of its time: a small nation deeply wounded by tragedy and people responding as best they could.

    The day of the crash, Wednesday November 28, started off a good one for Air New Zealand. Its flagship promotional event was beginning the next day, boasting arguably its strongest-ever field. In 1978, they'd had Arnold Palmer, but this year they had class across the board. There were major winners like the Americans Gene Littler and Billy Casper, and the Australians Peter Thomson and David Graham. Plus rising stars like Tom Kite and the German Bernhard Langer. And a Kiwi amateur playing his first tournament as a pro, named Frank Nobilo.

    "It was a quite a prestigious event," tournament director Paul Gleeson said.

    "It was bigger than the New Zealand Open in prize money. I was bigger as far as attracting international players. And it sort of set a new standard for professional golf tournaments in New Zealand...We developed all sorts of new things that we all take for granted now like hospitality tents and courtesy cars."

    Wednesday was pro-am day. Air New Zealand chief executive Morrie Davis was there. Davis was a mad-keen golfer - the tournament was his brainchild - and he wasn't going to miss such an event. That day he was paired with David Graham. Graham was probably the biggest drawcard at the tournament. He was fresh off a major win at the PGA Championship and would win the US Open a year later. Now retired and living in the US, he remembers the moment when news filtered through that there was a problem with an Air New Zealand flight.

    "[Davis] was on the golf course and I was on the golf course ... when we got wind of the crash ... obviously he left."

    Morrie Davis, former Air New Zealand chief executive - Erebus story

    Morrie Davis Photo: Supplied/Stuff

    Gleeson remembers the timing a bit differently. He's sure the call from headquarters came through in the late afternoon, once everyone was off the course. Either way, Davis left immediately, and caught a special flight back to Auckland. There was no 'crash' at that point. Only an Air New Zealand plane that had lost contact. Later that night came the news that the missing plane was out of fuel and, wherever it was, it would be down. Just after midnight, Davis announced to the media that the wreckage had been sighted on the slopes of Erebus. There didn't appear to be any survivors. Gleeson and his colleagues were watching on TV.

    "It was dreadful," he said, "I had a personal friend on board. It was just diabolical ... a lot of the cabin crew we knew as it turned out. We didn't know then who they were. As the week progressed [we learned] more and more people that we knew [had died]. Air New Zealand was a big family, really."

    At that point, not too much thought was given to what the crash might mean for the tournament. Except for the signage on the course. It was clear that had to come down. Early on Thursday morning, organisers got together: could the tournament go on? Many of the players were wondering the same thing. One of the Aussie pros, Bob Shearer, approached the organisers.

    "[He] said that some of the invited players and the other players had been talking," Gleeson said, "They were suggesting that if we wanted to cancel the tournament. They wouldn't object. They would support that."

    "We felt so bad, obviously, like the whole country did," David Graham, one of those invited players, said.

    "And I had said, you know, 'If you cancel the tournament you've got my support'. And I think all of the players decided that we would go with whatever decision that they made."

    Hurried meetings were held with the New Zealand PGA. Players could be fined $200 if they withdrew from a tournament for anything other than medical reasons. The association eventually released Air New Zealand and Shell from any obligation to continue. It was up to them to carry on or not. Gleeson called Morrie Davis in Auckland. The chief executive would make the final call.

    "I...spoke to his secretary," Gleeson said, "Explained the situation and she went and spoke to him and came back and said, 'No, it's his desire that the tournament should continue'."

    Davis had thanked the players for their sympathy, but asked that they play on as a personal favour to him. "There was none of the laughter and excitement that usually exists at the start of such a big golfing occasion," The Press newspaper reported after play got under way, "Instead there was a general air of gloom."

    "It was very difficult," Graham said, "We were playing golf in the shadows of something horrific and it was hard to play. The atmosphere was gloomy but we just played and we did the best we could under the circumstances."

    Phil Aickin tried to focus on his game. He had an early tee time, and workers were still taking down Air New Zealand signage while he was playing.

    "It just wasn't normal," he said, "Very few spectators were out. Again with the signs down, flags down. The whole field was certainly feeling it and golf was just trying to continue on."

    Conditions didn't make things any better. A howling wind - strong even by Wellington standards - played havoc with everyone's scores. American Tom Kite made the early running before fading into the pack. Getting around the course in one piece became the priority.

    "One minute [I'd have] a 5-iron and the wind would switch and suddenly [I'd] only need an 8-iron," Aickin said.

    "I'd never really played in conditions like that...I was just trying to get a round of golf completed as best I could."

    David Graham - Erebus story

    1979 Air New Zealand-Shell Open champion David Graham: 'It was a very shallow victory.' Photo: Supplied/Stuff

    After four days, David Graham emerged victorious. He won by eight strokes. Thanks to the wind, he was the only one to finish under par. Morrie Davis made his first public appearance since the crash to attend the prize-giving. He thanked the players and officials for soldiering on. And the spectators who, like so many New Zealanders, may have known someone on the flight.

    "The dark cloud of tragedy will be with us all for some time to come," Davis said.

    In accepting the title, Graham expressed sympathy on behalf of all the players to Davis and his wife, Myra. "I know this has been a most difficult week for them," he said. Forty years on, his memory of that moment hasn't faded.

    "It was a very, very sad scenario. Everyone was mourning the tragedy and everyone felt sorry for everybody and we put on as good a show as we possibly could under the circumstances.

    "It was a very shallow victory for anyone. It was very shallow to even play. But that's what the organisers wanted us to do and that's what we did."

    You can listen to White Silence, a podcast on the Erebus disaster, on RNZ and the RNZ app, on Stuff, or via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or any other app using the RSS feed.

    Get the RNZ app

    for ad-free news and current affairs