Joe 'the Pro' Hardwick's golfing fire still burns strong at 80

Hardwick was instrumental in advancing the game in Hong Kong and despite his advancing years he's not ready to retire his clubs just yet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2013, 5:03am

Joe Hardwick is taking in a day of rest at his home in Quinta do Lago, tucked away in Portugal's picturesque Algarve region, and it's fully deserved when you consider he's played three rounds of golf already this week - and then throw in the fact that he's 80 years of age.

"It's winter here and summer in England for me now," explains Hardwick. "I'm still loving my golf and every day I think back on how much the game has given me."

It must be pointed out, too, how much Hardwick - known in these parts as Joe the Pro - has given the game over the decades. That's not lost on the Hong Kong Professional Golf Association, which with the support of sponsor Ageas Insurance (Asia) has decided to mark the 30th edition of its championship - which will run from Wednesday to Friday at Kau Sai Chau - by naming its trophy after the man who first came to the city in 1965 and for 30 years helped chart the course of the game here.

It was Hardwick who helped form the HKPGA in 1970, along with the famous Australian golfer Peter Thomson, who was a major force behind establishing professional golf in Hong Kong and Asia. Kim Hall worked to have Hong Kong admitted to the World Cup, with the organisation's first pro members (alongside Hardwick) - Peter Tang, Tony Rawcliffe, Derek Stevenson and Duncan Park. Their sights were set firmly on representing the city at golf's World Cup. It would take two years of waiting, but the call came and Hardwick and Tang found themselves on the fairways of the Royal Melbourne playing alongside the likes of Arnold Palmer.

"Well, it was a dream come true," he says. "That was just a wonderful experience. The city had really got behind us and there we were playing among the best in the world. We came about 40th - there were 50 teams back in those days - but it helped put Hong Kong golf on the map."

And that was just one of the challenges that faced Hardwick when he arrived as a 33-year-old to take up the role of club pro at Hong Kong Golf Club. He had begun his professional career as assistant pro at his home Coombe Hill Golf Club, in Kingston, near London, before taking up the "opportunity of a lifetime" and heading to the Royal Calcutta Golf Club - the oldest club outside Britain, having been founded in 1829.

"My first trip to Hong Kong came when I played in the Open here in 1964 and I finished 20th," says Hardwick. "Lu Liang-huan was club pro at the time but had been told by Arnold Palmer that he should be playing tournaments and so off he went. But the time I got back to Calcutta, there was a letter waiting for me offering me the job and that was it. Two months later I arrived in town."

Once established here, Hardwick supervised a programme that helped spread the game throughout the community and the phenomenal growth of the game in Asia - and in China - has come as no surprise to him.

"We always knew it was only really a matter of time before it took off all over Asia just like it will only be a matter of time before you will get a generation of Asian golfers who are really, really good and will be able to compete regularly in the best tournaments and with the best players," he says.

Hardwick was last in the city to cheer with the hordes as Rory McIlroy took the Hong Kong Open with that stunning bunker shot back in 2011 and says in other years he has never missed a shot in the tournament.

While he expressed his disappointment that the next edition of the event was yet to find a sponsor and had lost the next-to-last position on the European Tour calendar - a position that had helped increase attention on the event and ensured a top-class field each year - Hardwick says what has surprised him most was that Hong Kong had few players on tour.

"But I suppose you have to understand that for many of them coming through today the option of becoming a club pro is so much more attractive," he says. "Being a tour pro can be a real grind and needs real commitment. Now there's the club pro and then there is a tournament pro.

"In the old days people were both and after a round you would sit and talk to the members. Now they're off to the gym - and they have to. That's what's needed to keep up with the best players. People are so much fitter and so much more focused."

Advances in equipment and in training methods have also changed the game. "My method of hitting the ball is very old-fashioned," Hardwick says. "The way they teach these days is very different - and that's why they are all hitting such long shots. The whole body comes much more into it where for us it was all hands and feet and bang your ankle down."

After teaching generations of Hongkongers how to play the game, Hardwick says he's proud the family tradition continues here through daughter Joann's role as a pro at Hong Kong Golf Club. And he's quick to point out his passion for the game has never dimmed, not for a moment.

"You're out there walking, you're meeting wonderful people and you learn how to take a bad shot on the chin. It can be humbling," he says. "You can travel and you can play golf until you can't walk anymore and that's what I plan to do - to play golf until I'm 100."