Wayne Westner was a local legend who outdrove Nicklaus and outdueled Els. So why, and how, did he end up with a gun to his head?

December 11, 2017

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On January 2, 2017, the greatest golfer you’ve never heard of, Wayne Westner, composed a farewell letter to his family on his laptop computer. It contained a reference to Romeo and Juliet. Two days later, Westner drove from Johannesburg, South Africa, to the coastal town of Pennington, where his wife Alison was staying with her son from a previous marriage, his wife and their five-year-old daughter. He had in his possession the laptop and a 9mm handgun.

Wayne Westner was a mythical figure in South African golf, a towering talent whom Gary Player describes as “one of the most physically gifted players I have ever seen. The way he got through the ball reminded me of Ben Hogan, and I don’t say that lightly.” But Westner’s career was cut short by a freakish accident, and life after golf had not been easy for him, as he battled alcoholism and depression. Westner’s drinking had become so out of control that a couple of weeks before the goodbye letter was written, Alison told her husband they needed to spend some time apart so he could take control of his life. Instead, he descended into darkness.

It was early morning when Westner pulled up to the house in Pennington. “He tried to bash down the front door,” says Alison. “We saw him run to the back of the house. The look in his eye, the way he was moving, that was not the Wayne I knew. It was as if something had inhabited his body. We saw he had a gun in his hand. We were terribly frightened, so we locked ourselves in the bathroom.”

Westner shot through a window in the living room and entered the house.

“He began banging on the bathroom door and yelling for me to come out,” Alison says. She stops speaking momentarily, overcome by sobs; this is the first she has spoken in detail of that awful morning. “My son was shouting through the door for him to please stop, to not hurt himself or us. My daughter-in-law was begging for him to let the child out, so she wouldn’t be exposed to all of this. Wayne agreed to that, and so we opened the bathroom door.”

Westner was standing there with the gun pressed to his forehead.

* * * * * *

Gary Player has never forgotten the day, seven decades ago, when some bullies at Johannesburg’s King Edward VII School were making the younger students walk around the rugby field to get to class, instead of using the shortcut across the grass. To settle the dispute, the kids turned to Player’s schoolmate, Eldrid Westner, to confront the instigators. “That was the end of that,” Player remembers. “[The bullies] were older than Eldrid, but they wanted no part of a tussle with him. He was a very tough customer.”

Eldrid grew up to be a lefty golfer of unlimited potential, but he had a taste for women and booze. Unlike his friend and rival Player, Eldrid never amounted to a damn thing as a golfer, and the failure hardened him further. He did not like to tee it up with his two young sons, Wayne and Brandon, but they were expected to drive him home from the golf club after long nights of drinking; Wayne was nine the first time he piloted his father’s Mercedes. By then the boys had already been initiated into Eldrid’s world. According to family lore, their father took them into the forest and told them, “I’m going to make men out of you.” He then plied them with alcohol and cigarettes until they puked.

To escape the coarseness of his upbringing, Wayne Westner disappeared into his own head. He became a seeker, a thinker, a dreamer. He’d spend long periods of time in the South African bush, not to hunt animals but to study them; he believed the way they moved could offer clues to a more natural way of swinging the golf club. He devoted himself to martial arts, working with a sensei, and he loved the mental rigor of the practice. He devoured books, delighted in philosophical discussion, and devotedly explored his spirituality. But nothing engaged his mind like the golf swing.

Westner chased its secrets as hard as anyone this side of Hogan, and it paid off. In 1982, at age 21, he turned pro and began competing successfully on the world stage. Still, there were times when golf drove him to the brink of madness. “Once, at Benoni [Country Club], he took a caddie and all of his clubs and went out and played 18 holes,” says Ernie Els, one of Westner’s South African contemporaries. “But he didn’t hit a single golf ball. He just walked the course and played the round in his mind. He comes in and someone says, “Hey Wayne, what did you shoot, 52?” Everybody thought it was hilarious—except for Wayne.”

Westner’s passion pushed him to hone a swing of unsurpassed power and grace. “I’ve never known anyone who drove a golf ball the way he did,” says Els. “He hit it miles. He had great touch, too. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do to a golf ball.”

“He hit this power draw,” says Fulton Allem, winner of 15 worldwide tournaments. “It looked like a Frisbee—the ball would just float in the air forever. He was so long it was frightening. Wayne was paired with Jack Nicklaus at the International [in Colorado, in 1989], and Jack came off the course shaking his head, saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’ He was flying it 100 yards past Jack, who had won the Masters only a few years earlier. The par-5 14th hole was playing 620 yards, and Wayne drove it 128 yards past Jack. He reached the green with an 8-iron and Jack laid-up with a 4-iron! Jack was shaking his head the whole time, like, f— this s—. We came back to the International the next year and Jack”—the designer of the host course, Castle Pines—”had built a bunch of new tees pushed way back in the bushes. Everyone called them the Wayne Westner tees.”

Westner’s professional breakthrough had come a year earlier at the 1988 South African Open, which he won at age 27. He took his national championship again in 1991, beginning a long-anticipated ascent into one of the best players in the world. Westner won European Tour events in 1993 and “96—while also losing an Irish Open playoff to Nick Faldo—and topped the Order of Merit on the Sunshine Tour for the 1995-96 season.

Eldrid remained a remote figure even as his son became a star, and Wayne spent money like someone seeking approval. “To be honest with you, he was a little full of himself in those early days,” says Els. “He moved into Sandton, which is kind of the Bel-Air of Johannesburg. He was running with a fast crowd there. He liked the fancy cars and houses and all that.” But there was another side to Westner: “I always expected him to die a pauper because he loved giving away his money,” says Allem. “Many times Wayne helped out people in need. He had a huge heart.”

Yet, Westner was unable to save the person closest to him. He’d grown up idolizing his brother Brandon, who shared Wayne’s love for golf but not his discipline to practice. While Wayne was traveling the world, Brandon fell into the maw of substance abuse. When he was 32, he drove into the forest, attached a hose to the exhaust pipe of his car and gassed himself to death. Wayne was overseas when he received the news. “He loved his brother dearly but also felt guilty he didn’t do more for him,” says Allem. “It broke his heart to the point I’m not sure it ever healed.”

This private tragedy played out against the backdrop of public success. From 1990-96, Westner won eight tournaments on the South Africa-based Sunshine Tour, but it was the 1996 World Cup that cemented his legend in his home country. Apartheid had ended only a few years earlier, allowing South Africa to be welcomed back into the international sporting community. In 1995, the South African rugby team beat New Zealand to win the World Cup in Johannesburg, with recently elected president Nelson Mandela presenting the trophy, a watershed moment for the country. It was with great fanfare that the World Cup of golf was staged in Cape Town.

“It was December,” says Els, “which is kind of our holiday time, so we had huge crowds [at Erinvale Golf Club]. And Wayne and I fed off of them and each other. He was really on his game, and that pushed me to play my absolute best.” Westner and Els went 29 under par across four rounds, 18 strokes better than the runners-up, the United States team comprised of Tom Lehman and Steve Jones, the reigning British and U.S. Open champs. “It was a tremendously important achievement for golf in our country,” says Selwyn Nathan, the executive director of the Sunshine Tour. “They were treated as national heroes.”

A year and a half later, during the pro-am at the 1998 Madeira Islands Open, a European Tour event, Westner was helping a playing partner fish a ball out of a hazard when the wooden retaining wall on which he was standing crumbled. Westner plunged some six feet, shredding his ankle when he hit the ground. His game—and his life—would never be the same again.

* * * * * *

Westner was a deeply spiritual man. At various points in his life, he would immerse himself in the teachings of Scientology and Buddhism, but he always found his way back to Christianity. Throughout this diffuse approach to religion he sought a more personal connection. “He would fast for days because he said it helped him get closer to his Maker,” says Westner’s close friend Ben Snyman. “When he could no longer play competitive golf, Wayne worked very hard to try to understand what God’s purpose was for him.”

After his accident at the Madeira Islands Open, Westner missed more than a year of action. When he returned he could no longer summon the same explosive swing. He never won again. Els turned into the player his World Cup partner was supposed to have been, and Westner slowly faded away, one of the game’s most tantalizing what-ifs.

Without golf, his life began to unravel. He tried a series of business ventures that were doomed to fail. His marriage to his first wife, Kathy—which produced a son, Matthew, and daughters Jeni and Chane—crumbled. Westner eventually got engaged to an Irish woman, but it ended badly when, in Ireland, he suffered a brutal beating that left him hospitalized for weeks and, his family believes, led to subsequent seizures caused by a blood clot on his brain. “Wayne did not like to talk about what happened [in Ireland], but he told me once it was the fiancée’s brothers and cousins who did it,” says Allem. “They beat him to within an inch of his life.”

Westner went to rehab in 2008, giving up alcohol as well as his antidepressants. He plunged into sobriety with typical gusto, at one point attending AA meetings for 90 straight days. He remained sober for four years, what he ruefully told a friend were “the worst four years of my life.” He resumed drinking but managed to find a modicum of peace when he married Alison, a childhood sweetheart, in 2012. “We hadn’t seen each other for a number of years and he asked if we could meet for a cup of coffee,” she remembers. “He was so charismatic. Had vision, dreams, goals. He had the ability to paint a picture of the future that became so real you could see it. He was so passionate about life. I fell in love with him in that moment.”

Westner also began ministering to a young Irish player named Jeff Hopkins, whom he’d met years earlier, at Westner’s golf academy outside of Dublin. They reconnected in 2015, when Hopkins was trying to get a professional career off the ground. Westner invited him to stay at his home in coastal Durban for six weeks. They worked at the range every day from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then Westner caddied for Hopkins at the Sunshine Tour Q school, a seven-round slog with temperatures approaching 110 degrees. “He never let me hit a shot if I couldn’t clearly see a picture of what I wanted the ball to do,” he says. “If I couldn’t, he’d say, “Okay, I’m going to paint it for you: start the ball here and finish it here.” He believed the swing was science but the game had to be played as art.”

Hopkins earned his card that week but his education was just beginning. He made South Africa his home and for the next year Westner gave him a guided tour of his beautiful mind. “He had read every book, talked to every teacher, heard every theory,” Hopkins says. “He didn’t need TrackMan—the moment I hit a shot he knew everything.”

When he wasn’t busy working with Hopkins, Westner continued to perfect a long-standing obsession, a swing aid he invented called the Instant Golfer, which he was convinced would revolutionize the way the game is taught. Not for nothing does Els call Westner “a real disciple of the swing.” The Instant Golfer became a manifestation of all this knowledge. It is an elegant, simple machine, in which a club is mounted on a rotating arm and golfers are guided through an idealized swing path. “It was his life’s work,” says Hopkins. “It was everything he knew and believed about golf poured into one machine.”

Westner made plans to stay with Allem while he debuted his creation at the PGA Show in Orlando in January 2017. But two months before this gathering of golf merchandisers, Westner received a terse e-mail informing him that a competing device had already been patented in the U.S. The news sent him into a deep, drunken funk.

At golf courses around South Africa, there had long been whispers about Westner’s erratic behavior. In his 40s, he was formally diagnosed as bipolar. Hopkins witnessed periods of heavy drinking from Westner, but he saw it as a form of escape. “He battled depression often,” Hopkins says. “The alcohol was his way of covering the depression. It all built up on him there at the end. He felt his business was failing, but it wasn’t just a business—it was a kind of obsession. That deepened his depression, which led to more drinking. Alison had suffered with it for so long, so it was understandable that she needed a break. But to Wayne, it felt like he was losing her, too. He went into a spiral that could not be stopped.”

The Westner men have a history of violent ends: in addition to Brandon, Wayne’s grandfather and uncle also took their own lives. These suicides shadowed him. “He was haunted by it,” says Allem. “His whole life he talked about killing himself, especially if he had been drinking. He said he knew that’s how he was going to die.”

* * * * * *

Alison knew she was risking her life by opening the bathroom door, but what choice did she have? “I wanted him to know I loved him,” she says. “I felt if I could talk to him and show him that love, then everything would be okay. But as soon as he saw me he shot himself. He wanted me to see him do it.”

Westner’s death, at age 55, sent shock waves through the tightly knit fraternity of South African golf. “I think about him every day,” says Allem. “No doubt Wayne had a dark side, but we all do, mate. Deep down he was the kindest man I’ve ever met, the most generous, the most genuine. The game brought him great highs and great lows, but I promise you no one has ever loved golf more than he did. It just spins around in my head over and over: Why? Why did it have to end the way it did? Why is he gone when he had so much still to give? If there’s an answer, I want to know it.”

There is no why. There are no answers. Suicide offers a mirage of finality but leaves behind only unknowing.

Westner’s funeral was held at Benoni Country Club. None of the famous golfers he grew up with were in attendance. Citing the Gospel of Grace, the pastor assured the small gathering that Wayne had been welcomed into heaven.

Westner’s son Matthew has played a little mini tour golf, and within the family there were hopes he would fulfill his father’s vision and bring the Instant Golfer to market. But that would mean taking on the substantial loans against the company—through the years, Wayne had borrowed roughly $185,000 to finance the business. So his creation continues to languish in legal limbo. Westner’s children have said they planned to form a foundation in their father’s honor, but so far that also remains unrealized. They are trying to move on—all three declined to comment for this story—while his widow struggles to make sense of the still-fresh tragedy.

“His daughter called him an enigma and I think that’s a good description,” Alison says. “It has come as a huge shock to me to realize maybe I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. Because the Wayne I knew could never have done what he did.” She is now studying with a trauma counselor and a life coach in hopes of becoming a public speaker, to raise awareness for suicide prevention and offer tools to the spouses of alcoholics and the survivors of suicide. “I pray something good comes out of this,” Alison says, “that God will use me in a way that someone else’s life is touched. If Wayne’s story can help just one person, that will be meaningful.”

For such a larger-than-life character, Westner left behind few mementos. After limping out of the hospital in Ireland he fled the country, abandoning most of his possessions. According to Alison, no one in the family has any of the trophies from Westner’s 12 victories. At Benoni, where he learned the game, not a single newspaper clipping or other career notice adorns the walls. In the final phase of his life, Westner never spoke of his playing days and didn’t like to be recognized in public, what those close to him consider a mix of modesty and regret. His legacy now is mostly tall tales—of iron shots that painted the sky and drives hit so hard they never wanted to come down. There are other anecdotes, too, about his unorthodox swing theories and kindness to strangers and much more. “The thing about Wayne is, everywhere you go in South Africa, people have stories,” says Els. “Unbelievable stories. Some are funny, some are sad, some are kind of crazy.”

Here you can hear the affection in Els’s voice: “Some of them might even be true.”