John Bland, five-time PGA TOUR Champions winner, dies at 77
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On October 16, 1995, South African John Bland paid his $200 entry fee to play in the Monday qualifier for PGA TOUR Champions’ Ralphs Senior Classic in Los Angeles. The DP World Tour and Sunshine Tour veteran had traveled to the U.S. after turning 50 to give senior golf a try. Without any status, going the Monday route was his plight, yet Bland made it a successful one. He shot a 68 at Palos Verdes Country Club to get into his first PGA TOUR Champions tournament.
Bland then made his way to nearby Wilshire Country Club, where most of the assembled players for the Ralphs Senior Classic had only heard of the native of Johannesburg.
They quickly learned the kind of game Bland possessed—especially Jim Colbert.
“I knew he was a good player. He didn’t make a bogey, did he?” said the reigning PGA TOUR Champions Player of the Year after watching Bland’s final-round performance that led to an unlikely triumph as just the fourth PGA TOUR Champions player to win a tournament after Monday qualifying.
Bland did go bogey-free, and he made six of his 15 overall birdies Sunday. When Colbert, the leader going into the final round, missed an 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have forced a playoff, Bland had himself a dream start to his PGA TOUR Champions career, winning in only his second Tour appearance.
“You stand there and don’t want the guy to miss the putt, but you realize that if (Colbert) does miss it, you’re exempt for a year,” Bland said.
With that exemption, Bland made the most of his opportunity, earning an invitation to the following year’s Tournament of Champions in Puerto Rico. Bland went ahead and won that tournament at Dorado Beach, as well. That victory eventually paved the way to a career 1996 season that saw him capture three additional trophies to finish third on the final money list as he pocketed $1,357,987 in earnings.
Bland, who died May 9 of cancer at age 77, was an accomplished player in his native South Africa well before he came to the U.S. He turned pro when he was 24 but waited eight years before winning for the first time on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. After that initial victory, at the South African PGA Championship, Bland captured 18 more titles on his home circuit. Once he joined the DP World Tour—at the time known as the European Tour—Bland won twice, and on both occasions, he stared down future World Golf Hall of Famers to win.
He finished atop the leaderboard at the 1983 Benson & Hedges International in England, winning by a stroke over Bernhard Langer. Three seasons later, Bland took home his second title in Europe, at the 1968 Suze Open in Cannes, France. That week he was completely dominant, coasting to a four-shot triumph over Spain’s Seve Ballesteros.
Another World Golf Hall of Famer, Gary Player, had played plenty against Bland and knew of his talent.
“Very few people realize what a good player he is,” said Player after Bland won the Ralphs Senior Classic. “I’ve read where people say, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Well, he’s been winning tournaments in South Africa for many, many years and winning tournaments in Europe. He is simply an outstanding golfer.”
Playing in his trademark Panama hat and using his effective, short, flat swing, Bland followed up his Los Angeles and Puerto Rico victories with a playoff win over John Paul Cain and Kermit Zarley in Alabama, at the Bruno’s Memorial Classic. He shot back-to-back 66s over his final 36 holes to again coast past Colbert, at the Northville Long Island Classic, in August. He then won his fourth title of the year, at The Transamerica, at Silverado Country Club in Napa, California. Once again, Colbert was his victim—Bland shooting another 66 to win by a stroke.
Bland eventually went on to make 306 PGA TOUR Champions starts, with six runner-up finishes and seven third-place showings to go with his five wins. His last official start came in 2009.
Prior to his PGA TOUR Champions debut, Bland won on the Legends Tour, then known as the European Senior Tour, at the London Masters, a mere nine days after turning 50. He had two other wins on that circuit, 14 and 15 years, respectively, after that London Masters victory.
Bland is survived by his wife, Sonja, and his three children, John-Mark, Bonney and Candice. He also has three grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.