Euphoria marked my first-ever golf assignment, covering the 1954 British Open for the Manchester Daily Dispatch. Time can’t obscure the tingle I felt when the cab dropped me off at Royal Birkdale’s front gate that day.
I had no qualms with our press headquarters, a nissen hut left over from World War II and outfitted with a row of unsteady trestle tables that provided space for perhaps 30 scribes. Nor was I concerned about sharing a table with Betty Debenham, the golf correspondent for the London Daily Sketch, and her beloved fox terrier, which mostly slept at her feet. Until, that is, the wretched cur clamped its jaws onto my leg after I had flopped down in my chair, exhausted, and unwittingly disturbed its slumber.
Canine attacks aside, I wasn’t disappointed in the assignment, even though my reporting would be limited to sidebars on the club professionals who hailed from the North of England, our paper’s circulation area. I feared I would be quickly summoned home when, come Thursday night, only four of those club pros had made the cut. Syd Scott of Carlisle City and Lambert Topping of Bolton Old Links, expert clubmakers both, were bald as coots in middle age and unlikely to contend. Bill Branch of Ganton had played his first two rounds alongside Ben Hogan the previous year at Carnoustie, and had been completely overwhelmed by that experience. Bill, too, was an exemplary club professional, as was our fourth qualifier, the elegant Bobby Halsall, envied by his peers because he had parlayed his superior prowess as a teacher into a steady winter job in Monte Carlo.
What hope had these humble gentlemen against the new breed of touring professionals? There was South African Bobby Locke, who had already won the claret jug in 1949, ’50 and ’52; the up-and-coming Australian, Peter Thomson, second in 1952 and tied for second in ’53; and a handful of veteran Yanks that included Jimmy Demaret, Gene Sarazen, Jim Turnesa, Al Watrous and the career amateur Frank Stranahan.
Rather than whistle me back to Manchester, however, the Dispatch sports editor had me stay put to cover the final 36 holes on Friday and secure an in-depth interview with the eventual winner. And to my surprise, the aforementioned Scott—along with Welshman Dai Rees, the best British golfer of that era never to win the Open—finished tied for second with Locke. They were a single stroke behind Thomson, who won the first of his five Open titles.
I vividly remember Rees coming to the 18th needing a 4 to tie Thomson and striking a glorious second shot that never left the flagstick but proved too strong and finished on a fairly gentle bank behind the green. Dai, who would become a close personal friend, later gave me the material for a feature on the four Opens he “choked” away (oh, how I hate that term). His chip squirted right, as if he had suffered an electric shock, and the ensuing par putt duly failed to oblige, which sealed the outcome.
Soon thereafter I strode, cap in hand and frightened witless, to beg Thomson for a little of his precious time. Expecting the newly crowned champion to wave me off, I was taken aback when Thomson asked, “What are you doing for dinner?”
“I beg your pardon, er, nothing,” I stammered.
And so I found myself, two hours later, dining at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport with the Open champion, the claret jug resting between us. The following Monday, my 1,500-word story on Thomson’s victory appeared in the Daily Dispatch, along with a photo of the “three” of us. The next day I was appointed assistant sports editor. My poor ankle was mostly healed of its bite marks, which was a good thing, because in front of me stretched a long career and a thousand miles of inviting fairway to walk.