Skip to main content
Original Issue


Britain is not producing top-caliber golfers as it once did. Maybe the incentive is lacking because tournament purses are small, or maybe the Americans and the Australians are too good

Imagine, if you will, that you are at one of the most important golf tournaments of the year, where 33 of the best domestic and foreign professionals are competing. The only admission price is the 75¢ you pay to park your car. Along with 10,000 or so other fans, you stroll freely around the course, with no ropes to contain you and no officials to tell you where you may or may not go. If you follow one of the more popular pairings, you will encounter several young men carrying long bamboo poles which they occasionally lower as a sort of barrier to remind you politely how close you may stand to the golfers while they play their shots. If you want to keep up with a particular match you must walk briskly, for there is no dawdling among these golfers. They play an 18-hole round in three hours or less. When you see a shot you admire, you applaud with a discreet clapping of the hands and perhaps murmur, "Well done." It's a very civilizing experience.

Two weeks ago on the course at Went-worth, about an hour's drive out of London, the British pros were playing in the Dunlop Masters, one of the more eminent events on the schedule that leads up to this week's British Open at Troon. By our standards it seemed a very casual affair, replete with British understatement. The prize money was fairly modest—roughly $9,000 in all, with $2,800 to the winner—and it was all over in a hurry. The full 72 holes were played on Friday and Saturday, 36 holes on each day, and the winner, as he has been so many times since he first started competing a mere 28 years ago, was a doughty little Welshman named Dai Rees—or David Rees, C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), to give him the full title he wears at palace functions.

Rees brought home a very respectable 278—10 under par—on Wentworth's tight and hard-baked fairways, and just two strokes behind him in a tie for second was Peter Thomson, this year's leading money-winner on the British pro circuit and certainly the finest golfer ever to come out of Australia. With this year's British tour about half completed, Thomson leads the parade with winnings of a little more than $10,000, and Rees is in second place with about $8,500. This may not sound like much by our lush standards, but it should be remembered that Rees and Thomson have almost as many sidelines going for them as do their American counterparts, and they live well.

Be that as it may, there is a good deal of self-questioning in Britain these days about the quality of its tournament golf. The land that devised this pesky game and produced such masters as Harry Vardon, Ted Ray, Macdonald Smith and Tommy Armour does not take kindly to the thought that seven of the eight Ryder Cup matches since World War II have been won by the Americans. On the eve of this year's Open it is almost a foregone conclusion that only Rees has a fighting chance of bringing home the championship. The favorites have to be found among the foreigners: the Australians Kel Nagle, who won in 1960, and Thomson, who has won it four times since 1954; South African Gary Player, who won it in 1959; and the strong group of American invaders, among whom are Jack Nicklaus, Gene Littler and Defending Champion Arnold Palmer.

There is no great mystery about the lack of top tournament players in Britain these days. There simply aren't enough tournaments, nor is there enough prize money, to make tournament play a lucrative full-time profession. In the first place, the season can't begin until late March, when the days in this far northern latitude become long enough, and by early October the season must end for the same reason. During these six months of 1962 the British PGA will sponsor only 12 tournaments, with total prize money of around $280,000. The really dedicated tournament pros can fill out their empty days with a few pro-ams, or travel to the Continent to compete in the six or seven tournaments in western Europe that complement the British schedule. When you recall that the ambitious touring pros in our country compete in 30 to 40 tournaments a year and don't feel they have had a successful season unless they win $15,000 or more, it isn't difficult to understand why so few topflight young players are coming out of the professional ranks in Britain.

But there is another conspicuous difference between the American and British professionals, and it was especially noticeable at the Dunlop tournament. Because a prolonged drought had baked Wentworth fairways into the consistency of a macadam road, it was possible to use a full drive off the tees on only about half a dozen holes. This is not necessarily typical of all British courses at all times, but there is no question that they are a lot tighter than those that our pros play on, and the rough is infinitely more severe. So the premium on accuracy is a lot higher, and you won't find any big hitters in Britain who can put the ball out alongside the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Souchak and Bayer.

Another important American shot that would be of little use to the British pro is the charging approach to the green—the middle or short iron that is hit right to the pin, where it bites into the green and stops within a couple of feet of where it lands. On most British courses in midsummer that same shot would bounce off into a tangle of gorse and take a lot of recovering. The British have to learn to run the ball up to the hole and risk a few wayward bounces that are strictly a matter of luck. When they meet the Americans on the bigger, longer courses, where the greens are soft enough to hold a crisp approach shot, they are playing under a pretty severe handicap.

A poor man's tour

But more than anything, the major problem of the British tournament pro is economic. Peter Thomson, who has been an off-and-on competitor on the American tour for some years, was expounding on this one afternoon just after the Dunlop Masters. "The British circuit has been pretty much of a poor man's tour compared to America," he was saying. "It just hasn't been possible for the young players to rely on their tournament winnings, so they have had to hold down teaching jobs at clubs to make ends meet.

"Take last year," Thomson continued. "Out of about a dozen tournaments Nagle won four, I won four and Palmer won one. All of us are playing full-time tournament golf. Now, that didn't leave much prize money to be split up among the young British players, so it gets to be a kind of vicious circle. They can't compete full time unless they can win some money, and they can't win much money if they can't compete full time.

"Things are improving, though. Last year the British PGA formed a tournament committee for the first time, and there is a big effort to find more sponsors and bigger purses. A couple of the cigarette firms have put up £8,000 in prize money for their tournaments, and the other purses are beginning to grow."

Whatever good this will do is still some distance in the future. Right now only a few of Britain's most promising pros, like David Thomas, Guy Wolstenholme, Peter Mills and Bernard Hunt, are devoting themselves entirely to tournament golf. Next year America is likely to see them in Atlanta during the Ryder Cup matches, along with such other prospects as Neil Coles and Brian Huggett. But we can't speak of them in the same breath with Palmer and Nicklaus and Player until they have a chance to toughen their golf in the kind of nerve-racking, money-laden atmosphere that has produced our current champions.