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Chapter 5. Baptism of Fire

In 1932 I embarked on my career as a tournament professional. That year the golf ball manufacturer Penfold began their sponsorship and there were eight big events in Great Britain and Ireland, but the worldwide depression caused by the Wall Street crash was reaching its peak and there was not much money in the coffers, particularly for the smaller golf tournaments. I remember receiving an SOS from the organisers of one that I had not entered asking me to play. Bill Button, from the Birmingham club Harbourne, had won their event for the previous two years and they were afraid that he would win the trophy outright and a new one would be required. In the prevailing economic climate such expenditure would be most unwelcome – so they issued invitations to a few of the leading Midland players. I went on to take the title and their trophy was safe for another year.
My first taste of real success was in the Midland Professional Foursomes, which I won in partnership with Charlie Ward. It was an open event attracting a big entry from all parts and the names on the trophy included Henry Cotton, who had won it two years earlier partnered by his brother Leslie. Mine was the fourth name from the golfing families on Malvern Common, the other winners being Alfred J. Lewis (Martin’s brother), J. W. (Billy) Whiting (Fred’s brother) and Jack Stait.

There was no restriction on the number of clubs carried in those days and it was by no means unknown for players to carry up to thirty, but I usually had only twelve in my ‘mixed bag’. On the second I told Charlie that my old seven iron, converted from a hickory shafted club, would not reach the green and he offered his ‘new’ one. With this stronger club I put the ball on the green and Charlie holed for a birdie. I kept the club in my bag for the rest of the round.

I won the Staffordshire Professional Championship, which was at the Brocton Hall club near Stafford, was gold medallist in the Birmingham Alliance, the first of four successive titles and I tied for the Midland Professional Championship, claimed to be the world’s oldest pro golf title. It was played at Henbury in Bristol; the Midland Region of the PGA covered a much wider area back then and it was there that I, an immature and inexperienced young player, was given a valuable lesson by an ‘Old Timer’. At the end of the 36-holes I was tied with Jimmy Adwick, from the Olton club in Birmingham and a player I mentioned earlier - little Tommy Barber from Derbyshire, one of the great characters of those days. Tommy was a very good player - as he showed when coming 5th in Jones’ 1926 Open - and he had made the final Ryder Cup trials as recently as 1930. In 1932 he was in great form and had played inspired golf in beating Henry Cotton in the Yorkshire Evening News tournament at Moortown, going out in 32 on his way to a 5 & 4 victory; Tommy single-putted nine of the fourteen greens. He was always completely unruffled, no matter what the circumstances or conditions - the Bobby Locke of his day. The fact that I was playing against a ‘national figure’ in the play-off got me into a state of ‘jitters’ before we even started. Having three-putted on four of the first five greens and watched Tommy just playing serenely on as though in a Sunday four-ball, my nervous system was just about shattered and I started taking all sorts of chances to try and make up the leeway. Many reading this will have anticipated the result; I quickly found myself trailing behind both players and I ‘tailed off’ to finish in third place. Tommy was a man of few words, but those words were well worth listening to and, having administered a very handsome hiding, he then took me aside and gave me a good ‘talking to’ containing a lot of good advice.
Tommy was a very tricky opponent in match play and my education was to be continued when I met him the following year in the final of the Midland Matchplay Championship at Sandwell Park in Birmingham. He was only about 5 feet 6 but what he lacked in inches he made up for in guile. By that time I had gained confidence and I had Tommy two down with 11 holes to play. It was time for Tommy to use a little ‘gamesmanship’ and at the next, a hole with a semi-blind second shot, I was about 10 yards in front and watched Churchman's Cigarette Cards, Abe Mitchellcarefully as Tommy took a brassie (2-wood) and came up short. He had a long swing and I reckoned that he had fairly wound himself into that one, but he had deceived me, just like a bowler puts in a ‘slow one’ in cricket. We didn’t have yardage charts in those days of course and I fell for it, taking a spoon (3-wood) and ending up 30 yards over everything in a ditch against the boundary wall. It was one of the most salutary lessons I ever received and it cured me for good of taking notice of the club my opponent was using.

He beat me on the last and, as I left the green, disappointed to have been bettered by Tommy again, he gave me some more advice “To win matches you’ve got to be ruthless”, he told me, adding as an afterthought, “don’t ever forget it”. I never did and it was to serve me well when I became an International player.

My other trip down to Bristol that year was for the Evening World £350 tournament at Long Ashton, where I met the famous Abe Mitchell for the first time. He was then in his prime and he broke the course record with a 65 in the third round, finishing with a 67 for a record total of 271 to win the tournament by a shot.