In the Silver King tournament I came
sixth, three shots behind the two players who tied for first place,
Dick Burton and Alf Padgham. Alf won the play-off the following day.
On my return to St Andrews for that last pre-war Open I found the R&A clubhouse locker room was now open to non-amateurs for the first time in an Open. Increasingly locker rooms were being opened to pros throughout the country, but the door leading into the main clubhouse generally remained firmly closed during my time. Nowadays the top professionals are treated like Royalty and are honoured by St Andrews town and university. How far the profession has come since those far off days!
With war looming there was a sense of foreboding and, like many others in the field, I did not have my mind fully on golf. Certainly the 1936 champion Alf Padgham did not - he forgot to enter that year. Several new back tees had been built to lengthen the course and the Times commented that: so far, in the eternal race of armaments between the architects and the drivers (reinforced by the ball makers) it is the drivers who win. As I said before, there is nothing new in golf.
Leading the qualifiers was the stout 19-years-old Irish amateur Jimmy Bruen with amateur course record 69s on the Old and the New courses. Bruen and Bobby Jones were the only amateurs to lead in Open qualifying. (On the Old the previous year, before lengthening took place, Bruen had equalled Bobby Jones’ course record of 68 during the Walker Cup trials). Sharing the lead were two of the small American entry - Lawson Little, now a professional and a newcomer, Johnny Bulla. In second place, four behind, came Henry Cotton, who told reporters that Bruen was hitting the ball better than he did at that age. I qualified on 150 in a tie with Bill Shankland, who had replaced Percy Alliss at Temple Newsam.
Nowadays the leading 70 players and ties make the cut but, under the rules at that time, a maximum of 44 could qualify and if there were ties for forty-fourth place all those tying would be eliminated. Ten players, who were on 151, were hopeful that they would avoid the guillotine, including Abe Mitchell, Archie Compston and Charles Whitcombe. The last player who could put them out, Herbert Rhodes of South Herts, came to the last green needing a five foot putt to match their score. There were stage whispers from the players lining the rails: “Miss it, miss it”. Unaware of the position he holed and automatically put himself and the others out of the championship. I was not one of those to suffer this agony as I had taken one shot more than the ten, to miss the cut by two. My agony had been on the course. I had played with Eddie Whitcombe, son of Ernest, in that last round and we had suffered the distraction of huge crowds moving across the fairways to follow Henry Cotton in a match coming up behind. The Dundee Courier reported: “Young E. E. Whitcombe and partner B. Gadd were caught up now and again in the advancing tide. It must have affected their play as it undoubtedly did Hawkins” (J. Hawkins of Maidenhead was Henry’s partner). Henry appealed to the crowd, but could do little to stem the tide. The Dundee Courier reporter referred to a disease called ‘edgeitis’ that afflicted them around the greens. One edged forward and the rest would follow until they were forming a tight circle. Henry wrote the following in This Game of Golf, under the heading of ‘Luck’: “In 1939 at St Andrews, before the crowd control system was adopted, E. E. Whitcombe and Bert Gadd did not qualify for the last day because my crowd – they were a couple ahead of me – did not let them. All these things, ‘breaks’ if you like, play their part in golf”. I had taken 75 and Eddie had an 80. Henry, who was to be the Ryder Cup captain that year, had previously written about the possibility of four Whitcombes playing in the next match and Eddie and I both felt that we stood a good chance of going to America. With the selectors watching events at St Andrews our failure to qualify was a particularly untimely ‘break’ for us and we could only hope that the selection committee would take Henry’s remarks about the influence of the crowd into account, although news bulletins told us that the chances of the event going ahead were diminishing by the day.
You will recall the experience of Joe Kirkwood with the St Andrews crowds six years earlier and nothing had been done to improve the situation. When the championship eventually returned to the Old Course in 1946 lessons had at last been learnt and the spectators were kept beyond the ‘touch line’. The roping-off of crowds was adopted later at the suggestion of Cotton.
After the elimination of the eleven tying for forty-fourth, only 34 players qualified for the last two rounds, the lowest in history. Dick Burton, now based at the Sale club in Manchester, was playing some of his best golf that week, but a 77 in round three meant that he was level with his biggest threat, the American Johnny Bulla, who was on the home stretch as Dick went out. Bulla’s centre-shafted ‘Schenectady’ putter was still not allowed by the R&A and he was using the sixth putter he had tried since arriving in St Andrews.