Ordeal at Royal Portrush for 1951 Open triumph

I had a premonition about the Open in 1951. As soon as I arrived in Portrush I knew that something big was about to happen for me and for the whole of that fortnight I seemed to be living in a different world from everyone else.

The Open is one tournament you can’t win suddenly from out of the blue: you have to get a taste for it. In 1949 I had been tying with one round to go and in 1950 I had been one behind with one round to go. I came joint sixth and joint fifth respectively.

It all boiled down to my basic ambitions: I might have been playing rubbish for the rest of the season but the deep down drive to win the Open always made me pull out my best golf when the moment came.

The venue, Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, couldn’t have been better. On my 21st birthday I had played there in the Irish Open and come third, which had been a big thrill for me. I had wanted a three to tie on the 18th, which at that time had been a very long hole. I hit a beautiful second shot and reached the green, but in my anxiety to hole the putt I knocked it a long way past and missed the return for a five. This let in Jimmy Adams who finished second behind Bert Gadd.

Portrush is the ideal course for the power fade, which suited me down to the ground and could not have been worse for Bobby Locke. There is no other course I know which is built this way and there is only one other person I know who had the golfing equipment to make the most of it: Ben Hogan. Almost all the holes had a right hand curl on the approach with the pin on the right hand side of the green.

Max with Allard and Wentworth

1951 had been a poor season for me until then. As I left my home I was pretty fed up and remember saying to my wife Joan, “I’ll show them this time.” I would probably have had to sell me new Allard car if I hadn’t come anywhere.

Pencil-slim putter

Every day I practiced with Dai Rees and Ken Bousefield and as far as I can remember they always beat me. There was only one part of my game which justified my confidence and that was my putting.

The greens at Portush were the fastest I have ever seen for an Open Championship, and I played in almost every one between 1934 and 1975 and have been a close observer of the others. It was just my luck that in the past year I had come across an exceptionally light putter of 11 ounces in weight which could have been tailor made for the Portrush greens.

I had first seen it lying about in the professional’s shop at Royal Mid-Surrey during my time there with Henry Cotton. Some time before the Open I used it for a tournament at Mid-Surrey and remember putting wonderfully well with it. For some reason, however, I discarded it for a while but I always particularly liked the way the ball came off the face.

A fortnight before the Open I brought it out again and thinned down the grip still further so that I could feel the head a bit better. The shaft was long and already pencil-slim.

Apart from my putting, there was no reason to explain my growing conviction that I was going to win. I have seen a picture taken by Henry Cotton outside a hotel in Portrush which shows me, arms open, explaining to the US amateur Frank Stranahan and Ken Bousefield how I was going to do it. They are in fits of laughter but I was not really joking.

On the first day of the Championship I did 71 and was three shots behind Jimmy Adams, who had gone round in an unbelievable 68. It had been raining and I had not really been playing very well. On the second day the conditions were even worse, with a strong wind, but I came in with a 70 to take the lead by two shots.

Poor long iron play

One club was pulling me through on the long game. On my winter tour of Australia I had picked up a very lofted, deep-faced 4-wood which I was now using most of the time from the fairway because I was so bad with my 3 and 4 irons.

When it came to the green, however, it was different matter. It was almost laughable. Wherever I was I couldn’t seem to do anything else but put it in the hole. With 27 putts for the first round and 24 for the second, I could get away with the sort of rubbish I was playing on the fairway.

In those days, the two final rounds were crammed in on the Friday, which often meant that you were lucky if you got 20 minutes for your lunch. Scheduling of the matches was completely arbitrary; no one had yet thought of the simple idea of putting the leaders out last.

Pact of silence

On the night before the final day I had dinner with Ken Bousefield at my hotel. I knew I was drawn with Frank Stranahan for the final day and particularly wanted to have a word with him about it, so I suggested to Ken that we go up to his hotel.

Frank had had several wins on the US tournament circuit playing as an amateur (he turned professional three years later). Every year he came over for our Open and had finished joint second in the 1947 Open won by Fred Daly.

He was coming out of the dining room as we arrived. “Wee-ell,” he drawled, with a big grin on his face. “I see I’m playing with you tomorrow. I’m eight shots behind but it won’t take me long to catch you!”

“I’d like to have a word with you about that,” I said.

“Sure,” he replied, so I led him up the stairs a little way.

“Look Frank,” I began, “I’m delighted to be playing with you tomorrow but I would be very pleased if you would mind not saying anything to me on the course at all. I would like to be left completely on my own.”

“Sure,” he said, “if that’s the way you want it.”

After a paddle on the beach, Ken and I went back to our hotel and I went to bed to see if I could get some sleep. As I lay there, I made a resolution that I was not going to smoke any cigarettes on the next day. I wanted to give myself every chance.

Of course I couldn’t get to sleep. I knew that this was to be my biggest test and in those few hours I seemed to re-live my whole life: how I started as a kid and had been brought along by my father; the simple rules that he taught me and how he helped my to develop a swing which would stand up to tournament pressure.

He always drummed into me that I was a better golfer than anyone else. I wasn’t, of course, but he was so insistent that I began to believe it, and it helped me early in my career.

Such was his confidence in me that in 1947 he bought Selsey Golf Club so that I would always have somewhere to go and practice in order to win the Open. How he found the cash I will never know. Now right in front of me was supposed to be the pay-off.

My room looked out on to a large, square shaft which led down to the kitchens. I had slept badly all week and the night before I had heard the chef and some women talking during the night. On this night, of all nights, they were really laughing their heads off. At about 1.30am I had had enough.

I stood up on the dressing table and leaned out of the window. “Hey, hey,” I shouted at the top of my voice. “I’m playing in the Open tomorrow and its the last day. Will you shut up!” There was a deathly silence and I went back to bed in peace.

After an hour or two of sleep, I got up early, had a fair breakfast and went straight to the club. I took my time putting my shoes on, had no practice shots and walked straight out on to the first tee.

Frank Stranahan was there and I walked through the crowd towards him. “Good morning Frankie,” I said.

He didn’t say a word. I was tightening up my shoelaces at the time and thought, “That’s it. Good show.”

That morning I went round in 70, with 29 putts this time, to increase my lead to 6 shots; but not without one very nasty moment.

Deliberate slice

At the 16th it is possible, if you hit a good drive, to reach a very deep bunker in the middle of the fairway. In my anxiety to miss it, I pulled my drive and watched with a sinking heart as it bounced towards the out of bounds fence.

Luckily it finished about two feet out from the barbed wire fence, but there was a style immediately behind the ball which stuck out in the way of my backswing.

Golf Monthly photograph of the 4-wood shot at the 16th (the 18th for the 2019 Open)

I had two choices: I could either chip it out and lose a stroke or make an attempt at the green using my faithful 4 wood. I thought there was just a chance if I lifted the club up steeply enough to miss the style, deliberately sliced the shot and lifted the club up immediately after impact to avoid tearing my hands on the barbed wire.

I decided to take a chance. I asked my caddie for my 4 wood and got into position. The behind of my yellow trousers was against the barbed wire and I had to press back as much as I could because the ball was right underneath me.

Not a sound could be heard from the crowd, who must have sensed what a crucial moment this was for me. I spent a full two minutes taking practice swings, all the time imprinting on my mind the path the club had to take and the various thinhgs I had to do in the swing. The slightest error could cost me the Championship.

It was a beautiful shot. The ball flew out of bounds and climbed steeply. After a while it began to curve to the right, as I knew it must do from the deliberate chop I had given it. The curve became almost a half-circle as it veered back over the fence and pitched on the green. I had cut it so much with my 4 wood that it spun sideways a short distance after pitching.

Although he was 50 yards away, Frank came striding across the fairway with his hand wide open and we shook hands. “Congratulations,” he said. “That’s the finest shot I’ve ever seen.” The were the first words he had spoken to me that day.

This was one putt I did miss. It went round the lip and stayed out, but I kept on the fairway after that.

Imagine the feeling now of being six shots in front of the field in an Open Championship with one round to play. No middle distance runner would ever consider such a strategy coming up to the last lap. Supposing I did go to pieces in the last round – what a humiliation!

I knew that I could not afford to score any higher than 74 because I thought that a 66-68 was just about possible with an inspired round from Cerda, Locke, Thomson or Daly on this difficult Portrush links.

I quietly changed my shoes and went to have lunch with Frank. Remember, I had not had a cigarette all day because I had deliberately left them at the hotel. We had steak and kidney pie. I always feel stronger after eating a lot of meat, so when I had finished I asked for the same again.

“Gee whiz, haven’t you got any butterflies in your stomach?” Frank asked, with some surprise. I had butterflies all right but I wanted to make sure than I left nothing to chance.

Premature signature

As soon as I had finished, I excused myself and went off to have a short practice – which is something I never normally do. My caddie and I walked acroos the practice ground to some hollows where I knew I could hit some balls without any fuss.

A large crowd was milling about outside the clubhouse as I made my way back to the first tee. I was lost in my own thoughts until a young boy came up to me with his father.

“Will you sign my ball Sir?”

“Oh son,” I said. “I’m about to play the last round of the Open.”

“But you’re going to win it Sir,” he replied.

“Yes, it looks as if I am, this time.”

“Well would you mind signing it quickly?” said the boy’s father. “He would be absolutely delighted.”

I relented and asked him for a pen. I put ‘Max Faulkner. Open Champion 1951,’ and then looked at it before giving it back to the boy. As I walked to the tee it kept appearing in front of me. ‘Open Champion 1951’, ‘Open Champion 1951’… It certainly looked good.

On the first tee I suddenly felt terrible. The strain was beginning to catch me. My drive nearly parted the hair of several spectators as it flew low to the left and pitched close to the out of bounds fence. I had been trying to guide it down the middle but it was a terrible shot.

The first hole at Portrush is about 400 yards long and slopes uphill to a plateau green. My ball wasn’t lying too badly but this time there was no getting round my bad long iron play by taking a 4 wood. I had to take the 4 iron to get sufficient height and could not possibly reach the green with a 5 iron.

As it happened, I hit a marvellous shot, straight as a die for the middle of the green. It pitched on the lower plateau but stopped dead, leaving me with a putt of about 8 yards. I could see that I would have to judge the borrow and get the strength about right or I could easily drop a shot, which would be a terrible start.

My caddie gave me my slim putter and I knew at once that I had not lost my new-found touch on the greens. The putt rolled round the hole and nearly went in for a three. I thought “Well I can’t lose doing this.” And that’s how it went on.

I was out in 37 and knew that all I had to do was to keep playing for par figures and not do anything foolish. I aimed to return in 36 for a 73, so that Cerda and Sutton would have to do a 67 to tie.

I thought I could have played left handed and done that in those days, so I wasn’t too jumpy at that point. But never in my life have I experienced such strain as I did towards the end of the last nine holes.

At the 10th I was short of the green in two but chipped it on and holed the putt for a wonderful 4. I bunkered myself at the short 11th but again chipped it on and holed the putt. If I ever kissed that putter during the round you can be sure I wasn’t doing it for fun.

The 12th hole is full of pitfalls and I put my drive in the rough. The elevated green has a narrow entrance with a bunker on the left which is about as deep as the average house.

Of course I had to put my 5 iron shot right into the middle of it. I would rather have missed the green anywhere else but there. While I was busy cursing to myself, Frank put his second shot into exactly the same place. When we came up to the bunker, the two balls were not more than a yard apart. It was my turn to play.

I climbed down into the pit and luckily could just see the top of the flag. I knew it was about 12 feet from the lip of the bunker to the pin, so I had to pull it up quickly. The sand was loose and I had a good lie.

With a full swing. I played a “frying pan” bunker shot and the ball disappeared over the lip in a cloud of sand, pulling up to within four feet of the hole. Under that stress, it was the best bunker shot I have ever played.

I watched Frank disappear into the cavern. About a couple of years before I had given him some tips on how to play bunker shots at Mid-Surrey. We had been out on the course one evening until it was dark. I don’t know whether he found it of use but he certainly made a classic stroke at this hole. His ball finished inside mine and we both got our fours.

The 13th is uphill again. I was pin high with my second on the edge of the green and had about a 12-yard putt. Again with that fantastic putter I lipped the hole once more but was perfectly happy to tap it in for my four.

As we were walking to the next hole Frank said to me, “Gee, have you got your book written”. I said no but I had to laugh a bit although by that time the strain was beginning to get me down.

Bursts of cheering could be heard in the distance and news was getting round that some of the late starters were scorching up the course.

Remember that there were no scoreboards about the course in those days. If you were in a scoring position like mine there would always be one or two spectators who would come and say that so-and-so was three under fours at the eighth etc., and I was beginning to get it now.

I distinctly remembert one man saying, well within earshot, “It doesn’t look as if he is going to win it after all.” First Bradshaw was out in 33, then Cerda in 34, but I just had to take it and not let it affect my game in any way.

The strain beginning to tell. My second shot at the 15th (Golf Monthly)

After a par 3 at the 14th hole, named ‘Calamity’ because of a 50-foot drop to the right of the green, I pulled my drive into th rough at the 15th. With a poor second, the hole cost me a five.

Never mind, I thought, I am still level fours and can afford to have a small slip-up.

We were now at the 16th, which had such memories for me from the morning round. This time I made up my mind to play the hole by keeping short of the big bunker in the centre rather than by trying to keep left of it.

I swung back very slowly and deliberately, but as so often happens when you do this, I hit it absolutely 100% in the middle of the club and it went for miles. As it was in the air I was thinking “Oh God no, I’ve hit that too hard.” I watched it bounce, bounce, bounce, straight into the bunker.

I played out with my bunker iron, hit an 8-iron to the green but missed the putt for another five.

I knew now that if I was not careful, I could let this Championship slip away from me. I had got to get a grip on myself.

The 17th hole is a long par five. I hit a beautiful drive and an even better brassie which left me on the bank just to the right of the green. With my chipping iron I played a low stroking shot with a shut face and put it about 18 inches from the hole for a birdie four.

So this was it. I needed a four for 73, which meant that Tony Cerda would have to do a 67 to tie. I didn’t think this could be done, however well they were playing a few holes back.

I have never felt so nervous as I did on that last tee. My knees were a bit shaky as I bent down and I had some trouble getting the ball on the tee.

My driving had been pretty good on the whole. I had been happy just to keep the ball on the fairway and had never tried to keep up with Frank, who had always been a long way past me.

The crowd of two or three thousand people was absolutely quiet as I prepared to drive. I was saying to myself “Trust your swing. Just swing it naturally as your Dad taught you.”

It was the best drive I hit in the whole Championship. There are bunkers down both sides of the 18th, but my ball carried for miles and dropped beautifully into the one clear space in the middle of the fairway.

I noticed that Dai Rees, Ken Bousefield and Jimmy Adams were in the crowd to watch me finish, although of course they kept well back and didn’t try to talk to me.

It was not until many years later that the authorities began to rope off the holes, so everybody was walking down the fairway with me. In fact on two occasions I lost a shoe because a spectator trod on the back of my heel; I had to bend down and lace it up with the crowd millling round me.

A marker stood by my ball and a space was being cleared for my shot. As I walked up to my ball I straightway pulled out my 4 wood because I knew this was just the club to put the ball on the green. In my mind, anything was better than the 4 iron I had.

“Sssssss,” I heard from someone behind me. As I had a short prectice swing I heard it again and realised it was my old buddy Jimmy Adams. I knew immediately what he was trying to do by hissing – he thought I was overclubbing by a mile.

Poor old Jim was only trying to help me. He did it three or four times, and each time I had to take another practice swing to try and compose myself. I thought, “For God’s sake shut up Jim!” But there was no way I could delay any longer; I had got to hit it.

By now my feet were too wide apart and everything felt wrong. I hit a terrible shot, pushed out to the right, which might even have gone out of bounds but for hitting a woman on the chest. The ball dropped down into some long grass on a slope and I found it teed up about three inches off the ground.

I took out my bunker iron and dared not touch the grass in case the ball dropped to the ground, which would have meant losing another stroke. To get the ball onto the green would have meant playing the shot down the slope, which was not possible.

After a lot of thought I decided that with a sideways-angled position I could swing my club back along the bank to keep the ball down and if I hit it hard enough I could give it a lot of sidespin to bring it back on the green.

My third to last shot at the 1951 Open, just getting it on the green

I took a full swing at it, almost from a kneeling position, hit it right in the middle and watched it bullet for the green. It pitched in the rough, ziggled about and just got on the edge of the green.

I felt it was a wonderful shot but the crowd didn’t seem to realise how difficult it was; it was probably more luck than judgement but I had felt confident that I could pull it off.

The terrible ordeal was nearly over but I still had to make sure I got down in two. My old faithful putter still felt pretty good however and my first putt nearly went in the hole. As it went 18 inches past I remember thinking “I wish that was closer!”

As I was standing there while Frank was putting I suddenly lost all confidence for the shot. When I looked at the hole it seemed to be filled with cement and when I looked at my ball it seemed as big as a tennis ball. I was in a complete daze. But I kept saying to myself, “It’s got to go in.”

At last I gave it a fairly confident hit and It disappeared into the middle of the hole to give me a five for 74.

I didn’t know very much of what was going on at this stage. I remember Dai Rees coming on to the green and escorting me through the crowd straight to the press room.

The first thing I did was ask someone for a cigarette. Normally I got through a packet a day. Someone gave me a light, I had one puff and very nearly passed out. Dizziness swept over me and I had to sit back in the chair for a few moments.

Reports began to come in that Cerda was catching me, Ward was catching me. It would be at least another hour before Cerda would finish. I said “Well they might catch me, but I don’t think they will.” My worst moment was when I was told that Cerda needed three fours to tie.

Messengers swere running to and fro. Eventually one of them came straight up to me, “Tony Cerda’s taken six. It’s your Open.” I was sorry for Tony, because he was a pal of mine, but from the way I had been feeling all week I somehow knew it was going to end up this way.

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