Even the best of us can play like amateurs when we are in the grip of nerves, and a classic example was my 1953 Matchplay Championship final with Dai Rees. Dai and I had been close buddies from before the War but neither of us liked to be beaten by the other in matchplay.
I have to admit that I am not good at matchplay, far preferring stroke play tournaments. But the Matchplay Championship was the third biggest of the year, after the Open and Dunlop Masters, and it was one of my four golfing ambitions (winning the Open, the Masters, the Matchplay and playing in the Ryder Cup).
I had beaten John Jacobs and Dai had beaten Fred Daly in the semi-final matches, so I steeled myself for another needle match. Dai was a terrier when it came to matchplay and had already won the championship four times.
I played wonderful golf in the morning round and was 4 up with a 68., but Dai steadily wore me down in the afternoon until we were all square with one to go. Can you imagine that?!
Over the last nine we were both so terrified of losing to the other that it became a scramble. We were playing defensively.
I was still one up by the 250-yard 17th but Dai hit a winner with his driver. At the 18th hole, which was a 438-yard dog-leg to the left, Dai hit another beautiful drive down the middle.
My driving had gone to pieces by that time and I pulled my ball into the worst possible place, into the rough behind a spinney of pine trees.
The ball had fallen into the hands of a policeman, who had let it drop down at his feet. This was a bit of luck because I found I had a much better lie than expected.
If I chipped out, I would certainly lose the match. The trees were taller to the right hand side of the spinney and I thought I had a chance of making the green with a 5 iron if I hit it left and sliced it.
I hit a good shot but it was too strong and hit a spectator on the cheek, dropping into short grass behind the green.
Dai now had the match in his hands. He had the green open in front of him and only had to put his ball near the pin.
To my amazement, he nearly shanked it. It was the worst iron shot I had ever seen him play, pushed way out beyond the bunkers to the right hand side. If it had not hit a woman spectator, it might have finished in a big fuzz bush. This was his bit of luck.
By this time we were not exactly giving the spectators very good value for money. Dai played a poor chip, leaving the ball about 15 feet short of the flag. I though “Good God, what’s the matter with him; if I get this near, I’ve won….”
But my chip was not much better, checking quickly and finishing about 11 feet away. It was above the hole while Dai had a straight putt uphill.
He took his time but it never looked like going in, finishing two feet away. It really was a weak putt.
The crowd was absolutely quiet by now. My putt was downhill with a 6-inch borrow from the right. If I missed it, it would mean the agony of a play-off, which I was not confident I could win. The winner’s prize was £750, not bad for those days, while the runner-up only got £250.
But I hit it well and to my great relief it disappeared into the middle of the hole.
That completed my golfing ambitions and I have to confess that I did not try very hard from that day onwards. The killer instinct went and I just enjoyed myself playing the circuit. I won many more tournaments, culminating in the Portuguese Open in 1968 at the age of 52, but it always seemed to me to be more by luck than judgement.
Brush with polio
My only other notable matchplay success was in 1956 when I beat reigning Open Champion Peter Thomson in the Great Britain and Ireland against the Commonwealth match at Royal St. Georges. We were the top match but but I was playing well and beat him 4 and 3.
The match was also notable for a less comfortable reason. During the event my wife Joan had been informed that our daughter Hilary had contracted polio at the age of 13. She kept this news from me because she knew that it would upset my play in this event.
I am delighted to say that Hilary made a complete recovery and went on to marry Brian Barnes, who was one of the ‘Butten Boys’ and went on to win tournaments around the globe and played in the Ryder Cup six times. He beat Jack Nicklaus twice in one day at the 1975 match at Brookhaven in the USA.