The British Open returns to Royal Portrush, a wonderful links course on the Antrim coast at the top of Northern Ireland, next week. In the Open’s only previous visit to Portrush, in 1951, Englishman Max Faulkner won to become the toast of British sports fans, but today he is little remembered.
Faulkner, christened Herbert Gustavus Max Faulkner, was born in 1916 in Brexhill-on-Sea. His father, Gustavus, known to all as “Gus,” was a golf professional who guided young Max in the game. Young Faulkner learned quickly and, at age 15, qualified for the 1932 British Open at Prince’s Golf Club. He missed the cut but stayed to follow eventual winner Gene Sarazen for the last two rounds. Faulkner was intrigued by the shots that Sarazen could manufacture when he ran into trouble, leading the teen to experiment.
Faulkner played in several PGA apprentice tournaments – the British PGA Matchplay, also known as the News of the World Championship after the newspaper which sponsored it, and the British Open – during the balance of the 1930s. He posted several excellent rounds but never was a serious threat to win. All the while, though, he was learning about the game.
Faulkner’s father had been an assistant to five-time Open champion James Braid at Walton Heath before World War I, and young Max was exposed to several of the great golfers from the early 20th century. “James Braid followed me round in the Matchplay Championship at Walton Heath when I was 17,” said Faulkner, who died in 2005 at age 88, “and I played with [1902 Open champion] Sandy Herd in the Silver King tournament at Moor Park. I was 17 and he was 75. I went ’round in 71 and he went ’round in 67, and did me by four. I was outdriving him by 100 yards, and I’d hit my niblick into the green while he’d hit his spoon, but it was my putt first every ruddy time.”
With the start of World War II in 1939, golf was out of the question for Faulkner. At age 23, he joined the Royal Air Force and became a physical-training instructor. He was a stocky young man known for his strength and top physical condition. During his six years of active service, Faulkner played one round of golf. Faulkner had learned from his father how to box, and he became services champion.
The war interrupted many lives and careers, and Faulkner found himself, at age 29, returning to a young man’s game and playing tournament golf after a six-year layoff. Imagine, if you can, any of today’s younger stars in that situation. Faulkner immediately rose to the occasion, finishing second in the Daily Mail Tournament in September 1945.
In 1947, he played on his first of five Ryder Cup teams before his breakout season in 1949, when he won three events. He made that year’s Ryder Cup team, but his biggest goal was to win the Open’s Claret Jug. Faulkner tied for sixth in the 1949 British Open, four strokes behind his hero and nemesis, South Africa’s Bobby Locke. A year later, Faulkner tied for fifth in the Open, again four strokes behind Locke.
“Bobby Locke was my idol, you see,” Faulkner said. “Oh, Christ, yes. A wonderful chap. Tough. A bomber pilot. Bombed Monte Cassino. Never practiced.” Faulkner clarified that it was golf that Locke never practiced, not bombing, and when he saw golfers spending hours on the practice tee, Locke would comment, “Look at those bloody silly idiots.”
Faulkner felt the same way about practice. However, he was always experimenting with different types of shots and different clubs. Faulkner never had a standard set of clubs in his bag. At one time, he carried three 1-irons, each with a different-length shaft, from whippy to stiff. He frequently carried two drivers.
Faulkner’s theory was to know his clubs intimately and how to use them. He commented that other players have “14 clubs in their bag and don’t know how to use them. They have to look at the number on the bottom to find out what it is.”
Observers marveled at how Faulkner could maneuver the golf ball. He always “worked” the ball – left, right, high, low, just what was needed for a particular situation. And that wasn’t just for woods or long irons. He did the same with his short irons and his niblick. He was regarded as one of the best ball-strikers in the game.
Faulkner had a major weakness: putting. His idol, Locke, seemed to make every putt, but Faulkner missed too many, and he continually changed putters, sometimes even making his own. His most unusual putter had a shaft made from a billiard cue and a head made from a piece of driftwood that Faulkner had found on the beach. He got good press about the odd putter, but it wasn’t that often in his bag.
Galleries loved Faulkner. He spoke with fans, and would even explain the type of shot that he was going to hit. His talkativeness seemed to relax him and put him in a good frame of mind. In one match with the Welsh Ryder Cupper Dai Rees, Faulkner walked on his hands from the green to the next tee with the explanation that he needed to get some blood to his brain.
He was a great raconteur, always ready with a story for any occasion. At one Ryder Cup dinner, Faulkner stood on the banquet table doing imitations of various players’ swings, much to the delight of his audience, including the usually stoic Ben Hogan, who was overcome with laughter.
Faulkner also dressed in wild colors and usually wore knickers or “plus fours,” with shirt and socks of matching colors and his custom-made shoes matching his knickers. In the period of austerity in Great Britain after World War II, many in the golfing establishment looked down on his manner of dressing.
He was given nicknames like “Rainbow Boy,” “Peacock,” or “The Clown Prince of Golf.” But all the wild, colorful clothing wasn’t to draw attention to himself. During a German air raid, a bomb exploded near Faulkner, and he was knocked to the ground and suffered a punctured eardrum. He spent five days recuperating in a hospital.
“Every morning the nurses brought pretty flowers into the ward,” Faulkner said, “and every night they took them out. It was so gray without the flowers, and I thought if I ever get out of this bloody war, I’m going to wear some colors.”
Faulkner had worked for Henry Cotton as an assistant at Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club, and Cotton’s obsession was winning the Open. Cotton won the Claret Jug in 1934 and 1937, and he came back after the war to win his third Open title, in 1948. Like Cotton, Faulkner focused on the Open, commenting, “It was all I ever wanted. The Open meant everything to me.”
When the Open was scheduled for Royal Portrush in 1951, Faulkner had a premonition that he’d win. He had been playing poorly at the beginning of the year, but he’d finished second in the 1947 Irish Open at Portrush and knew the course well. As he left for Portrush, he said to his wife, “I’ll show them this time,” knowing if he didn’t finish well in the championship, he’d probably have to sell his new car.
In practice rounds, Faulkner wasn’t hitting the ball well, but he was putting beautifully. “The greens at Portrush were the fastest I have ever seen for an Open Championship,” he recalled, “and I played in almost every one between 1934 and 1975…. 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 tailormade for the Portrush greens.”
In keeping with his continual experimenting with clubs, Faulkner said, “I brought [the putter] 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-thin.”
He was so confident that his putting was on track that he said, “I’ll never miss another one of these,” holding his hands 3 feet or so apart. One might expect the golf gods to punish such imprudence, but Faulkner dominated on the greens throughout the championship.
On Wednesday, the first day of the Open, it was raining. As was his custom, Faulkner went straight to the first tee without a warmup at the practice tee. He finished with a very respectable 71, three strokes off the lead. On Thursday, the weather was even worse, with rain and strong winds, but Faulkner bettered his first day’s score with a 70 and held a two-stroke lead.
“One club was pulling me through on the long game,” he said. “On my winter tour of Australia, I had picked up a very lofted, deep-faced 4-wood, which I was 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 a 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.” Perhaps Faulkner was channeling his father, known as “one-putt Gus.”
As was the custom at the time for the Open, the final two rounds were played on Friday. Faulkner was paired with American amateur Frank Stranahan, who had won the British Amateur in 1948 and 1950 and had tied for second in the 1947 Open. Stranahan and Faulkner were good friends and a compatible pairing.
Except for one thing: Faulkner described Stranahan as a “yapper” who talked a lot on the course. So did Faulkner, but a streak of seriousness had overcome him with his two-shot lead going into the final day. Faulkner approached Stranahan on Thursday evening and asked him not to chat the following day. Faulkner was a chain smoker but decided to leave his cigarettes behind for the last day’s play. His focus was going to be entirely on his game and winning the Claret Jug.
In keeping with his routine, Faulkner went to the first tee with no practice beforehand. When Stranahan joined him, Faulkner said, “Good morning, Frankie.” There was no response; the pact of silence was on and in force.
In Friday’s first round, Faulkner’s play held up until the 16th hole, which is now No. 18. A bunker in the middle of the fairway could catch a good drive. Faulkner’s usual play was a power fade, but he decided to play to the left of the bunker, overcooked his draw and ended up 2 feet from a barbed-wire out-of-bounds fence. Just behind his ball was a wooden stile, a V-shaped ladder that straddled the fence and interfered with his backswing. The stile was not deemed a movable obstruction.
Faulkner explained his 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 stile, deliberately sliced the shot and lifted the club up immediately after impact to avoid tearing my hands on the barbed wire.”
He decided to chance it. Faulkner took his 4-wood, making several practice swings to avoid the stile and the barbed wire. It was a momentous occasion, which could make or break his round or his confidence.
He took the club back, avoiding the stile, and came down sharply on the ball. The ball flew over the barbed wire and was heading out of bounds. “After a while it began to curve to the right, as I knew it must do from the deliberate chop I had given it,” he said. “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.”
At that point, Stranahan broke the code of silence and shook Faulkner’s hand, saying, “Congratulations. That’s the finest shot I’ve ever seen.”
After that recovery shot at 16, Faulkner finished well and went to lunch with a six-shot lead. He was joined by Stranahan. As soon as Faulkner finished his steak and kidney pie, he ordered a second helping. Stranahan asked whether Faulkner had any butterflies in his stomach. Faulkner admitted to some nervousness but said meat made him feel stronger and that he would leaving nothing to chance.
Uncharacteristically, Faulkner hit a few practice balls before the start of the last round. On his way to the first tee, he as asked by a boy to sign a golf ball. Faulkner was hesitant, saying he was just about to start his last round, but the boy said, “But you’re going to win it, sir.” Faulkner responded, “Yes, it looks as if I am, this time,” and signed the ball, “Max Faulkner. Open Champion 1951.”
Faulkner immediately thought, My God, what have I done? A six-stroke lead was strong, but there are no guarantees in golf.
Faulkner started the last round with a poor drive and faced some troublesome shots, but his putter stayed true. He had learned over the years to play with whatever game he had that day and still score well. He shot 74 and won by two strokes.
For the 72 holes, Faulkner needed only 109 putts. Had he two-putted each hole, he would have used 144 putts. Thus, his prowess on the greens equaled 35 strokes gained.
In 1951, the leaders didn’t go off last; they were spread throughout the field, seemingly by chance or whim, but sometimes to keep the gallery from being too bunched up. At any rate, Faulkner had to wait 45 minutes after finishing his last round as various potential challengers fell by the wayside, including Argentina’s Antonio Cerda, who was making a run until he took a triple bogey at the 14th hole, known as “Calamity Corner.” With Cerda out of contention, Faulkner claimed the prize that he had sought since he was a teen.
In the previous two Opens, Faulkner had finished four strokes behind Locke. This time, he’d bested his idol by eight strokes, a bit of symmetrical mathematics that Faulkner appreciated.
The purse for the Open was £300, but equipment manufacturer Dunlop matched the prize money, rewarding Faulkner for his loyalty to the brand.
There wasn’t much time for celebration of his Open triumph. Faulkner had to return to England the next day to take part in a father-son cricket match at his son’s school.
Faulkner continued playing top-level golf, although he never seriously challenged for the Open title again. No other British golfer would win the Claret Jug until Tony Jacklin in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Faulkner is one of the few to win the three British “majors”: the 1951 Open, 1951 Dunlop Masters and 1953 British PGA Matchplay. He won 19 tournaments in the British Isles and continental Europe, winning his last at age 52, and toured Asia, Australia and New Zealand in the winter. He played very little in the U.S.
Faulkner played in more than 250 exhibitions, raising money for cancer research. In later years, into his 80s, he regularly played nines holes daily, carrying his own bag with only seven clubs: two drivers, a 5-wood, a 6-iron, a 9-iron, niblick and putter. Max could still count on his ability to make the shot required with whatever clubs he had.
In 2001, on the 50th anniversary of his Open victory, Faulkner appeared on the Honours List, awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, for services to golf. He should be remembered as a fascinating individual and expert golfer, especially next week at Royal Portrush.
John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org