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Oxford’s golfing greats
T he game of golf has come a long way from its well-documented origins on the Scottish links. But there is also the rather less well-known history of Oxford University golf to be discovered.
It is a history populated by such illustrious names as J H Taylor, five-time winner of the Open; Cyril Tolley, a golfing matinee idol of his day, chaired through the streets of Oxford; and Roger Wethered who announced he could not contest a play-off for the Open because he had promised to play cricket. It is a tale which encapsulates the social changes and class divisions that characterised England in the early part of the 20th century.
John Henry Taylor (1871-1963) was, with Harry Vardon and James Braid, one of the famous triumvirate of golfers who dominated the British game between 1890 and the Great War.
Taylor was the first English professional to win the Open and triumphed five times in all, his last victory being by a handsome eight shots at Lytham in 1913, as the Great War loomed on the horizon. He was also the unlucky runner-up four years running, 1904-1907.
In 1908, Taylor was commissioned to design a state-of-the-art new 18-hole course at Frilford Heath, a few miles south-west of Oxford. Frilford now has 54 holes and the original Taylor-designed holes are split between the Green and Red courses. For the grand opening in April ,1909, Taylor played a 36-hole challenge match against the mercurial Vardon.
By this date, the Oxford University Golf Club was well-established and had been playing matches against their Cambridge counterparts since 1878, the oldest fixture in amateur golf. But facilities for golf around Oxford were “mixed” and the handful of interested students often found themselves playing on the marshiest part of Cowley Marsh and a patch of land near Hinksey.
Almost as soon as Taylor’s course was complete, Frilford became the golf course of choice for Oxford’s more affluent undergraduates and dons, and there were special membership deals to appeal to students who would only be in Oxford for half the year.
One of these was Cyril Tolley (1895-1978) who came up to University College in 1919 at the age of 24, long after leaving Westminster School. He had already been awarded the MC during service in the Royal Tank Corps for leading his tank on foot during the battle of Cambrai.
Liddell Hart called Cambrai “one of the landmarks in the history of warfare, the dawn of a new epoch” as it demonstrated, at last, how the Hindenburg line could be penetrated, although it might have been more safely done from inside the tank. Tolley himself was taken prisoner and forced to sit out the rest of the action.
Coming up to Oxford five years later than he might have done, Tolley wasted little time in making his mark on the place, quite literally if a report in Time Magazine (September 29, 1924) is to be believed: “Since he first hove into the public eye, Tolley has been touted as a merry, garrulous, quip-cracking links-wit. Tales are told of his Oxford days when, in postprandial exuberance, he would harangue a blithe gathering in his rooms upon his years of study at the science of propelling a spheroid. He would then tee a ball on the carpet and drive it smashing through a closet panel.
“Another feat was to loft balls from the lawn of University College to the sward of Queen's College over the walls and across the High. A servant would then call at Queens, asking politely: “Mr. Tolley’s compliments to the gentlemen of Queens and might he have his golf balls back?”
If a jigger would have sufficed to reach the pristine lawns of Queen’s, I imagine a full mashie niblick would have been needed to interrupt the reveries of All Soul’s.
In appearance and playing style, Tolley seems to have been the Lee Westwood of his day. After skipping lectures and dusting off his playing skills at Frilford, he entered for the British Amateur Championship of 1920 at Muirfield.
Today the Amateur is a bit of a sideshow, but in 1920 it was one of the most prestigious of all sporting events. In typically swashbuckling style, Tolley made it through to the 36-hole final against the experienced American, Robert Gardner.
But the chain-smoking English underdog in the tweed plus-fours and old school tie triumphed with a long putt at the first play-off hole.
Tolley’s Muirfield triumph is eloquently described in Some Batsmen and Bowlers (1920-1940) (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1943) by R C Robertson-Glasgow, the John Arlott of his day: “Everyone that evening in the streets of Oxford seemed to be reading the stop press as each breathless edition came out. Tolley sent false news of his time of return but the men of University College met every train, and, making their kill at last, removed a horse and dragged the champion round the city in an ancient victoria.”
Among that triumphal crew you would probably have found the former senior tutor himself, A S L (Spencer) Farquharson, one of the great characters of the college in the early decades of the 20th century. Farky, as he was known to one and all, had got to know Taylor in the dark years of the war as the latter’s autobiography, Golf: My Life’s Work (Jonathan Cape, also 1943), indicates: “It was during the first Great War that I first made the acquaintance of Spencer Farquharson, one time Senior Tutor, now Emeritus Fellow of University College, when he occasionally snatched a few hours’ respite from the War Office by playing a few holes at Mid-Surrey [where Taylor was the professional]. Our acquaintance ripened into friendship and it was my privilege to stay with him at Univ., where my unsuspected reverence for the academic way of life revealed itself in that ancient Hall.
“Discussion on the widest range of topics alternated with the pleasantest games at Frilford, often under the lively eyes of the octogenarian Dr. [Reginald] Macan, then Master of University [1906-1923]. My host extracted the utmost pleasure from the theory and practice of the game and experienced all the ups and downs that only the golfer knows. To play a cut-up spoon shot exactly on the pattern of my precept and example would. fill him with the acutest, albeit outwardly restrained, delight, and the fluffing of a short pitch would so mortify his spirit as to suggest a very junior undergrad before the Senior Proctor.”
Taylor was neither scholar nor gentleman, having left school at 11 and started his golf career as a caddie at Westward Ho in north Devon, but his friendship with Farky was to have a considerable influence on his later life. Taylor would probably have been aware of the prodigious talents of the young Tolley and may well have influenced his choice of college or indeed his chances of admission! As the new Amateur Open champion, he would have had little trouble convincing the Master that a few divots in the front quad was a small price to play for the college’s post-war sporting prestige.
But Tolley was not the only golfing phenomenon to be up at Oxford at this time.
His good friend and rival, Roger Wethered (1899-1983) pitched up at Christ Church shortly after being demobbed from the Royal Artillery and divided his time between reading English (he had been home-schooled as a child) and playing Tolley at Frilford.
Wethered entered the Open of 1921 at St Andrews a few days after Finals and, but for standing on his own ball on the 14th green of the final round, would probably have been the only British amateur to win it since the nineteenth century. Instead he tied with the American, Jock Hutchinson.
The rules stipulated a 36-hole play-off the next day but Wethered said sorry, there was an important cricket match he had promised to play in! In the end he was persuaded to contest the play-off but was well beaten and finished runner-up. I have been unable to ascertain whether his cricket team lost as well.
Tolley and Wethered were perhaps the last gentleman amateurs to compete on reasonably even terms with the new generation of American professionals who began to dominate the world of golf in the 1920s.
Tolley won the French Open twice and repeated his Amateur Open success in 1929. One of his matchplay jousts with the great Bobby Jones was regarded by the American as the hardest of his career until Tolley found himself stymied on the final green.
Each year, his performance in the Open itself was a match for most professionals and in 1924 at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) he found himself leading the field after the first round.
J H Taylor had won the last of his five Opens at this venue in 1913 but the 50-something Devonian still had a few shots in his locker and held a share of the lead after the second round. Taylor’s chance finally disappeared in the final holes of the fourth round – he finished fifth and Tolley 18th. There is wonderful Pathé footage of the event on the opengolf website.
Although they were arguably the two finest English golfers of the post-war period, competed against each other on a regular basis and each was associated with Univ, there is little evidence that Taylor and Tolley were close friends.
Their social backgrounds were utterly different and the doughty doyen of the English game would no doubt have had mixed feelings about his young rival with a flapper on either arm, a cigar in his mouth and a casual mastery of the game. Taylor was known for his methodical accuracy but Tolley espoused different virtues in The Modern Golfer (Collins, 1924): Far better to take a risk and fail, make a herculean recovery, and then try to hole the putt, than to go on mechanically playing a dull, uneventful game.
There was a generation gap too and by 1924, Taylor had big plans for his own son, also christened John Henry but usually called ‘Jack’. J H Taylor Jr was also a keen golfer but, unlike his father, his academic talents were also encouraged.
Now that Tolley had graduated, University College was perhaps in need of a new sporting superstar so young Taylor was granted a place to read English in 1925. His father wasted few opportunities to visit his son. In Golf: My Life’s Work he wrote: “It is pleasant to recall the occasions when I went to Oxford with my team of professionals to play the Varsity team at Southfield. The idea of such a match was put into my head by my son who was up at Univ. from 1925 to 1928 and a member of the Varsity team in each of those years. Rather I should say he transmitted the idea, for it had emanated from the Rev. C. R. Carter and Sir John Miles, president and vice-president of the Oxford University Golf Club for 1925-26. As bait it was promised that we should be heartily welcomed, allocated to and put up at the various colleges to which the members of the Oxford side belonged, and generally fussed over. (, p. 204) Young Jack played in the varsity matches of 1926, 1927 and 1928, losing to Cambridge on all three occasions, much to the chagrin of his father. Jack found it difficult to play his best golf with his father watching and it was becoming clear that he was not a future Bobby Jones himself.
But his father was far from disappointed, as he reveals at the end of the chapter following a lengthy tribute to his friend, Farky: “I surmise that [Farquharson] derived the greatest satisfaction from winning, in partnership with my son, the University foursomes competition, in which each college is represented by a graduate and an undergraduate. When I point out that the final was successfully contested against Raymond Oppenheimer and Mr. J. G. Barrington Ward, representing Christ Church, the measure of Mr. Farquharson’s achievement can be assessed, as he was not a low handicap player. As befitting a scholar he was sagacious in his mental approach to the game; consonant with his nationality he was pertinacious in his application, treating the game with the utmost seriousness, by which he won my wholehearted approbation. To his kindness I owe in large measure my connection with university life and some of my proudest moments. When my son was elected President of the Junior Common Room at Univ., not the winning of any of my five Open Championships pleased me more.”
Not many fathers get the chance to choose between the two!
Still a formidable golfer, J H Taylor Snr captained the British team to victory in the Ryder Cup of 1933, the only captain never to have played in the event himself.
Young Jack Taylor, meanwhile, fulfilled his duties as Univ JCR President with aplomb and gained an Upper Second (possibly thanks to the tutoring of one C.S. Lewis) before forsaking competitive golf and enjoying a distinguished career as an educationalist.
He was headmaster of Buckhurst Hill County High School, Essex, from 1938 until his retirement in 1966. The school also adopted Univ’s colours of dark blue and gold and sent many of its star pupils to Univ.
It was to Farky that Jack turned for the school motto of Donata Reponere Laeti (Rejoice to Repay), words taken from the seventh chapter of Book 1 of the Epistles of Horace.
Buckhurst Hill “was my father’s great love and his life’s achievement”, according to his son – yes, you’ve guessed it – J.H. Taylor III.