Sir Michael Bonallack will be remembered for many things but not, perhaps, for his swing. “Big wide stance, nose sniffing the ball, short, jabby swing, but all the putts went into the hole,” the late Peter Alliss told me once. “He had the most wonderful temperament. He appeared calm, and yet he had the steely something that all great champions have.”
The “something” that Alliss referenced was a calmness that was striking. He must have become agitated on occasions because he was human, but he managed to suppress any feelings of anger or even concern. This inscrutability stood him in good stead in his daily life and was an important weapon in his armoury as a golfer. When playing against him, opponents had difficulty in reading his facial expressions, his body language. This gave them little or nothing off which to feed.
By character, Bonallack, who died Tuesday at age 88, was naturally quiet. He was not a spellbinding conversationalist, able to hold a room with jokes or stories. His late wife, Angela, was much better at that. “Angela was rarely stuck for a word, with something of a natural leaning towards exaggeration in her story-telling,” Donald Steel wrote in “Par Excellence,” his biography of Bonallack. “She also had an engaging way of twisting the meaning of words such as when she referred to Robert’s spell in ‘the stimulator’ as an airline pilot as opposed to ‘simulator.’ She even claimed after a medical check-up to be recovering from her “autopsy” and once referred to an incubator as an incerator.”
One listened to Michael Bonallack because of what he had achieved as a player and then as one of the game’s leading administrators, not because of any sparkling humour in the way he spoke. It is often said that a garrulous person is helpful to pass the time while waiting for a bus. Michael was the opposite. With him, there could be silences, and to some these silences seemed reproachful, which was far from the case.
“Michael was not obviously very good. You would play him and be surprised to find that you had been beaten. A purist could take his swing apart, but he was the most astonishing recovery player and putter. … He knew that you knew that he knew he was going to beat you.” – Bruce Critchley
I recall two important occasions when his calmness might have been tested rather more than usual. The first was at the post-match dinner after Great Britain and Ireland had won the 1989 Walker Cup at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia. Midway through the meal, a person, or maybe two, came into the room and approached Michael. “Are you Michael Bonallack?” one asked, and upon hearing the answer did all the legal manoeuvres and spoke the legal jargon required when serving a writ on someone. It was the start of the square grooves dispute between Ping and the game’s two governing bodies that racked the game for some years. Bonallack – as secretary of the R&A, which in those days governed the game worldwide except in the US and Mexico, as well as being secretary of the club at St Andrews – was a defendant. If I hadn’t been sitting near Bonallack, I would not have known what had taken place. “I stuffed the writ in my pocket and thought to myself, I’ll have a look at this in the morning,” Bonallack said later.
Earlier I had seen him standing in front of a scoreboard during the second day’s singles. For once the man who rarely showed emotion was showing emotion. He was pale, and kept looking up at the scoreboard and then lowering his head to read his own scoresheet. GB&I had started the day with a three-point lead and widened it to six points after the morning foursomes. A famous first victory in the US was on the cards. Bonallack, who had played in nine of these matches, was the playing captain of the victorious 1971 GB&I team at St Andrews. Few things were closer to his heart than to be present when GB&I won away from home.
The scoreboard listed the matches vertically, with GB&I first and further across the scoreboard to the right, the US. The scorers had put the state of each match alongside the names of the US players so that at a quick glance it looked as though the US were up in every match. No wonder Bonallack looked pale. A second glance revealed that whilst numerous matches were close and some indeed had almost been lost, GB&I still held a lead. Slowly the colour returned to Bonallack’s complexion.
“Michael was not obviously very good,” said Bruce Critchley, the former Walker Cup player turned television commentator and a member of the 1969 Walker Cup team captained by Bonallack. “You would play him and be surprised to find that you had been beaten. A purist could take his swing apart, but he was the most astonishing recovery player and putter.”
An example of these powers came in the final of the 1968 English Amateur at Ganton when he beat David Kelly, 12 and 11, playing his first 18 holes in an approximate 61 with two putts conceded and holing every putt inside 12 feet. “He had the hoodoo sign on everyone,” Critchley said. “He knew that you knew that he knew he was going to beat you.”
It is hard to explain to those who didn’t know Bonallack (or had not seen him play) how good he was. He dominated golf in Britain in the 1960s, winning the Amateur on his five appearances in the final, in 1961, 1965, 1968, 1969 and 1970. He also won the English Amateur five times and the English Stroke Play, aka the Brabazon Trophy, on four occasions. He was the leading amateur at two Open Championships, in 1968 and 1971. His best finish was 11th in 1959, his first of 13 Open appearances.
I have only a vague recollection of seeing him in action competitively, but I did get a close-up of his style and his personality in February 1989 when we played the left-hand-version course of the Old Course on the one day in a decade when that was possible. The Opens of 1873, 1876, 1879 and 1882 were all played this way ’round, as was the 1886 Amateur. Then the authorities ruled that the course was getting worn out, so they ordained that play should be over the right-hand course, and this quickly became accepted as the medal course.
You learn a lot from a game of golf with a person. Note the age of their golf clubs and their condition. Observe the size of their golf bag, how smartly-dressed they are, how quickly they play, how much they talk, the age and cleanliness of their golf shoes. These are revealing of a person’s character and values, and they were almost as accurate with Bonallack as would be his DNA. Long before 1998 when he was knighted for his outstanding services to golf, he looked like a knight and carried himself like a knight. He certainly did not have any airs and graces above his station. Modesty was his watchword.
On that wintry day, he arrived on the first tee wearing a battered sweater with a hole near the collar and carrying his 30-year-old clubs in a slim bag. The image could only have been improved if he’d had a dog – a chocolate Labrador or a golden retriever perhaps – ambling alongside him. He stuck his tee into the grass and said with characteristic understatement and brevity: “This is going to be interesting.” The man who knew the course backwards was about to play it backwards.
After being born in Chigwell, Essex, in the south of England on the last day of 1934, and spending a part of his working life in the family business making the bodywork for lorries, he moved north to St Andrews to become secretary of the R&A in 1983 and felt as much as home there as anywhere in the world. “If I had to play one course for the rest of my life, this would be it,” he told me as we criss-crossed our way around the famous fairways and greens of the Old Course. “It presents many different challenges. It is different every time I play it.”
For nearly 20 years Bonallack worked in the secretary’s first-floor office of the clubhouse and enjoyed one of the best views in golf, out toward the Swilcan Burn, the first green, 17th green, the second tee and on and on. A pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod stood outside his office, and with these he could pick out the markings of aeroplanes on the runway at RAF Leuchars a few miles to the northwest across the Eden estuary.
Bonallack was what is now known as an old-style amateur. He had to work for a living, fitting his competitive golf around his job. His secret was that he was able to practise at lunchtime. He would leave his workplace in Basildon, Essex, and drive to Thorndon Park Golf Club, hit balls for 45 minutes, grab a pint of beer and a sandwich and be back at his desk a little over an hour after leaving it.
For years I would see Michael at the Masters each April, if nowhere else. He would be in his blazer, a baseball cap on his head and probably a stopwatch around his neck for the purposes of timing players, while working in his capacity as a referee. He usually would be in the passenger seat of a buggy, and I often thought how appropriate that was. Michael was born to be driven.
Whether or not he was a master of the rules, he knew the spirit of the game. Having played good golf for so long, he knew every trick a player might use to take advantage of the rules. And when he was making a tricky ruling, his bulk, his brevity and his standing in the game were as useful to him as a sand wedge in a bunker. No player – not even Seve Ballesteros, who was pretty adept at trying to do so – could pull the wool over Michael’s eyes as Seve discovered to his cost one year.
Having hit a drive to the left on the plunging 10th hole at Augusta National, Ballesteros found his ball in a lie from which he wanted relief on some grounds or other. Ken Green, the American with whom Ballesteros was playing, demurred and Ballesteros, unaccustomed to not being granted his request, called for a second opinion. Minutes later Bonallack arrived on the scene. Pausing only long enough to glance at the ball, he said firmly, “Play it,” before turning on his heel and walking back up the hill toward the clubhouse.
Throughout his career, Angela (née Ward), his wife, was a formidable support. Prone to playing tricks on friends and guests with a whoopee cushion, she was the yin to his yang, the ebullience to his solemnity. “If Michael had been employed mending fences on one of the Scottish islands, I would have gone with him,” she is quoted as saying in Steel’s book. She died in July 2022.
I think it was at the 1998 US Open that a story about his knighthood began to do the rounds. Having been sworn to secrecy for several weeks about his impending honour as Knight Bachelor, Bonallack chose to break the news to Angela on the day before they left for the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“As from tomorrow, you’re not going to be ‘Mrs Bonallack’ anymore,” he announced at the breakfast table.
“Who is she, and do I know her?” was Angela’s understandably fiery response.
“No, you don’t, and don’t be silly,” Bonallack said. “You’re going to be ‘Lady Bonallack.’”
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