Mention the name Ted Ray and those in the United Kingdom of a certain age and a good memory will frown and go silent for a few seconds while they rack their brains. Wasn’t he a comedian? Did he have a radio programme called “Ray’s a Laugh?” Was he in the “Gang Show” with Bud Flanagan or the “Goon Show” with Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan? And wasn’t he host of a Saturday evening variety show on television and perhaps top of the bill at the London Palladium?
He was indeed most of those things. He was a high-end comedian who was popular in the early days of television in the UK, the 1950s and early ’60s. He had a large nose, a barking laugh, a machine-gun delivery and an irrepressible character. One son, Andrew, was an actor and another son, Robin, made a name for himself in a game on television in which the panel had to guess the title of a piece of music based on watching a pianist’s hands.
But that’s not the Ted Ray we are talking about here. We are talking golfers not comedians though sometimes golfers are comedians just as occasionally comedians can be golfers. Our Ted Ray – otherwise known by the magnificent moniker of Edward Rivers John Ray – was a professional golfer of great repute who won the 1920 U.S. Open at the Inverness Club in Toledo. Bryson DeChambeau’s triumph at Winged Foot last summer was the 100th anniversary of Ray’s victory at the Ohio golf club.
Yet our Ted Ray is barely half as well-known as three of his remarkable peers, members of the Great Triumvirate that dominated golf in the United Kingdom and the U.S. in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. You know their names: Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor who are usually referred to in that non-alphabetical order. The Great Triumvirate were to golf what the Ringling Brothers were to circuses, the Khans to squash, and the Bachs and the Beatles to classical and popular music, respectively.
Vardon won the Open Championship six times, a record still unmatched. His swing was said to be effortless and his grip on the club peerless, so much so that he is credited with inventing what is now known as the Vardon grip. That is wrong. Another player invented it; Vardon popularised it. Harry changed golfing style from trousers to the more relaxed plus fours (or plus twos as they are now known) but were known then as knickerbockers. His name survives in the U.S. being given to the player with the lowest stroke average on the PGA Tour and on the European Tour to the player leading the Race to Dubai, of what was formerly known as the Order of Merit. Vardon, furthermore, was one of the participants in the famous playoff for the 1913 U.S. Open won so sensationally by Francis Ouimet, the American amateur.
Braid, a Scot who was a founding member of the British Professional Golfers’ Association, won the Open on five occasions in the 10 years starting in 1901, a rare period of dominance. He was “tall, stooping and ruddy-complexioned … one of the wonders of the golfing world,” according to Henry Cotton, the professional golfer. Bernard Darwin, the golf writer, wrote of Braid: “I think everyone recognised in him modesty, dignity, wisdom and a deep and essential kindliness. They would also call him almost instinctively a great man.”
J.H. Taylor was born in the little seaside port of Northam, in north Devon in England’s West country near Westward Ho! links. He was the first of the triumvirate to come to prominence because he won the Open in 1894 on only his second appearance in the event – and then the next year’s Open as well. Like Braid, he won it five times in all and like Braid he was a founding member of the PGA. To quote Darwin again: J.H. Taylor was a man who “… turned a feckless company into a self-respecting and respected body of men.”
These three are golf royalty, men who between them won the Opens of Great Britain and the U.S. on 17 occasions. Ray is the fourth wheel of this wagon, the man who is overlooked. If pictures of the four of them exist, and not many do, Vardon, Braid and Taylor are immediately recognisable. Ray is the one who is not. One deduces who he is by a process of elimination. It seems odd that he should be so overlooked – or as Bill Williams called him in the title of his 2018 book on Ray, The Forgotten Man of Golf.
Like Harry Vardon, Ray was born in the Channel Island of Jersey, 14 miles from France, a little after Vardon. One might ask what was in the water at that time that two giants of the game should be born in a small place within a few years of one another and learn their golf on the Grouville Links where Harry Vardon’s brother. Tom, and the Boomer brothers (Percy and Aubrey) also learned their golf. Some golfing nursery, that. To have two world-class golfers emerging at the same time (as well as other lesser players) is reminiscent of the way that Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam – stars of Europe’s Ryder Cup teams, most of whom became world No. 1 and all but one captained their continent in the Ryder Cup – were born within 11 months of one another in five different European countries between April 1957 and March 1958.
Perhaps Ray’s life is less hymned because, although he won numerous match-play events in the United Kingdom, he won only (only!) two of the biggest events, the U.S. and British Opens. But make no mistake, he could play a bit. His record in the Open was remarkable. Every year starting in 1906 and finishing in 1914 he finished in the top ten, winning it in 1912. For years he was one of only three Britons to have won both the Open and the U.S. Open and he, too, did participate in the tumultuous U.S. Open playoff in 1913, of which more later.
What was Ray like? “A bulky, slope-shouldered man standing an inch over six feet and weighing about two hundred pounds, Ted Ray threw all of his weight and strength into his strokes,” Herbert Warren Wind, the estimable golf writer, wrote in The Story of American Golf. “He broke the rules of correct body movement right and left. He swayed on his backswing and came into the ball with a lurch, but he could get away with it because of the fundamental rhythm of his swing and the grooved arc of his clubhead. He could be wild all right … A large laissez-faire mustache gave Ray’s otherwise mild face a rather fearsome aspect. He played in a long, loose tweed jacket and a crushed felt hat, and was never seen on or off a golf course minus a pipe, usually a big Sherlock Holmes model.”
In 1913 Ray was touring the U.S. with Vardon giving exhibition matches. The tour was financed by Lord Northcliffe, who considered the publicity the two golfers generated to be good for his business interests, which included owning The Times newspaper. It was Vardon’s second such tour, Ray’s first, and it was a huge success. Bobby Jones, then a boy of 11, watched the exhibition the two men gave at Atlanta and described one of Ray’s recovery shots from behind a 40-foot-high tree as the greatest golf shot he had ever seen. Wind quotes Jones as follows: “Ray took a look at the green 170 yards away and pulled out his mashie-niblick. Then … he hit the ball harder, I believe, than I have ever seen a ball hit, knocking it down as if he would drive through to China. Up flew a divot the size of Ted’s ample foot. Up also came the ball buzzing like a partridge from the prodigious spin imparted by that tremendous wallop … ”
In September the two Englishmen interrupted their tour to compete in that year’s U.S. Open at Brookline, near Boston, where after four rounds they found themselves tied with Francis Ouimet, a tall, slim American amateur aged 20 who had a tiny boy as his caddie, the 10-year-old Eddie Lowery. They were all three tied after 54 holes and tied after 72. And there wasn’t an American golfer who wasn’t agog with excitement at seeing or hearing of Ouimet going toe-to-toe with the British golfing behemoths who had been at the top of the game for longer than Ouimet had been playing it.
In the rain of the 18-hole playoff, Ray’s long coat quickly became so wet it sagged from his body and the more the day wore on the more Ouimet realised that no matter how famous the two Englishmen were, he was their match. Vardon and Ray three-putted the 10th to give Ouimet the lead for the first time and by the 12th Ouimet had widened it to two strokes. Ray was faltering, falling four strokes behind Ouimet on the 15th, taking three more putts on the 16th and in the end going round in 78 to Vardon’s 77 and Ouimet’s 72, 1-over par.
What effect did Ouimet’s victory have on golf in the States? “It is impossible to judge if [it] … affected the spread of golf in the United States but the game grew rapidly,” Robert Sommers, the golf historian, wrote in his book The U.S. Open: Golf’s Ultimate Challenge. “In September 1913 about 350,000 Americans played golf,” Sommers continued. “Ten years later, 2 million played and by then played better than anyone else, in part because of the intervention of the First World War, which kept a generation of Britons from playing the game, and in part because of the Americans’ natural competitiveness.”
Seven years later, after the war had ended, Vardon and Ray undertook another tour of the U.S. By this time Vardon was not the man he had been. He was 50 and had spent some time in sanatoriums in England battling tuberculosis. When he played golf, he discovered he had developed what we now know as the yips on the greens. A muscle in his right forearm would vibrate so clearly it could be seen by the gallery and he had little control of the clubface when he putted. Even so, he led the U.S. Open after three rounds before his woeful putting got the better of him over his last nine holes. He finished 13th, remarkable for a man in his sixth decade.
Ray, however, was seven years younger and though the U.S. Open was the 23rd event he and Vardon had competed in since arriving in the U.S., he felt no fatigue. 1920 was to be his year. A big man, he had always been known for his powerful hitting and on one hole in particular he demonstrated this most forcibly. The 320-yard seventh was a dogleg around a scrubby ravine and in all four rounds Ray cut the corner with a massive drive. In the last round he birdied the hole and the more the round wore on the more he closed on Vardon and the more Jock Hutchison, a Scot who had moved to the U.S., and Leo Diegel, the American professional, closed on him. As Vardon faltered Ray took over the lead, held off Hutchison and Diegel and, at 43, became the oldest man ever to win the Open until Ray Floyd, who was a few months older, eclipsed him in 1986. Ray played in the event once more, in 1927, but was not a contender.
Ray’s victory, which resounded throughout the world of golf, was significant for another reason, too. That U.S. Open marked a significant change in attitude towards the professionals. They were no longer regarded as being socially inferior and were allowed into the clubhouse to change their shoes and eat. A little later, Walter Hagen led a delegation of his fellow professionals in presenting the club with a tall chiming clock. It has a brass plaque attached to it that reads:
God measures men by what they are
Not by what they in wealth possess
This vibrant message chimes afar
The voice of Inverness.
In 1927 when Abe Mitchell – the captain of the Great Britain and Ireland team in the first Ryder Cup match against the U.S. held at the Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts – was taken ill, Ray, already on the team, was made captain. As GB&I were walloped 2½-9½ it could be said that he set the template against playing captains.
In 1912, Ray had become the professional at Oxhey Golf Club, 21 miles north of London, marking the opening of the club with a match against Vardon. He was a fine clubmaker specialising in producing drivers, mashies and niblicks. He retired in 1940 and died on 26th August 1943.
Top: Ted Ray after winning the 1920 U.S. Open (Photo: Edwin Levick, USGA Museum)
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