The incredible story of the only Portrush Open champ

Max Faulkner

Herbert Gustavus Max Faulkner – ‘Max’ for short – was many things to many people.

To some, he was a brash eccentric, whose penchant for wearing bright clothing on the course was inspired by the fresh flowers that lit up the grey, miserable hospital ward where he spent time recovering from a perforated ear drum during World War 2.

To others, he was a bold innovator and one of the first golfers to treat physical fitness and diet as importantly as hitting balls on the range. It is said he even spent one winter milking cows to strengthen his hands for the following season. He was a straight-talker, the owner of more than 300 putters (many made by him) and, of course, a prolific winner.

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He has also been the answer to one of golf’s great quiz questions: Who is the only golfer to have won The Open outside of England or Scotland?

Faulkner’s victory at Royal Portrush in 1951 remains the sole occasion a golfer has claimed golf’s oldest event outwith Great Britain.

Despite twice being an Irish Open runner-up at the same venue, Faulkner wasn’t one of the pre-event favourites. Rather, the man to beat was South African Bobby Locke, bidding to become only the fourth player to win The Open in three successive years.

Max Faulkner 2

Fred Daly, the 1947 ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’, was also heavily fancied, not least because he was born and raised in Portrush. Dick Burton also had experience of lifting the Claret Jug, whilst a young Australian by the name of Peter Thomson was being touted for a bright future.

Even so, Faulkner came into the championship in good form and fresh from impressive finishes in his two previous Open appearances. He had shared the 54-hole lead at Royal St George’s in 1949 before a final round 74 dropped him into a share of sixth. He went one better the following year, finishing in a tie for fifth at Troon.

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An unfortunate date clash with the US PGA at Oakmont resulted in a poor American turnout at Royal Portrush. Even so, the R&A put up a then record prize fund of £1,700, with the winner to pocket £300 (approximately £10,000 in today’s money).

Having successfully negotiated the 36-hole qualifier earlier in the week, Faulkner opened his title bid with a one-under 71 to sit three off the lead.

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The second round saw Faulkner hit the front, a splendid 70 giving him a two-shot advantage over fellow Englishman Norman Sutton at the halfway stage.

The final two rounds were both scheduled for Friday, July 6: one in the morning, one in the afternoon. By lunchtime, Faulkner had one hand on the Claret Jug after a second successive 70 helped him establish a six-shot lead over his nearest challengers, Sutton and Antonio Cerdá.

Max Faulkner 3

Rumour has it that, between rounds, Faulkner was signing an autograph for a young boy when the child’s father asked that he add the words: “Open Champion” because, as he put it, “You are going win, aren’t you?” True to form, Faulkner did as he as was asked.

Imagine the father’s horror, then, when Faulkner finished 5-5-4-5 to post his highest round of the week – a two-over 74. That allowed Cerdá, the only player on the course with a legitimate chance of catching the long-time leader, the opportunity to draw level. He had gone out in 34 and arrived at the 16th needing to play the last three holes in 12 shots to force a play-off.

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Alas, his challenge ended when his drive on the 16th ended up against some steps straddling a barbed wire fence and he made a six. He ultimately finished two shots behind Faulkner, who became the first Englishman to win The Open since Dick Burton in 1939 and the last until Tony Jacklin in 1969.

A renowned ball-striker, Faulkner’s victory owed as much to his dominance of the slick greens of Royal Portrush as it did his crisp iron play. Shortly before making the trip to Northern Ireland, he had acquired a new putter with a pencil-slim shaft and a steel head. He loved the club and it loved him, particularly that week. Of the 285 shots he needed, only 102 were putts – an average of 25.5 per round. 

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Some time later, he reflected on what the win meant to him. “It was all I ever wanted,” he said. “The Open meant everything to me. When I was handed the trophy, I looked at the names on it - Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Henry Cotton - and thought: ‘Wow!’”

Max Faulkner And Lee Trevino

By his own admission, the victory also drained his competitive will.

He said: “I remember I had a putt at the second hole of the first round at Lytham the following year, from about four feet, which I missed. My immediate thought was: ‘That’s it, I’ll never win the Open again’.”

And he never did. The closest he came was in 1957, when he finished in a tie for ninth at St Andrews.

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However, his legacy endures. He won 16 times around Europe and featured on five Ryder Cup teams. He also set up one of the first coaching schemes for aspiring professionals and mentored the likes of Brian Barnes and Tommy Horton. His philanthropic work was tireless, too, raising huge sums for charity.

He returned to Royal Portrush in 1995, where he watched Barnes, by now his son-in-law, win the Senior British Open. In 2001, Faulkner was recognised for his services to golf with an OBE.

He passed away in February 2005 at the age of 88.

• THIS FEATURE FIRST APPEARED IN ISSUE 172 OF BUNKERED

Cover 172 Bunk

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