Saturday 23 September 2017

Treated to taste of high life for act of sportsmanship that kept opponent's pride intact

When the match was over, the Duke invited Davies to join him for tea, as you would to a new golfing friend. (Stock Photo: Getty)
When the match was over, the Duke invited Davies to join him for tea, as you would to a new golfing friend. (Stock Photo: Getty)

Dermot Gilleece

They had a media day at Oakmont last week to flag the latest staging of the US Open there. Which launched me on a typical golfing journey of rivalry, friendship and fascinating escapades, prompted by one of the leading collectors of player autographs on this island.

On June 17, 1962, at a time when the blue riband of American golf finished on a Saturday, the leading sports page of the Chicago Sunday Tribune carried the headline 'Nicklaus ties Palmer in Open at 283'. Later that day, the embryonic Bear would go on to win an 18-hole play-off by three strokes, to become, at 22, the event's youngest champion since Bobby Jones, 39 years previously.

Tucked in an inside page of that same newspaper was a story that 31-year-old Richard Davies had become the 13th American winner of the British Amateur Championship at Hoylake. Born in Pasadena, the grandson of a Welsh miner, he beat a native Welshman, John Povall, by one hole in the final.

This was the same Davies who lost to Ireland's David Sheahan on the second day of the 1963 Walker Cup at Turnberry. But I was to learn a lot more about the handsome real-estate broker through correspondence from Philip Donald, an irrepressible golf enthusiast from Belfast.

For reasons he couldn't recall, Donald decided in 1980 that he would like to have Palmer's autograph, which became something of a problem given that the great man made only infrequent appearances in the Majors at that stage. "I needed an address and some US stamps so I could send a stamped-addressed envelope for the reply," he later informed me. "A colleague on holiday in the US brought me the stamps and purely by chance, I found a 'Who's Who in America' in our local library.

"Within 10 minutes, I had addresses for Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. I wrote to them all and to my amazement and pleasure, I had five replies a month later. Thus, a collection was born."

His albums later contained signatures, letters, signed photographs and signed first-day covers, together with signed books from the winners of more than 250 Majors by men and women, professional and amateur.

"The ladies generally responded by saying they were flattered to be included in such a collection," he added. "My earliest winner is Joyce Wethered, who thanked me for reminding her of a pleasant visit to Portrush where she captured the British Ladies of 1924. Her great rival of the 1920s, Glenna Collett-Vare, died the week I wrote to her but her brother subsequently sent me one of her cancelled cheques, a sure way of knowing the signature is genuine."

In his quest of champions, Donald made contact with Davies during the 1990s and received a reply which began: "I am in receipt of your welcome letter and request, same having been forwarded to me from my brother Arthur in Olympia, Washington. I am assuming you obtained this address from the office of the Masters in Augusta [where Davies played four times, from 1963 to 1966]. The postmark indicating thus."

The American, who claimed to be a great admirer of Joe Carr and Christy O'Connor Snr, then proceeded to inform Donald about remarkable events which followed the 1954 British Amateur at Muirfield, where he lost in the quarter-finals to the eventual winner, Doug Bachli of Australia. A week previously, he had seen Babe Zaharias win the British Women's at Gullane.

The Davies story actually began two years earlier still, in Phoenix, Arizona where he met the notorious British playboy, John de Forest, in the semi-finals of a high-stakes amateur tournament. "I could have crushed him," he recalled. "He was eight down on the front side but I relented, not wishing a guest from abroad to go home with a 9 and 8 loss, particularly knowing that he was British Amateur champion in 1932."

De Forest had also become famous for his exploits at the US Masters where, after hitting his approach at the 13th into the extension of Rae's Creek, made the embarrassing mistake of taking off the wrong shoe and sock before placing one foot in the hazard.

In the event, Davies coasted on the back nine in Phoenix, allowing his opponent to escape with a face-saving, 3 and 2 defeat. "He thanked me afterwards for being a good sport and we became friends," said the American. So it was that two years later, when Davies was travelling steerage, flat broke, on a circuitous route home from Muirfield, fate intervened on the boat train from Italy to France.

"A voice called down to me from the first-class section," he went on. "It was John who insisted I join him, while ordering a lavish meal and wine to boot. And he introduced me to his wife, a Spanish contessa. John de Forest was now Count John de Bendern. Spanish nobility no less."

But that was only the start of it. On their arrival in Paris, the count invited Davies to join him in a game of golf at St Germain. There, he was met by former Walker Cup representative, Harry Bentley, driving a car from his father's famous company, naturally.

Davies, who had to wait patiently for Count de Bendern at St Germain in the company of a female French caddie, took up the story: "Finally, as I was looking the other way, some heels clicked behind me and John introduced me to my golfing partner for the round . . . HRH Prince of Wales . . . Edward . . . Duke of Windsor. I thought I might wet my pants."

On the first hole, measuring little more than 300 yards, Davies drove the green with a three wood and had a two-putt birdie from 10 feet. "Good half, nice four," said the Duke, who was apparently more interested in the female caddies than his partner's golf.

When the match was over, the Duke invited Davies to join him for tea, as you would to a new golfing friend. This, however, entailed going to the car park where his butler, in tails, was waiting in a 1948 Buick.

"He brought out this big silver tray with a silver teapot and fine china and silverware; prepared the tea and stepped aside. The Prince and the pauper sat down and had tea. And I told him about my deceased grandmother, Elizabeth Victoria Thomas Jones, and the Welsh coal-mining village of her birth. And how, in her kitchen in Pasadena, she always had on her wall, a picture of George VI, his younger brother. The prince and myself became fast friends."

And all because Davies had shown competitive kindness to a fellow golfer.

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