British Open: 1951 Royal Portrush champion Max Faulkner brought flair, color to game


It’s hard to think of a more colorful British Open champion than Max Faulkner, the 1951 Champion Golfer of the Year at Royal Portrush. In an age of drab, Faulkner stood out from the crowd in more ways than one.

Faulkner has retained the title as the only player to hoist the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland for 68 years. It’s hard to imagine this year’s winner having the Englishman’s joie de vivre.

Born in Bexhill-on-Sea in 1916, Faulkner served in the RAF in World War II. He decided to wear bright colors after spending time in a Liverpool hospital with a perforated eardrum.

“Every morning the nurses brought pretty flowers into the ward, and every night they took them out,” Faulkner was quoted to have said in his obituaries. “It was so gray without those flowers. I thought, if I ever get out of this bloody war I’m going to wear some colors.”

He remained true to his word, specializing in pink shoes, salmon socks, lilac trousers – anything to brighten things up.

Faulkner, who died in 2005 at age 88, got away with his outrageous attire because he never took himself or the game too seriously. “I always larked about,” Faulkner told this writer in a 1988 interview for Today’s Golfer. “I used to talk to the members as I was going around the course. I’d play trick shots for them. I used to tell them the shot I was going to play and then play it for them. Even in tournaments.”

His devil-may-care attitude was obvious when he once lost a match to Welshman Dai Rees at Carnoustie despite being 5 up after eight holes. That’s when he decided to walk to the next tee on his hands.

“I could walk on my hands because I’d been a PE enthusiast. What a fool! Of course, I sliced the next shot. I hadn’t done it for years, since the war. My arms and shoulders ached. I couldn’t hit a ball after that. I’d torn all my muscles.

“I lost, of course. I’d have won if I hadn’t done that, but there I was larking around, walking across the green on my hands. Stupid sod I was. Well, wasn’t I? Bloody stupid thing to do!”

Max Faulkner holds the Claret Jug after winning the 1951 British Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club. (Bob Thomas Sports Photography/Getty Images)

Faulkner’s need to shake things up partly came from finding the game so simple that he got bored easily.

“I found the game so easy that I never had to practice. I never gave swinging a golf club a thought. I just hit it hard, flat out.”

He went flat out at Royal Portrush in 1951.

The final two rounds of the Open were played on a Saturday in those days.

Faulkner began the day with a six-shot lead. He had no intention of larking about, though. Not with the biggest prize in golf  on the line. In fact, Faulkner ensured he’d have full focus over the final 36 holes.

“I asked Frank Stranahan if he would mind not talking to me during the last two rounds,” Faulkner said. “He chatted a lot, you see. I took him aside the night before and I said, ‘Look, I don’t mind playing with you, but would you mind not talking to me tomorrow?’

Natural storyteller loved the attention

“I walked onto the first tee the next morning and I said, ‘Good morning, Frank.’ And he never even answered me.”

Stranahan stayed schtum until Faulkner played the shot that could have cost him the championship. Leading by four playing the 16th hole in Round 3, Faulkner’s tee shot ended up inches from an out-of-bounds fence. A chip back onto the fairway seemed the obvious choice, but Faulkner pulled his 3-wood, hit the ball over the out-of-bounds line and drew it back onto the green.

“Stranahan walked over and shook me by the hand and said, ‘That’s the finest shot I’ve ever seen.’ And he never said another word.”

What did that Open victory mean to Faulkner’s career?

“Everything, it made me,” he said. “I made £11,500 that year. In those days it was a fortune.”

Faulkner would finish no better than T-9 (1957 and 1965) at later Opens. Asked why he never contended again, Faulkner answered, “What the hell would I want to win it twice for?”

A natural storyteller who loved being the center of attention, Faulkner would climb onto tables during dinner to entertain. He once did it during a Ryder Cup. Everyone laughed on that occasion except U.S. captain Ben Hogan.

Faulkner played on five Ryder Cup teams, including the victorious 1957 GB&I side, and won 13 European tournaments, including three Spanish Opens and the 1968 Portuguese Open at age 52.

He lived out his days at West Chiltington Golf Club in West Sussex until his death. He owned the course with his son-in-law Brian Barnes, who defeated Jack Nicklaus twice in singles play during the 1975 Ryder Cup.

Faulkner didn’t play much in his later years. He preferred fishing. Oh, and ridding West Chiltington of every greenkeeper’s nightmare.

“I’m the mole catcher,” Faulkner once said. “I’ve caught loads of them. Someone who was out walking the course recognized me one day when I was dressed in my mole-catching outfit, and he thought I’d fallen on hard times. He said, ‘You’ve come down a long way.’ He was going to give me
a fiver. He said, ‘Here, buy yourself a drink.’

“I said, ‘You silly sod – I own this bloody course!’”

Herbert Gustavus Max Faulkner, 1951 Champion Golfer of the Year. He was one of a kind.  Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the July 2019 issue of Golfweek.

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