The pearly king is dead; long live the pearly king. I was saddened to learn of the death last week of the 1951 Open champion Max Faulkner, yet it seemed fitting that as Faulkner took his place in the celestial locker-room, his spiritual or at any rate sartorial heir, Ian Poulter, joined the golfing élite by reaching the last four in the World Matchplay Championship in Carlsbad, California.
Poulter, his hair carefully arranged by a Van de Graaf generator, or possibly by dropping a plugged-in hairdryer into his bathwater, is the Faulkner de nos jours. Not that Max ever had a daft haircut, but he did contest the Open in canary-coloured plus-twos and matching shoes especially made for him by Saxone, just as Poulter took to the links of Royal Troon last summer in a pair of bespoke yet unspeakable Union Jack trousers.
The difference is that Faulkner won, and Poulter didn't. It's all very well looking like a music-hall act, but the question is, can you look like a music-hall act and carry off the big prizes? Doug Sanders, with his alarming penchant for purple, never quite managed it. The late Payne Stewart, on the other hand, did. Faulkner, waging a one-man campaign against post-war austerity, was the most conspicuously flamboyant of the lot. Almost four years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of his Open victory at Royal Portrush, I spent an afternoon with him at his beloved West Chiltington Golf Club in West Sussex. I have been conducting weekly interviews with sports personalities for more than six years now, but I can't think of anyone whose company I enjoyed as much as I did Faulkner's that day.
He was then 85, mentally as sharp as ever, but afflicted with a genetic condition called familial tremens, which caused him to shake uncontrollably. Oddly enough, he could stop the shakes by drinking beer.
I watched in fascination as the barman brought him over a pint of bitter, half of which he drank like a horse drinking water from a trough. He was then able to lift the glass quite normally. "After a pint and a half I'm cured for five hours," he growled. "Otherwise I'm wobbling like hell." His conversational style relied heavily on hells and damns and bloodies and ruddies, and political correctness was as alien to him as small green men with antennae. Having been a member of the 1957 Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team which memorably defeated the mighty Americans, he was contemptuous of the decision 20-odd years later to include Continental players.
When he heard that the team was to include three Spaniards and a German, he reportedly snorted, "Three from the Armada, and one from the bloody Luftwaffe".
The Luftwaffe, coincidentally, had been responsible for those canary plus-twos. "During the war I was in Liverpool teaching air-crew cadets," he told me, "and the bloody Nazis came over dropping bombs, so I lay down and the wind from a bomb whistled up my trouser leg and lifted me right off the ground. It did something to my ears, and I spent five days in Fazakerley Hospital.
"Every morning the nurses brought pretty flowers into the ward, and every night they took them out. It was so grey without those flowers, and I thought, 'If I ever get out of this bloody war I'm going to wear some colours'."
Of all the questions I asked the old boy that day, one seems particularly pertinent now. When eventually he reached the heavenly links, what fourball would he choose to play in for eternity? He didn't hesitate. "My father [Gus Faulkner, who had been assistant to James Braid at Walton Heath early in the 20th century], Dick Burton [the 1939 Open champion], who had the best swing I ever saw, and Hassan Hassanain, lovely fella, Egyptian, killed himself blowing up his cooker. Another bloody marvellous swing. He started playing golf in bare feet on the sand by the Cheops Pyramid, you see, so his feet never moved. Hit from his hips."
So not for Faulkner a fantasy fourball with Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead, then, I asked cheekily. I knew he loathed Snead. "Ignorant bloody chap. And Nicklaus? Never played with him and didn't bloody care to.
"In Boston one time he came down the clubhouse steps in such a bloody huff that he nearly knocked me into the flowerbed. I thought, 'Christ, you rude bastard'. That really made me cross. Because I used to enjoy my golf, you see. I used to have fun."
With Faulkner's passing, a little more of the fun has gone out of golf. I doubt whether Ian Poulter's haircut and trousers can replace it, but we'll take what laughs we can get.Reuse content