Golf: Farewell to a knight of the fairway

Bruce Critchley says Bonallack can enjoy his well-earned rest
Click to follow
The Independent Online
KNIGHTHOODS ARE NOT quite what they were, mostly because those who want them badly enough - and on those grounds shouldn't have them anyway - can now often find ways of acquiring them.

But that awarded to Sir Michael Bonallack last year most certainly was not in this category. Lady Bonallack was only told of her change of status moments before she would have read it in the newspapers. More it was a case of the recipient enhancing the honour than the other way about.

Indeed, Sir Michael might almost be worthy of a Royal pair, first as undoubtedly the greatest amateur these isles produced in the second half of the 20th century and latterly as the much-respected secretary to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews - a post he leaves this week. To both endeavours he brought class, style, integrity and commitment and in both has reaped the appropriate rewards.

His competitive career ended nearly 20 years ago, five Amateur Championships being the stars in a galaxy of titles gathered over more than three decades. Now the time has come to put the baton down again; on Tuesday he hands over the reins of golf's top club job. He might have stayed through next year's Open at St Andrews but the R & A have one more task for him. On Thursday, he will drive himself into office as Captain of the Club for the year 2000, a truly fitting lap of honour.

Sir Michael has enjoyed his 16 years at the helm but there have been testing times, none more so than the square grooves issue, in the middle of his tenure. The Ping company, so long innovators in club manufacture, were, in the opinion of the game's governing bodies, overstepping the mark when they tinkered with the grooves on the club face.

Exercising the right they have had as long as golf has been played, the authorities sought to ban the clubs only to find themselves sued. "Those were a stressful couple of years," is Bonallack's understated recollection. "Not only was the club being sued for $100m, but I was personally as well. It was not a sum of money I had about me at the time."

American courts are renowned for reaching bizarre and expensive decisions and the initial legal skirmish would have taken place in the club manufacturers' back yard. Forget any potential awards, just the cost of going to war would have been prohibitive.

Slowly and with much skill, Bonallack and his team extracted themselves without the matter ever reaching court. While the clubs were never banned, they were phased out within a couple of years.

Bonallack's main task has always been to look after the status of the Open Championship. It was in good health when he took over. Arnold Palmer had breathed life back into it in the 1960s and the ebullient Keith Mackenzie, Sir Michael's predecessor, had never stopped badgering the world's best to come and play.

Bonallack's approach was more subtle. Americans have never liked things outside their control. They had invented the word "major" and it irked that one of golf's great prizes was beyond their shores. At the time Deane Beman was in charge of the US Tour and never hesitated to put on a tournament against the Open to tempt his players to stay at home. Beman, though, knew and respected Bonallack from their amateur days and it wasn't long before the new man at St Andrews was able to dismantle that particular hurdle.

Sir Michael was always the consummate amateur but has shown total professionalism these past 16 years. A shy and modest man, he has enjoyed an almost faultless spell at the top, as player and administrator. Indeed, his only possible blemish would be a recent one. You can sense the pain but no shirking of responsibility when in answer to the question, what might he have done differently, he replies: "I wish I'd cut the rough at Carnoustie."