Character Number Eleven

And then there was John Thorburn.

I lived five miles west of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire in a village called Ailsworth and Milton Ferry is about halfway between Ailsworth and Peterborough.  Milton is where a golf course was built on the estate of Earl Fitzwilliam in the late thirties.  In 1941, when I was 14 years old, I and my next-door friend Alan Francia cycled up to the course to see if we might find golf balls.  We left our bikes in the parking lot and cautiously crept along what we later found out was the first fairway.  We had not gone far when we were accosted by an aged, sun-tanned man with a strange accent.  He turned out to be John Thorburn the acting pro. 

The real pro was Archie Thorburn, a young Scottish pro who had been hired in 1939.  His father, who was a well-known pro and club-maker came from a large club-making and golf pro family in Peebles and around the North Berwick golf community in Scotland had volunteered in his retirement to act as club-maker and caddy master for his son.  When war broke out in 1939, it was not long before Archie the son volunteered for the Royal Air Force at which time, the club put John the father on the pay-roll as the club professional. It was he who had caught us tress-passing.  When we nervously approached him, we found him to be an extremely nice man who was proud to show us his work-shop.  He asked us if we would like to be caddies and earn money, saying the club needed caddies on week-day afternoons and week-ends.  He said he would teach us what to do and where to stand as well as the overall etiquette of the game.

This is how I became a caddy and very soon I became the favorite caddy of Dr. Jack Hunt, a very successful Peterborough lawyer.  He enjoyed practicing on week-days and played matches at the week-ends.  There was no practice ground in those days so he hit drives from the first tee and iron shots from just in front of the tee.  With a bag of 30 to 40 balls, my job was to pick them all up and to repair the divot area.  On some days Dr. Hunt would rest on his shooting-stick and let me hit a few balls.  With his coaching it was how I became a golfer for seventy more years, retiring from the game at 84 years of age.

While waiting for a chance to caddy, John Thorburn showed me how to glue wooden shafts into the persimmon heads and bind the joint with twine.  I also learned how to shape and sand the rough heads that he bought and how to paint and varnish them.  He showed me how the put his name proudly on each wooden club.  He first smeared it with oil and then hit a special autograph die hard to make an indentation of his autograph into the club head.  He then rubbed a gold-flake paste into the autograph and wiped off the excess on the oily head.  This showed his name in gold letters.  He explained that club making would soon be extinct as manufacturers were selling pre-made clubs.  He fitted hickory shafts into iron heads and predicted that steel shafts would never be popular.  Over the time I was learning this, I had been given odd clubs, all wood-shafted and I learned how to look after them.  It was a long time before I ever had a matched set of irons.  When I did, it was a set of Bobby Locke irons that Dr. Hunt gave me because they had aluminum shafts and he did not like them.  This was at a time, during the war when steel could only be used for industrial war needs.  I loved those clubs and used them for years.  Eventually I cut the shafts short and our two boys had half a set each.

In September 1941 there was a Spitfire fund-raising exhibition golf match between Henry Cotton and the South African, Bobby Locke.  At the time, Cotton had won the British Open twice, 1934 and 1937.  (He would win again in 1948), He also played in four Ryder Cups and was captain in 1947 and 1953.  He shot the first 65 in golf during the 1934 Open and the Dunlop company commemorated it by creating the Dunlop 65 ball that has been dominant in golf ever since.

Bobby Locke had won the South African Open nine times and was low amateur in the British Open in 1936 he would later win the Open three times, 1950, 1952 and 1957  in the US, he played in 59 events, winning 11 and coming in the top three for 30 events.

In the exhibition match, Alan Francia and I carried the small bags for the two amateurs and two club members caddied with the giant bags for the pros. Cotton and Locke hardly spoke a word to each other during the round.  Alan and I got paid three times our normal fee and the pros never paid their caddies.

Getting back to John Thorburn,  John told me so much about golf in Scotland in the old days and got me loving golf.  The game has served me well over the seventy years I played and I owe him a great deal for that first love.  I believe he had a lot to do with PMGC staying alive in the war years and it is nice that his and his sons Thorburn name is still associated with the sixth hole on the course.  John Thorburn died in 1942 without ever knowing his son, Archie would be killed four months later.

One thought on “Character Number Eleven

  1. My first woods were persimmons….except they had a lads’s name om them….Patty Berg, I believe.

    Your start as a caddie reminds me of Caddyshack, I’m sure a movie you could n’t watch from start to finish, but Bill Murray sure was funny in it!

    Happy Birthday to your wife and my Mom…April 7!


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