A Prince becomes captain
People ask "Why not Royal Walton Heath"
(An extract from the club's centenary history - Heather & Heaven)
Sir Emsley Carr made a spectacular start to his six-year reign. In May 1935, within minutes of being made chairman, he announced that the Prince of Wales had agreed to become the Club's captain. The members recognised this not only as an honour but as a hint that under the new regime things were going to change. In 32 years under proprietorial control Walton Heath Golf Club had never had a captain, only a chairman.
Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and even later Duke of Windsor) had first played golf at 13, but his sporting passions were steeplechasing and hunting. When his mother, Queen Mary, urged him at least to give up steeplechasing to reduce the risk of accidents and permit him more time to help his recently ill father, George V, he ‘reluctantly abandoned the one pursuit that gave outlay to my competitive spirit... and for relaxation I turned increasingly to golf.'
In 1921 Riddell had arranged to have the Prince and his brother the Duke of York (later King George VI) elected honorary members. ‘He accepts the invitation with pleasure,' stated a letter on the Prince's behalf from St. James's Palace. Another, from Buckingham Palace, said that the Duke of York ‘gladly accepts the privilege, which he hopes to avail himself of as often as he can.' The Duke once played tennis at Wimbledon but was less keen on golf than his brother, for whom it became a lifetime obsession.
It has been said that Edward first came to the club after an equerry had asked Bernard Darwin's advice about a teacher who might improve the Prince's game. Darwin said he knew just the man, a teacher well qualified but also patient and tactful - James Braid. Helped by the champion, Edward got down into single figures. Not least of the club's treasures is the letter handwritten by him in 1930 and accompanied by a scorecard:
I am very pleased with this card and hope you are. I was very unlucky at the last hole, as a good second with a spoon pitched in the rough just a few inches over the green, and with the chance of breaking 80 I couldn't stand the nerve strain and fluffed the chip and took two puts (sic). But it was great fun and I only wish you had been playing round with me. Will phone you one day soon and we must have another game.
Royalty on the Walton Heath courses became almost a routine sight. The Duke of Gloucester came to play, Prince Arthur of Connaught became a member and on one day at least an illustrious foursome was on view, the Duke of York and Braid losing two and one to the Prince of Wales and the Argentinian Jose Jurado. That was in 1931, the year Jurado lost the Open by a stroke.
Jo Bryant, looking back 70-odd years, remembered coming across the brothers playing when she was out riding on the course. ‘No-one took special notice of them, they were just like ordinary members,' she told me.
‘The Prince was quite a pal,' said Phyl Foster, characterful pillar of the ladies' club. ‘He would land his plane near a big house owned by some friends of ours behind the school at Kingswood, opposite the church. One day he was expected but didn't come - he'd disappeared with Mrs Simpson!'
The villagers basked in reflected glory, agog at reports that he might live in the area, but he went off to Fort Belvedere at Sunningdale and residents who had envisaged the loss of servants, gardeners, peace and quiet breathed again.
In 1933 Prince Edward, for the second year running, reached the last four of the Parliamentary Handicap. His semi-final was to be played at Walton and his adversary was Lady Astor, first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. There were whispers that she had bribed her quarter-final opponent with a fiver to lose so that she could ensure playing the heir to the throne - later reported as ‘a disreputable story' in the Parliamentary Golfing Society's history but as a fact by Bill Deedes in The Daily Telegraph.
Depending on which report you trust, the Prince played off 11 and conceded her ladyship seven strokes or was off 12 and conceded six. He was perturbed by the big crowd of spectators who had arrived to watch what was supposed to be a secret, while she, finding herself in the lead, had pangs of guilt and apprehension at the thought of beating the future king.
In the event no such treason was committed. Lady Astor, one or two up at the turn, again depending on whose report you read, ultimately lost by two and one. The Prince then lost in the final at Coombe Hill to George (later Viscount) Lambert.
Two years later Sir Emsley approached him about the captaincy, first in a private conversation and then, on May 11, in a suitably proud and dutiful letter:
As chairman of Walton Heath Golf Club (he was anticipating his election by a couple of days!) I desire to present my humble duty to Your Royal Highness and beg to inform you that it is the unanimous wish of my colleagues that Your Royal Highness should do the Club the great honour of being its captain for the ensuing year.
The Club, as you may know, has been called ‘the St Andrews of the South,' not only because it was originally laid out by Mr. Herbert Fowler on the lines of that great course but because of the great tradition it has established since its formation. As the home of the Parliamentary Golfers it occupies a unique position in the golfing world, a position which will be still further enhanced when, by becoming its first captain, Your Royal Highness will bestow upon it your invaluable and exalted patronage.
A reply came back rapidly from St. James's Palace to the Carrs' home, Wonford:
The Prince of Wales wishes me to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 11th instant. His Royal Highness wishes me to say that he will be very pleased to become the first captain of the Walton Heath Golf Club.
The letter was signed ‘P.W.Legh, Equerry' - surely The Hon. Piers Legh who was a member of the club!
Not only did the Prince accept the captaincy, he also presented a trophy for annual competition - the Edward Prince of Wales's Challenge Cup, still played for today on the New course as a match-play event between 16 qualifiers from a handicap stableford. Fittingly, the first winner was Harry Braid, and HRH sent his congratulations, saying that he was particularly pleased in view of his high regard for James.
The rest of the story is inextricably bound with monarchal history. In January 1936, eight months into his year of captaincy, Edward was proclaimed King on the death of his father. Thus Walton Heath had a reigning monarch as captain - an honour almost but not quite unique.
In December that year Edward abdicated the throne and was succeeded by his brother, who in May 1937 was crowned George VI. Even before his coronation the new king, via a letter from the keeper of the privy purse, granted the club his patronage. ‘Patron His Most Gracious Majesty The King' are the first words in the 1937-8 rule book and membership list.
Ever since then, on and off, the question has been asked, ‘Why isn't it Royal Walton Heath?' More than 60 clubs are or have been ‘Royal.' You could find them in Africa, Australia, Canada, India, Malta, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere. If we can have Royal Perth, Royal Dornoch, Royal Dublin, Royal Jersey, Royal Cromer, Royal Mid-Surrey and all the rest, why not Royal Walton? The Royal and Ancient Golfer's Handbook has stated:
The right to the designation Royal is bestowed by the favour of the Sovereign or a member of the Royal house. In most cases the title is granted along with bestowal of royal patronage on the club.
Let us put matters into perspective. Edward Prince of Wales was at some time captain of many clubs - by 1936 the Press were listing a dozen of them. Neither was Braid his only teacher and friend: in the 'thirties he studied under Archie Compston and in the early 'twenties had got to know Taylor at Mid-Surrey. Indeed, that club, through its centenary history,3 has laid claims to have been the Prince's ‘home' course. For all that, the story of Walton's royal connections is hugely impressive, so, again, why not ‘Royal'? Since Riddell's ill-timed and abortive request in 1911, captains and committee men have several times considered applying for a fitting and happy ending to that story.
In 1977, I am assured, captain Sir Patrick Macrory told his committee that the accolade might be arranged through a suitable contact, but his suggestion brought a somewhat negative reaction (‘We've been plain Walton Heath for years, we don't need any change now,' seemed to be the majority view, apparently). In 1991 the committee considered applying and the letters from the palaces accepting membership for the prince and duke were needed. Embarrassingly, they had gone missing. They were found in the cellar several months later. In January 1995, on David Barber's suggestion, the board agreed that the matter should again be explored, but three months later, by which time secretary James had circulated details of how they might go about it, a decision was deferred.
There is no evidence of an approach in the 'thirties, when the royal connection was so close and topical. Were Carr and his men inhibited by knowledge of the 1911 rebuff or by the fact that Walton Heath was still not, in the fullest sense, a members' club? If those were problems why would George VI grant his patronage? Did the abdication and perceived tainting of Edward's character affect the issue? Did the passing of time make any approach to the Palace seem an anachronism?
Walton Heath has been outstandingly ‘royal' - in character even if not in name.