Michael Bonallack, a giant figure in amateur golf both as a player and later as an administrator, died on Tuesday in St. Andrews, Scotland. He was 88.
To run down a list of Bonallack’s wins and awards is like reading a catalog of the available prizes in British amateur golf. Bonallack won the British Amateur Championship five times between 1951 and 1970. He also won the English Amateur Championship title five times and was a four-time English stroke-play champion. Twice the leading amateur in the British Open (1968, ’71), Bonallack also represented GB&I in six World Amateur Team Golf Championships, for the Eisenhower Trophy, the last three as playing Captain (1960, ’62, ’64, ’66, ’68, ’70 and ’72). In 1968 he tied for the Individual title with American Vinny Giles.
He was a member of the Walker Cup team in nine straight matches from 1957 to 1973. In 1971, he was playing captain of the home team that won the Cup at St. Andrews, the first time GB&I had lifted the trophy since 1938.
“It does not get, cannot get, any better than that,” he said.
His list of playing achievements at the amateur level is unlikely to ever be matched again, and he is arguably the best amateur golfer to represent Great Britain and Ireland.
Born in Chigwell, Essex, in 1934, Bonallack first showed an aptitude for golf on a family holiday to Devon when, at the age of 10, his parents spotted his skill while playing around on the beach. He was given membership at Chigwell Golf Club and began to receive coaching from the club pro. In 1952, Bonallack won his first significant amateur title – the British Boys.
Despite his bonafides at the amateur level, Bonallack chose to make his living working in his family coach-building business. “I didn’t think I was good enough until I was too old,” he once explained. “When I saw how good Jack Nicklaus was and compared that to how good I thought I was, there was a big difference. I thought, ‘I might starve if I turn professional.’”
Bonallack’s lifelong love affair with golf and service to the game continued past his championship years. Bonallack was chairman of the European Tour between 1976 and 1982, chairman of the Golf Foundation from 1977-1982 and president of the EGU in 1982. He was appointed Secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1983, succeeding Keith Mackenzie. As Secretary of the R&A, Bonallack helped to guide the game into the 21st Century.
He received the USGA’s Bob Jones Award for sportsmanship in 1972, the Donald Ross Award in 1991 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1971, he was awarded an OBE and, in 1998, was made a knight. In 1999. he was captain of the R&A.
Bonallack, who appeared in a wheelchair, was a guest at the opening ceremony of the 49th Walker Cup match played earlier this month at St. Andrews. In a life well lived in the game, he played simply for the love of golf. When secretary of the R&A he was once asked: “Most people play golf to escape work. What do you do to relax?”
“I play golf,” he replied without hesitation.