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How England's Henry Cotton Captivated a Country, Captured the 1934 British Open

Eleven years had passed since the British Open had a home-grown champion. A confident and charismatic Cotton delivered in record-breaking fashion.
After finally winning the British Open in 1934, Henry Cotton won again in 1937 and 1948. 

After finally winning the British Open in 1934, Henry Cotton won again in 1937 and 1948. 

Royal St. George’s Golf Club is hosting the British Open for the 15th time in what has become an exciting event over a docile, if not quirky, links course. It will be difficult, though, to top the excitement surrounding the Open at Royal St. George’s in 1934.

The British were looking for a home-bred player to win their national championship. No British golfer had won the Open since Arthur Havers in 1923. In the intervening years it was won by Americans — Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones, each three times, and Jim Barnes, Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen and Denny Schute.

Henry Cotton was said to be the best British golfer and Cotton agreed, but there was the elusive Open title haunting him.

Born in 1907 to a middle-class family, Cotton was athletic, played some golf and excelled at cricket, but dropped out of school at age 15. At the time in Great Britain, school was only mandatory through age 14.

Cotton set his sights on golf and turned professional. He took lessons from J.H. Taylor, a five-time British Open winner, to hone his game. He held two assistant professional positions at clubs in England before he became head professional at age 19 at Langley Park Golf Club. He won the Kent Professional Championship five times in succession (1926-1930), the Dunlop Southport Tournament twice and the British PGA Matchplay Championship (also referred to as the News of the World Tournament after the newspaper that put up the prize money).

Cotton believed that strong hands, forearms and fingers were the key to a powerful game, so he practiced hitting golf balls from high rough for hours until his hands bled to build strength. In his pocket he carried a squash ball that he squeezed in spare moments to build up his hand strength. He traveled with a bar, which could be inserted in a doorway to do pull-ups. His favorite fitness activity? Using a two-man crosscut saw to cut logs. Of course, that required another person on the other side of the saw, usually an assistant or a caddie who also got a workout. Cotton also followed various health-food diets.

In 1932, Cotton left Langley Park and took a head professional position at the Royal Waterloo Golf Club outside Brussels, Belgium. Two years later, Cotton won the Belgium Open, but he had his sights set on the British Open. He had finished in the top 10 of the British Open five times, but no win and never closer than seventh place (1933).

“My attempt to win the Open always started from the moment the preceding one was over,” Cotton said, “and I kept setting my target 12 months ahead to achieve a certain result on a certain course. I suppose this obsession to win the greatest title of them all made it all the more difficult for me, but it was foremost in my mind for years.”

The 1934 Open was scheduled for the last week of June. Cotton travelled across the channel and arrived at Sandwich for what was a grueling week — several days of practice rounds, followed by 36 holes of qualifying. There were no exemptions, so one qualifying round was played at Royal St. George’s and the second just down the coast at Royal Cinque Ports in Deal. 

Once qualified, there were two days of 18-hole play followed by 36 holes on the final day. The event ran from Monday through Friday so professional contestants could be back at their club for work on Saturday. 

On the first day of qualifying, Cotton was on his game. Bernard Darwin, golf correspondent for The (London) Times, reported, “Cotton proceeded to play such golf as had never been seen on the links. … He had no hole over par; he had no hole over 4; and it may fairly be said that he made no bad or even poor shots. He was constantly putting for 3s when he got 4s and he made the game look almost laughably easy.”

Cotton returned a card of 66, two strokes better than the Royal St. George’s course record, which had stood for 20 years. Everyone marveled at Cotton’s round, but the press wondered if this round was too much too soon. After all, it was the first day of qualifying, not the main event.

The next day, in Cotton’s qualifying round at Royal Cinque Ports, a course with which Cotton was unfamiliar, he turned in a respectable 75 to easily qualifying for the championship proper.

In the British Open’s first round, Cotton was in good form and was out in 31. Cotton played the back nine in level fours for a 67, tying the Open Championship low score set by Walter Hagen at Muirfield in 1929.

There was a large gallery for Cotton’s second round. The fairways weren’t roped off as they are today, and the crowds followed in the fairway. Cotton hired a forecaddie to wait down each fairway, rush over to where the ball landed and guard the ball to make sure no one stepped on it or accidentally kicked it.

Each day as Cotton played, he gave a wave — uncharacteristic of him — to a solitary figure atop the hill at the sixth hole who was observing play. The figure was there on the second round as Cotton was making his way around, playing near perfect golf, and Cotton glanced up and waved. All was well.

Then at the 8th hole Cotton’s shot to the par 3 plugged in the face of “Hades Bunker,” which guarded the green. Links bunkers were not manicured, they were just left in their natural state including tufts of seagrass one of which was right in front of Cotton’s buried ball. This was the sort of situation that could change a round’s momentum, something the press would point to as where the tide turned on Cotton.

After taking his stance in the sand a foot below the plugged ball, Cotton used his strong hands and forearms to throw the clubhead into the sand under the ball which cleared the lip and rolled across the green. Cotton made a four, and the day was saved. His card only had threes and fours on it, and he finished the round with three consecutive threes. Cotton was round in 65, breaking his earlier course record of 66 in qualifying. After two rounds, Cotton led the field by nine shots.

On Friday, the day of the final two rounds, there was a violent hail storm, which left standing water on the course. Cotton played round three in 72, and actually gained a shot on the field. The tournament was over, all Cotton had to do was play the last round reasonably well and he would have the title and the Claret Jug.

When Cotton came to the first tee for the final round, the starter explained there would be a 15-minute delay to help the stewards control the crowds.

“I went and sat in an empty tent by the first tee, where my closer friends talked to my well-wishers, keeping them away from me,” Cotton explained. “Those 15 minutes dragged by; I was waiting to see my life’s ambition realized and I was powerless to get on with it. … This anxiety proved more than my delicate stomach could stand and I had a terrible stomach cramp. I could hardly stand up. I must have looked pretty ill, for I could hear the comments of the crowd on my ‘green’ colour as I teed up, there was nothing to do but play and get on with it.”

Cotton hit a short drive off the tee. His long game was off and instead of splitting the fairways, he found the rough. At the 6th, the solitary figure to whom Cotton gave a wave each day was not present. Cotton stumbled to a 40 on the outward nine. He started the second nine poorly, dropping more shots to the field. On the 13th, his ball plugged in a bunker. Again, it looked like the make-or-break point for Cotton.

Cotton rose to the task, executed a brilliant shot from the bunker, played the last four holes in 1-over par and was in with a 79 and a four-round 283 total, enough to win the Open by five strokes over South African Sid Brews. The elusive Open title was his at last.

At the time, there were few scores under 70 in the Open and Cotton’s 65 in the second round was considered a marvel. It was so impressive that Dunlop, Cotton's golf ball manufacturer, named its new rubber core ball the Dunlop 65. It was an Open record for low round until 1992 and his 36-hole score of 132 stood as a record until 1993. Cotton was now the Open Champion, and his name would stand at the top of British golfers, further cemented by two other Open Championship wins in 1937 and 1948.

After the presentation ceremonies, Cotton took the Claret Jug to the Guilford Hotel to find the man who had watched him each day at the sixth hole, who was too ill to venture from the hotel for the last round, who had been a mentor to Cotton — Harry Vardon, the six-time winner of the British Open. 

The Jug would not travel across the Atlantic to America this year, it would stay in British hands. The two held the Claret Jug and both men wept. 

More Final-Round British Open Coverage From Morning Read:

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- Bryson DeChambeau Caps Humbling Week With Final-Round 65
- Final Purse, Payouts for 2021 British Open
- How Henry Cotton Captivated England at 1934 Open at Royal St. George's