It will probably be agreed," huffed British Golf Writer Henry Longhurst in London's Sunday Times, "that this picture plumbs depths of lunacy unparalleled in the history of sport." What had roused Henry, and British golf followers in general, was the sight of their esteemed Ryder Cup captain, Harry Weetman, eying some Scottish golfers hiding behind Halloween masks.
The disguises were partly a publicity gag—they made newspaper headlines—and partly serious. The golfers had assembled to be tested by Weetman for a unique "golf circus," which is designed to develop British golf professionals capable of beating Americans and, specifically, of beating them in the biennial Ryder Cup matches. Since some of the masked men were youthful assistant golf pros not anxious to let their bosses know they were out job hunting and others were amateurs whose attempt to try out for a pro subsidy could endanger their amateur standing, the use of the masks—while bizarre—was not totally absurd.
Defeating the Americans is getting to be a passion with the British and, if their methods are becoming strange, they can hardly be rebuked for trying something new. Not in 14 years has a native son been able to win the British Open, and only once in 30 years have the British won the Ryder Cup.
As a consequence, two British businessmen have been separately engaged in seeking out promising golfers and helping with their development. Until recently, the best known was Ernest Butten, owner of a management consultant firm in Kent. He took four players, dubbed "Butten Boys," and provided them with a noted teacher, a diet and even dashing white-and-blue uniforms. His approach was thoroughly serious, but apparently he wanted too much too soon, for the group broke up. "Butten was terribly hard on his players," a British golf expert says.
This left the get-the-cup field to a 36-year-old ex-clerk, Alfred Wilkinson, founder of the so-called golf circus and the man who hands out masks. If Ernest Butten's approach was disciplinarian, Wilkinson's is freewheeling cockney. He was born in London's tough East End and worked for an accounting company until some property investments "put a few shillings in the bank." He is bespectacled, pasty-faced, brown-eyed and says, "I've been told that I look like a contented cow but I'm a nasty cup of tea when I'm upset."
Wilkinson started to play golf about two years ago, and almost immediately began sponsoring pros by paying their tournament expenses and even giving them salaries, which he doles out in clubhouses. In return, he receives 50% of any winnings. So far he has spent more than $50,000 and gotten only a pittance back. Nor have his efforts made him popular. Officials tend to shudder when his name comes up, and Brigadier Eric Brickman, D.S.O., doughty secretary of the Royal and Ancient, says he would "rather not mention it at all." The prevailing impression is that Wilkinson has simply bought his way into the golf establishment. "One thing is certain," says a British golf authority. "He would never have been invited in."
Wilkinson's answer to all this has been to hire Weetman as the manager of his project, back him up with a well-known Scottish professional, Bill Hector, and enlarge his circus. "I'm usually upsetting somebody," he says. "I thought I might as well upset a few golfers for a change."
It was to increase his eight-man stable that Wilkinson arranged a two-day try-out near Glasgow. It was a sensible place to go. Golf is the national sport of Scotland, and the country abounds in young boys who can play par golf, but never seem to get anywhere. One of the peculiarities of modern golf is the fact that Scotland has produced so few champions from such a huge potential.
If it was encouragement that was lacking, the young Scots received some with the arrival of Wilkinson. Thirty-six of them turned up at the 5,815-yard Clydebank and District Golf Club to show Weetman their talents. "Some were amateurs of 16 and 17, and they couldn't bust a grape," says Wilkinson. "As soon as they hit the ball—good day."
Finally, 12, including two amateurs, were offered contracts that would enable them to compete in six tournaments with all expenses paid. They would also get the periodic coaching that Weetman gives all of Wilkinson's players. If and when they show satisfactory progress they will receive a retainer. "It's got to be run on a businesslike basis," explains Wilkinson. "For Nelly's sake, I don't know whether I've got some world champions or scrubbers. Everybody thinks I'm stone crazy, but all I want to do is to see the Ryder Cup in our country, so the Americans can look at it when they visit us. Now you've got it straight from the shoulder—that's my ambition. It's just a challenge, that's all. I tell you, if we win it, and one of my boys is on the team, I will get a replica of the Ryder Cup made and send it to America with a note: "Here you are. Have a look at the copy. We've got the original, Jack.'
"Let's face it, boy, if anybody does anything in this country, they're up in arms against you. You're going to get your head chopped off. So I thought. 'Right, son, I'm going to get my head chopped off.' I think they might take my passport away when I go up to Scotland again, don't you? They might put me in a prison. Or they might pat me on the back, but it will be with a chopper in their hand. What do some of these old fogies know, boy? They're dead from the neck up. You wait a couple of months and you'll see that we've signed some of the best. The masks will come off. Can you imagine it? They're going to be sick.
"The English people are slow to rouse. Now I've begun it. I know for a fact there will be another sponsor setting up pretty soon. It's a start, boy. We're on the way."
So there it is. The Lavender Hill Mob, the Great Train Robbery and now the Huge Cup Caper.