Richard Burton… Golf Champ!

Many of the world’s leading golfers will assemble at Royal Troon on the Ayshire coast in July hoping to win the Open Championship and hold aloft the coveted claret jug. It’s the stuff golfing dreams are made of.

The prize money is incidental. The old jug is what it’s all about. It’s THE trophy. Their efforts over four days will be televised in almost every country in the world. Their drives will be analysed and their putts scrutinized by a knowledgeable battery of television pundits on the course, and millions of golf addicts in clubhouses and bars scattered in almost every part of the world.

The roll call of previous winners reads like a golfing Valhalla. Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer (twice a winner), Jack Nicklaus, (three times), Tom Watson (a joint record five wins), Tiger Woods (three), Lee Trevino (two) all travelled from the United States to win golf ’s most prestigious prize. Spain is represented by three times winner Seve Ballesteros, South Africa by Gary Player, Ernie Els and Bobby Locke (four times a winner). Australian winners include Peter Thomson (five) and Greg Norman while our homegrown champions feature Henry Cotton, Tony Jacklin, Sandy Lyle, three times champion Nick Faldo and the most recent Brit-Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland who will be attempting to repeat his 2014 victory at Hoylake.

But the man who held the claret jug the longest was a Lancashire lad; Richard Burton, a former cotton mill weaver from workaday Darwen. Such are the rewards of international golf these days that the winner, if he’s not already a multi-millionaire, will become one overnight.

Things were somewhat different in 1939 when Dick Burton won on the Old Course at St Andrew’s, the Royal and Ancient’s hallowed headquarters. After rounds of 70-72 and 77 he posted a ‘birdie’ on the 18th in a final round of 71 to win by two strokes.

His prize money was a mere £100. This year’s champion will pocket almost £1,000,000.

In Burton’s heyday there was no TV coverage and sponsorship was practically unknown. Burton was certainly the most unfortunate winner for a few weeks after he lifted the claret jug Britain was lunged into the Second World War and he was denied the chance to cash in on his achievement. During the war years The Open was suspended and the fairways at St Andrew’s were commandeered as runways by the RAF.

Instead of being feted as the Open champion, Burton was called up by the RAF but he held the trophy for seven years until the Open was resumed in 1946, again at St Andrew’s. With his application form to the Royal and Ancient, Burton wrote: “Please find enclosed my entrance fee of five guineas for this year’s Open. I will bring the trophy when I come.”

He finished twelfth in 1946. The enormous financial gulf between 1946 and this year’s competition is graphically illustrated by the experience of Sam Snead, the 1946 winner. After paying his fares from America he was out of pocket. The man who clutches the claret jug for Press photos this July will pocket £975,000 out of a total prize fund of £5,400,000.

Burton was the professional at Sale Golf Club when he won the Open before moving to Coombe Hill, Kingston, Surrey. He was a member of the British Ryder Cup teams in 1935, 1937 and 1949.

His 1939 triumph often crops up in sports quizzes as a trick question about golf. ‘Who held the Open title the longest?’

He became interested in playing golf after earning pocket money as a caddie at Darwen’s picturesque Winter Hill course. Golf was his relaxation when he was a four-loom weaver at the town’s Cobden cotton mill.

Modest Dick Burton, the successful weaver of his boyhood dreams, died in 1974.


Written by – Darwen born – Alan Whittaker, a former Fleet Street journalist.

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