When Harry Bradshaw was undone by Lady Luck and the brilliance of Bobby Locke

Harry Bradshaw's 'shot from a bottle' at the 1949 Open Championship has been immortalised as the moment that cost him the Claret Jug. It was and it wasn't, as Brendan O'Brien finds out for our latest 'Moment In Time' offering.

When Harry Bradshaw was undone by Lady Luck and the brilliance of Bobby Locke
Harry Bradshaw

There was no rules official in the vicinity when Harry Bradshaw’s tee shot landed in the rough and amid the broken remains of what appeared to be a beer bottle on the fifth hole in the second round of the 1949 Open Championship at Royal St George’s.

There was, though, a photographer.

The snap taken at the time is a beauty, Bradshaw’s left hand leaning on his club for balance while he almost doubles over in an attempt to get a closer look at a ball nestled unapologetically in the most unusual of lies, like an egg in a nest.

It’s no surprise that he took up to 15 minutes to decide what to do next.

So we’re told, anyway.

Some of the details, like whether the bottle in question was of Irish origin, remain foggy but the most notable doubt was in the Wicklow man’s mind as he stood over the scene.

Should he deem the bottle a movable object under rule and take a ‘free’ drop, or should he play it as is?

Decisions, decisions.

He went with the latter, losing his eyes and turning his head to the side to avoid any shards as he struck bottle and ball and moved himself no more than 25 yards closer to the green. He eventually signed for a double bogey six.

“Looking back on it now I feel I could have put the championship committee in a quandary,” he told Dermot Gilleece in the book ‘Touching Greatness: Memorable Encounters with Golfing Legends’. 

There is no question now that it would qualify as a free drop but things were more ambiguous at the time. A belated, unfavourable ruling might have seen him disqualified.

It’s fascinating to look back now at the coverage at the time. The incident is mentioned in reports but relegated down the copy.

Sensationalism clearly wasn’t the done thing but then, as we will see, the British Pathé reel released on the back of the tournament supports the view that the bottle break was hardly seen as the moment which shattered his challenge.

Too much happens over 72 holes for golf to be that simple.

Bobbly Locke had pitched up in Kent as the favourite that week.

A South African who enjoyed huge success in the USA after the Second World War, he would finish on the same Open record-equalling total of 283 shots as Bradshaw after the four rounds before blowing the Irishman away in a 36-hole play-off.

That’s how close Bradshaw still came to claiming the title outright in ‘normal time’.

True, that double-bogey six on day two bled into a costly 77 but Locke had carded a seven on the opening day at the 14th and a 76 in the second round to boot and a string of turbulent holes from the 10th through to 16 in the last round actually left him in need of some magic just to stay alive.

He produced it with a superb approach to the 17th, an eight-to-ten-foot putt and then a par at the last but only after Bradshaw, already seated in the clubhouse and fielding questions from a gaggle of reporters eager to find out more about the man at the top of the leaderboard, had left the door ajar by leaving his last putt agonisingly short on the 18th.

Another roll, or maybe two depending where you read it, and the bottle would have been a quirky sidebar to the story, not the first line of his obituary and a cautionary tale for golfers that would have got another good airing had the Open gone ahead this summer back at Royal St George’s.

Only the sixth Open play-off since 1860 followed a day later but Bradshaw was outshone on a course burned close to a crisp through a hot summer.

The extra day was hot and hazy and Locke, resplendent in blue plus fours and blue cardigan, played a blinder.

The intro in the Cork Examiner described his rounds of 67 and 68 as “one of the greatest displays ever seen in Britain”. “He might be the nearest approach to a golfing machine in the world today,” said Henry Cotton. Praise indeed from a man with three Opens to his name.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went as far as to say that Bradshaw had been “slaughtered” but the kinder view was that his own efforts of 74 and 73 were no disgrace and that he had simply been undone by a man who was quoted to say that he hadn’t made a single mistake all day.

“Harry Bradshaw kept pegging away but his efforts to make an impression on the South African were about as successful as trying to move a mountain,” said the correspondent for the Glasgow Herald.

“It was a case of a skilled workman opposed to a master craftsman.” “All praise to Harry Bradshaw,” said the Pathé announcer in a reel entitled ‘Bradshaw Unlucky to Lose’, “the gallant loser, who, if the ball had run for him, would be back in Kilcroney now with the cup that he richly deserved but which instead went south with Bobby Locke.” 

Bradshaw would win his second Irish Open in Belvoir Park in Belfast later that month, edging Locke out by a single stroke, but the South African would add three more Opens to his resumé inside the next decade.

The Irishman’s shot had already come and gone.

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