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 JOHN HOPKINS
 Last Shot

Bidding the fondest of farewells

His was a full life and active life and most of all a long one. He was born in January 1911 and when he died at the grand old age of 102, he had lived through two world wars, the reign of four monarchs and 24 prime ministers. To put it in a sporting context, he was born before Francis Ouimet defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 US Open, not long after Wales beat the All Blacks in Cardiff in 1905.

He was a sportsman from the top of his bald head to the soles of his shoes, a distance of a little over 6 feet when he stood up straight. When I say sportsman, I don’t mean someone who hunts, shoots and fishes. I mean he was a man to whom sport mattered. He played it, he followed it, cared about it and read about it at least as much as he scoured the financial pages for some advice that would help him in his lifelong search for the shares that only went up. At his death two flags were lowered in his memory – at Stinchcombe Hill golf club in Gloucestershire where he had been a member for 50 years, and at Tredegar RFC in South Wales, where he had been born.

Golf was not his first love but it ran rugby close. He was good at rugby, being tall, lean and fast and he played on the wing for Tredegar County School – and sometimes in the same position for Tredegar RFC in the afternoon. He often talked of the day when the players on both sides in a particular match got so fed up with the referee that they threw him into a nearby canal. He told of a time when he was sent off for foul play (he always maintained it was a case of mistaken identity) and how he played on under the pseudonym of A.N. Other.

He never forgot to follow Tredegar in the Sunday papers. Tredegar was then and remained so until his death the most important club in the world, and woe betide me if he couldn’t find their results from the previous day’s game in the Sunday Times, for which I wrote then. “How did Tredegar get on, boy” he would ask anxiously. “How did Tredegar do?”

He played a lot of golf down the years, taking customers for a day’s outing to Frilford Heath. He loved Nefyn in North Wales, where he played most days in August, and Minchinhampton, a few miles from where he lived in Gloucestershire. He happily drove south to Burnham and Berrow and north to Royal St David’s. He talked about Royal Porthcawl with affection because it was there that he and his best man had played in the 1930s and had to walk in from the 13th because they had run out of balls.

Golf fascinated him, giving him a lifelong pursuit of the impossible. It raised his hopes for the way a depressing series of bad shots could be followed by one of such skill and satisfaction that it would send him chattering with excitement to the next tee. And he devoured Henry Longhurst’s golf articles on a Sunday morning.

But the course he really loved was Stinchcombe Hill, where he had been captain in the 1950s. His four-gabled house in sturdy Cotswold stone overlooked the first hole and if he could have been given £1 for every time he had rolled back the doors of his garage and wheeled his clubs across to the opening hole, then he would have been significantly richer than he was. Five hundred times? That is only ten times a year for half a century. More like 1,000; possibly 1500.

While in Gloucester hospital recently recovering from a broken hip, he often talked or rather rambled about golf. “I think I’ll go and hit some balls at Stinch tomorrow” he said one day as his catheter glugged away just beneath his bed, and his thin right wrist had a drip attached to it. On another occasion I asked him which for his favourite hole at Stinchcombe Hill. “The 5th” he replied. For those of you who don’t know, and there may be one or two, that is the par-four with the tumbling slope down to Waterly Bottom on the left and a green resting on a ledge at the end. “I had a three there once.”

He had a pronounced in-to-out swing, which according to conventional golf wisdom should have resulted in him tending to hook the ball. Not so. Somehow he always managed to get the clubhead square at impact. His failing was a tendency to raise his body so that if you saw him from a distance he could look like a horse rearing at some distraction on the ground in front of it. He putted with a closed stance, a la Bobby Locke, hooking his ball into the hole. He got down to a handicap of seven and I dare say he was never prouder than when he went round Stinchcombe Hill, a par 68, in a gross 71. His handicap at the time was 12.

Jack Grout, the famous golf professional, was Jack Nicklaus’s golf teacher. Nicklaus would visit his teacher at the start of most years for a good tune-up. When Grout died, Nicklaus wrote a moving tribute entitled “Farewell Jack Grout, my mentor and my friend.”

When the man about whom I have been writing died peacefully and painlessly in his own bed in his own house overlooking a luscious Gloucestershire valley, I thought to myself: “Farewell Taid, my teacher, my friend and, much more importantly, my father.”

 

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 






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