Sir Michael Bonallack, who has died aged 88, was one of the finest amateur golfers Britain has ever known, winning the Amateur Championship five times and playing in nine Walker Cups; he went on to become a senior administrator and oversee the Royal & Ancient, the game’s ruling body, for 15 years, ushering the sport towards the increasingly money-obsessed 21st century and ensuring that all the funds coming in were ploughed back.
Michael Francis Bonallack was born into Cornish stock in Chigwell, Essex, on New Year’s Eve 1934, the son of Sir Richard Bonallack, an enthusiastic golfer, and Evelyn, who played off a 12 handicap. He attended Haileybury College in Hertfordshire, where he was a sporting all-rounder, opening the bowling for them in a schools match at Lords.
But by then he had already acquired a passion for golf after playing on the beach with his brother on holiday in North Devon aged 10. Their sister Sally would also become an accomplished player, winning the English Ladies Championship in 1968 and spending three years as a professional.
Young Michael developed his game under the watchful eye of Bert Hodson, head professional at the local golf club, and in 1950 he won the Essex Boys Championship, retaining his title the following year.
In 1952 he went national, winning the Boys Amateur Championship at Formby in 1952 on the first extra hole. Leonard Crawley of The Daily Telegraph liked what he saw, noting: “He putts with innocent confidence and amazing accuracy ... Indeed, it was his putting that carried him through round after round to final victory.”
Michael subsequently joined Thorpe Hall Golf Club, near Southend, and remained there for the rest of his career. A tight, tree-lined course with small greens, it helped to turn him into a straight hitter with an outstanding short game.
Achieving a scratch handicap at 16, he rapidly became a commanding presence on the amateur circuit. He did his National Service as a lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps and won the Army Championship in 1955. He then joined the family coach-building firm, rising to director before joining a financial services company.
In 1959 he played in his first Walker Cup (which pits American amateurs against their British and Irish counterparts). That year he also had his best result at the Open Championship at Muirfield, tying for 11th place.
The previous year he had married Angela Ward, and they formed amateur golf’s most successful power couple. She had been the British Girls champion and would twice win the English Women’s Amateur Championship, as well as representing Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup against the US.
Though he would have been an undoubted success in the paid ranks, especially with his masterful putting, Bonallack chose to remain amateur.
“I didn’t think I was good enough until I was too old,” he insisted. “When I saw how good Jack Nicklaus was, there was a big difference. I thought, ‘I might starve if I turn professional.’”
In 1961 he won his first Amateur Championship, walloping the Scotsman James Walker 6 & 4 (six holes up with four to play) at Royal Porthcawl near Swansea.
In the 1960s and 1970s Bonallack was easily Britain’s finest amateur. He twice won the Silver Medal awarded to the best amateur at the Open, in 1968 at Carnoustie and in 1971 at Royal Birkdale.
He won the Amateur Championship three years in a row between 1968 and 1970 (at Troon, Hoylake and Newcastle, Co Down), but his personal favourite of his Amateur victories was at Porthcawl in 1965, when he came back from six holes down after 12 holes of a 36-hole final against Clive Clark.
By the lunchtime break he had pulled the margin back to three holes. Back in the clubhouse, he recalled, “just to pass the time I started sticking sixpences into the fruit machine. On about the fifth pull I won the jackpot. I made sure Clive knew about it. ‘Must be my lucky day,’ I told him.” He went on to win 2 & 1.
Besides his five Amateur Championship victories and his nine Walker Cups, Bonallack’s other career highlights included five wins in the English Championship and four in the Brabazon Trophy (the national amateur strokeplay championship).
While eight of his Walker Cup appearances ended in defeat at the hands of the US, in his last tournament, as playing captain in 1971 on the Old Course at St Andrews, he led the British and Irish to victory for the first time since 1938. “It does not get, cannot get, any better than that,” he said.
After retiring from competitive golf, Bonallack joined a company designing and building courses and began his career as an administrator. He was named chairman of the European Tour and the Professional Golfers’ Association, then in 1984 he was appointed Secretary of the R&A, moving up to “HQ” at St Andrews.
As the game became increasingly commercial, he was on hand to steer a smooth course, maximising television income, increasing the number of tournaments and maintaining a calm but firm presence – as in 1997, when proposals to lengthen the holes of the Old Course at St Andrews were criticised by some of the players.
Seve Ballesteros demanded that the course be treated as “a national monument”. Bonallack countered by claiming that the Spanish maestro would probably not even notice the changes. And in any case, he said, “If you accept his argument the course would be played off the same tees as in 1873.”
Mark McCormack, the chairman of International Management Group (whose first clients had been golf’s great triumvirate of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player) was full of praise for Bonallack’s stewardship. “He’s bridged the gap between the history and heritage of the Open Championship and golf in general as it moved into the commercial age, and he’s done it with great taste and tact.”
Bonallack was guided throughout by his passion for the game. He was once asked: “Most people play golf to escape work. What do you do to relax?” “I play golf,” he replied. He was, though, a lifelong fan of Arsenal.
He was Secretary of the R&A until 1999, and was then named Captain for a year. Bonallack was appointed OBE in 1971 and knighted in 1998. In 2000 he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. In his honour, the Michael Bonallack Trophy is contested every two years by European amateurs and an Asia-Pacific team.
Angela, his wife of 64 years, died in 2022, and he is survived by their three daughters and a son, who all play golf.
Sir Michael Bonallack, born December 31 1934, died September 26 2023