Michael Bonallack, who established himself as the greatest British amateur golfer of the postwar era, dominating championship play, and who later led the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which ran the British Open and was the sport’s governing body outside the United States and Mexico, died on Sept. 26 in St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of the club. He was 88.
The club announced his death but did not give the cause, saying only that he had been “suffering from ill health in recent times.”
Bonallack spent his golfing career as an amateur, holding jobs to earn a living for many years, rather than turning professional.
He jokingly wondered whether he had been good enough to go pro.
“After seeing Jack Nicklaus play,” he once told The Telegraph, “I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to put food on the table.” (In a laudatory statement after Bonallack’s death, Nicklaus remembered him as a friend of almost 65 years.)
Bonallack began golfing at age 10 with his parents’ encouragement and developed enough skill to win the 1952 Boys’ Amateur Championship, a prestigious international tournament sponsored by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, known as the R&A. Blessed with great putting skills, he would dominate the game in the 1960s.
He won Britain’s Amateur Championship a remarkable five times in a single decade — in 1961, 1965, 1968, 1969 and 1970. He ranks second in championship titles to John Ball Jr., who won eight from 1888 to 1912.
“There is no doubt that having taken his swing to pieces and put back the pieces in a different way, he has succeeded in getting greater length and accuracy,” The Liverpool Daily Post wrote after Bonallack won his third British Amateur title.
He also won the separate English Amateur Championship in 1962, 1963, 1965, 1967 and 1968.
“He was pretty well unbeatable,” Donald Steel, author of “Par Excellence: The Biography of Sir Michael Bonallack, O.B.E.” (2018), said in a phone interview. “He was the finest amateur.” He added that it was unlikely that anyone would match or exceed the number of titles Bonallack won because top amateurs now turn pro much faster.
The renowned British golf commentator Peter Alliss assessed Bonallack’s short game in this widely quoted description: “Big, wide stance, nose sniffing the ball, short, jabby swing, but all the putts went into the hole. He had the most wonderful temperament. He appeared calm yet had that steely something that all great champions have.”
Bonallack also played in the Open Championship, or British Open, 13 times and was the tournament’s lowest-scoring amateur twice. His best finish was in 1959 at Muirfield, in Scotland, when he tied for 11th place, six shots behind the winner, Gary Player.
“He was one unbelievable amateur,” Player said by phone. “He won the Amateur five times. Do you know how difficult that was?”
Michael Francis Bonallack was born in England on Dec. 31, 1934, in Chigwell, Essex, on the outskirts of London, to Evelyn and Richard Bonallack, who owned a business that made motor vehicle bodies.
Michael’s early proficiency at golf led him to win junior competitions like the Essex Boys Championship, but he was knocked out early at the 1951 Boys’ Amateur. Before playing in the next year’s championship tournament, at Formby Golf Club — at a time when he was playing more cricket than golf — he took lessons from the pro at the nearby Royal Birkdale Golf Club. He went on to win the title.
“I never thought about missing a putt,” he said in an interview with the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association in 2012. “I was just able to see a line on the green and then play the ball along that line.”
Bonallack was 22 when, in 1957, he first played for Britain and Ireland’s team in the Walker Cup, the international match play tournament against the United States. He was named team captain in 1969, when his team lost, and again in 1971, when the two sides met at the Old Course at St. Andrews. The U.S. had won every Walker Cup since 1938, but this time Britain and Ireland prevailed.
Afterward, Bonallack said: “My wonderful, wonderful team. I’d like you to remember all those players all the years before us who tried as hard as we did.” Speaking to the American team, he said, “I hope you won’t feel too bad about our getting this one little go.”
Bonallack eased himself into golf administration by serving on committees at the Royal and Ancient Club. Among his other positions, he was president of the English Golf Union, the governing body of men’s amateur golf in England; chairman of the European Tour; and chairman of the Professional Golfers’ Association of Britain and Ireland.
He became the secretary of the R&A in 1983 and served for 16 years. He was well known for collaborating with Mark McCormack, chairman of the International Management Group, to boost the club’s revenues from television and sponsorships.
Bonallack said that the club became reliant on IMG to set up hospitality tents at the British Open and to introduce something that had been unheard-of on an Open course — advertising.
“That wasn’t something you did at the Open Championship, but Mark persuaded us that that was the right way to go,” Bonallack said in an oral history of the R&A in 2014, “because the money we were generating at the Open could be put back into the development of the game.”
(The Royal and Ancient Club gave up its golf governance role in 2004, when an entity simply called the R&A was created to take it on, including running the Open Championship.)
In his statement, Nicklaus called Bonallack an “important voice through golf’s growth, evolution and global expansion.”
One day in 1984, early in his leadership of the R&A, Bonallack was playing a tournament when the actor Sean Connery, a member of the club known for his angry rows, “came stomping across the fairway looking like thunder,” Bonallack recalled in the oral history.
“He said, ‘How the hell did this fellow I’m playing get a handicap of 16, which he’s got? Absolutely bloody ridiculous!’” Bonallack recalled. He said he told Connery: “Well, Sean, he comes from Hong Kong. He’s got a handicap of 16 in Hong Kong, but I am sure the club committee can do something about it.” Connery replied, “I hope so!”
Bonallack was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1998.
His survivors include his daughters Glenna, Jane and Sara; his son, Robert; 10 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. His wife, Angela (Ward) Bonallack, a golfer who twice won the English Women’s Amateur Championship, died last year.