Golfer Dick Burton: Profile of the Open Champion

Dick Burton was an English golfer whose career suffered a major interruption by World War II, in which he served. But he still managed more than a dozen wins in big British tournaments, including the Open Championship. He's also the answer to a trivia question (yes, it's a trick question): Who held the British Open title the longest?

Full name: Richard Burton

Date of birth: October 11, 1907

Place of birth: Darwen, Lancashire, England

Date and place of death: January 30, 1974 in Kingston upon Thames, England

Nickname: Dick

His Biggest Wins

  • 1934 Northern Professional Championship
  • 1935 Dunlop-Northern Tournament
  • 1936 Yorkshire Evening News Tournament
  • 1937 Dunlop-Southport Tournament
  • 1938 Manchester and District Professional Championship
  • 1939 Open Championship
  • 1939 True Temper Foursomes Tournament (partnered by Fred Robson)
  • 1939 Manchester and District Professional Championship
  • 1940 Daily Mail Tournament
  • 1940 Manchester and District Professional Championship
  • 1946 Surrey Open Championship
  • 1949 Silver King Tournament
  • 1949 News Chronicle Tournament
  • 1953 Surrey Open Championship

Dick Burton's Open Championship Victory and Other Majors

Burton's lone major championship happened in the 1939 British Open on The Old Course at St. Andrews. He was the co-leader after the first round with 70, and solo leader after second round at 142. But after a 77 in the third round, Burton was four strokes off the lead.

One of the golfers Burton was tied with after Round 3, Johnny Bulla, was almost finished with his final round before Burton teed off Round 4. Bulla posted even-par 292 for the clubhouse lead, so Burton had a target number to beat.

When Burton reached the 18th hole, he knew a par would win him the Claret Jug. What did he do? As Peter Alliss once described it:

"He finished his win in some style, driving boldly down the line of the fence at the last hole and then lofting in a 9-iron before sinking his birdie putt."
That 18th tee drive on the final hole was around 300 yards long. And the birdie putt? About a 15-footer. Burton began walking after the ball almost as soon as he struck that putt, not because he knew he had made it because he thought he had blasted it well past the hole and would have a tough comebacker for the win. Instead, the ball hit the back of the cup and dropped.

He finished with a 2-stroke win over Bulla at 2-under 290, and as the only golfer under par.

Burton first played in Open Championship in 1932, and his first high finish was 12th in the 1936 Open. He shared the 36-hole lead at the 1938 British Open, but in very high scoring conditions on the final day shot 78-85 — and still finished fourth.

He was 12th when the Open resumed after World War II in 1946, then had the last of his three Top 10 finishes in 1947, placing fifth. Burton had eight Top 20 finishes in the British Open, last a tie for 12th in 1951. His final start in an Open didn't come until 1968.

As was common for British golfers of his era, Burton never played The Masters or USPGA Championship. He played the U.S. Open only once, in 1946, missing the cut.

More About Dick Burton

To repeat the question from the introduction: Who held the British Open trophy the longest? The answer is Dick Burton — seven years. Burton won in 1939, and held the trophy in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945. The trick to the question is that the Open was not played after 1939 until 1946 because of World War II.

Burton joined the Royal Air Force mere weeks after his Open Championship victory, and the war surely cost him many opportunities for more wins, and to cash in on the fame of being the Open champ.

When the tournament resumed in 1946, Burton was back. He hit his first drive out of bounds into a concession stand, but recovered to finish 12th.

When asked if he felt unlucky, missing so many golf opportunities because of the war, Burton replied:

"I was lucky. A lot of those who watched me at St. Andrews (in 1939) also went off to war and they never came back. Some of my friends didn't make it either. I did."
He was born Richard Burton, and was frequently referred to by that name in news accounts (leading to some confusion with the famous actor of that name), but to friends and acquaintances he was always called Dick. He was one of three brothers who grew up on a farm next to Darwen Golf Club in England. His first job was as a four-loom weaver in the local mills. He then started caddying at Darwen GC, then became a greenskeeper at the club. His brother John also went into pro golf, and eventually Dick replaced John as pro at Hillside Club in Southport. Their brother Tom also became a club pro.

Dick Burton began winning pro tournaments in the 1930s, playing events on the British PGA circuit. The first was the 1934 Northern Professional Championship. Burton was runner-up in the Dunlop Southport Tournament in 1935 and 1936 before winning it in 1937. He won once a year from 1934-38, then added two more wins in 1939 in addition to his 1939 Open Championship victory.

After joining the RAF, Burton was still able to play some tournament golf for the next year, even winning two tournaments in 1940. Even after tournament play stopped, Burton and Henry Cotton (also serving in the RAF) played many exhibitions as fund-raisers for the Red Cross.

Burton's runner-up finishes included the 1936 News Chronicle Tournament, the 1939 Silver King (lost in playoff to Alf Padgham) and 1948 Manchester Evening Chronicle Tournament. But one of his second-place showings was to his brother John. John Burton, partnering with Max Faulkner, won the team match play 1949 Penfold Tournament. They beat Dick and Dick's partner Flory Van Donck by a score of 1-up.

That same year, at the age of 42, Burton won the 1949 News Chronicle Tournament with a score of 266 (68-66-64-68). At that time, it was the record for lowest score in a 72-hole British PGA tournament.

His final win of note was 1953's Surrey Open Championship, when Burton was 45 years old.

Along the way, Burton represented Team Great Britain & Ireland in three Ryder Cups. He won two foursomes matches, but lost all three of his singles matches. Those defeats were to Paul Runyan in the 1935 Ryder Cup, Sam Snead in the 1937 Ryder Cup, and Clayton Heafner in the 1949 Ryder Cup.

Burton served as professional at Sale Golf Club in Cheshire, England from 1937-46 (althoug he was in the RAF for most of those years). Then he became professional at Coombe Hill in Kingston, Surrey, in Greater London, for many years. He was also noted as an instructor, working with many British pros who followed him as tour winners. Those students included Neil Coles, Ken Bousfield and Jimmy Hitchcock.

Burton was known as a powerful driver, and he wrote an instructional book on the topic. Published in 1940, it was titled Length With Discretion.

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