Hugh Kirkaldy: Golfer Won British Open But Died Young

Golfer Hugh Kirkaldy portrait
Hugh Kirkaldy was one of three golfing brothers from St. Andrews, but he was the only one of the three who won the British Open. He also held the scoring record on The Old Course two different times. But he died young, before reaching the age of 30.

Full name: Hugh McKenzie Kirkaldy

Date of birth: June 5, 1868

Place of birth: St. Andrews, Scotland

Date and place of death: April 4, 1897 in St. Andrews, Scotland

His British Open Win

Hugh Kirkaldy won the 1891 British Open by two strokes, beating his brother Andrew Kirkaldy and 1883 Open champion Willie Fernie.

The 1891 Open was the last one that was just 36 holes in length. It was the seventh Open played at St. Andrews, and Kirkaldy's winning score here of 166 was the best score among those 36-hole Opens played on The Old Course.

Kirkaldy won with a pair of 83s. And those were the best scores in both rounds. He played the final nine holes in all 5s. Given the general scoring of the era, and the specific driving rain and cold wind in which the final round was played, a 45 on the back nine was not considered poor. But the 38 Kirkaldy scored on the front nine of the second round, which included seven fours, is what won him the championship.

Kirklady's second-round 83 was the first round played in any of the St. Andrews Opens that did not include a 6 on at least one hole. The next year, the Open expanded to 72 holes and Kirkaldy was runner-up in that one.

More About Hugh Kirkaldy

When he died, an obituary in the New York Sun newspaper called Hugh Kirkaldy "one of the best-known golfers in the world."

"He was noted for a free style, but his game was not as finished as that of his brothers, John or Andrew," the paper stated.

The Kirkaldy brothers were born and raised in St. Andrews, and always associated with the Home of Golf. Andrew, five years older than Hugh, was, in their own time and today, the best-known of them, even though, unlike Hugh, Andrew failed to win the Open.

High first came to notice in the golfing world at the fall meeting of the R&A in 1886. Following the meeting, they played a tournament and Hugh, age 18, won it.

In 1887, his score of 74 on The Old Course was a new course record. He lowered that record to 73 in 1888. That stood for seven years, until Freddie Tait went 'round in 72 in 1895.

But in 1892, the London Standard newspaper, in an article about a challenge match, referred to Hugh as "brother of the famous Andrew Kirkaldy." Andrew was still overshadowing Hugh, even though Hugh won the Open the year previous!

The Standard was reporting on a match between a team of two amateurs, John Ball and Harold Hilton, and the pro team of Hugh Kirkaldy and Douglas Roland. The amateurs got the better of the pros that day, but perhaps a thumb injury to Kirkaldy had something to do with that. Or maybe it's just that both amateurs were past or future Open champions.

That was the year of Kirkaldy's title defense. As noted above, the 1892 British Open was the first one played over 72 holes. Kirkaldy tied for second place with Ball and Sandy Herd, three strokes behind Hilton.

Kirkaldy first played the Open in 1885, at the age of 17. He cracked the Top 10, tying for 10th, in 1889, and in the next four Opens finished seventh, first, second and fourth, respectively. In the 1893 Open, Hugh tied brother Andrew for fourth place. He played the Open only twice more after that, finishing 13th and 15th.

In 1893, Kirkaldy tied a course record at Royal Blackheath in England, then a 7-hole layout that golfers played three times for a 21-hole round. Kirkaldy's score of 105 stood for two years. He also won a 36-hole tournament at Musselburgh in 1893.

On April 8-9, 1896, Kirkaldy played a challenge match against J.H. Taylor, the reigning, 2-time Open championship. They played 72 holes over two days. The first 36 holes were stroke play, and the two Open champions tied at 151. The next day, they played match play, and Kirkaldy got the better of Taylor (who eventually won five Opens), by a 4-and-3 margin over 36 holes.

It was shortly after that victory over Taylor that Kirkaldy first fell ill, becoming very sick with the flu. Hugh never fully recovered from that, the illness revealing a deeper problem: tuberculosis.

On October 31, 1896, the London Football Evening News reported that a subscription fund was started to assist Kirkaldy "in his trouble," but that "it is to be feared ... that Hugh will never be able to play again."

And he wasn't. Kirkaldy was only 28 years old when he died in April of 1897. "His lungs were weak, and for the past nine months he was confined to the house," the New York Sun obituary reported.

Hugh had also run an equipment-making shop in St. Andrews, and the putter that later became the "President's Putter" was bought from Kirkaldy in his shop. The President's Putter tournament is still played today at Rye Golf Club in England by golfers who played for Cambridge and Oxford universities. Each year, the winner's ball is attached by a chain to the wooden shaft of the actual President's Putter, an antique putter that once belonged to a prominent British golfer. When the tournament began in 1920, the first putter called the President's Putter was donated to the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society by golfer John Low, who had purchased it from Kirkaldy around 25 years earlier in St. Andrews.

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