Golfer Cyril Tolley: Profile of 1920s British Amateur Champ

Cyril Tolley was an English amateur golfer who won multiple big titles in the 1920s. His first really big win was the British Amateur, and his last really big win was the British Amateur. In-between, he also won a pair of national opens against the pros, and gave Bobby Jones one of the toughest tests of Jones' Grand Slam year.

Full name: Cyril James Hastings Tolley

Date of birth: September 14, 1895

Place of birth: Eastbourne, East Sussex, England

Date and place of death: May 18, 1978, in Eastbourne, England

Also known as: During his playing days, sometimes referred to in print as C.J.H. Tolley.

His Biggest Wins

  • 1920 British Amateur Championship
  • 1921 Welsh Open Amateur
  • 1923 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase
  • 1923 Welsh Open Amateur
  • 1923 Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes (partnered by Joyce Weathered)
  • 1924 French Open
  • 1926 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase (tie with Tony Torrance, no playoff)
  • 1927 Worplesdon Mixed Foursomes (partnered by Joyce Weathered)
  • 1928 French Open
  • 1928 Golf Illustrated Gold Vase
  • 1929 British Amateur Championship
  • 1938 President's Putter

His Two British Amateur Championship Victories

Cyril Tolley was the winner of two British Amateur Championships, first in 1920, then again in 1929:
  • 1920 Amateur Championship: This was the first time The Amateur was played since 1914, due to World War I. Tolley's run to the final included a third-round victory over future PGA Tour star Bobby Cruickshank, 1-up. He was not really challenged again until meeting 2-time U.S. Amateur champ Robert Gardner in the championship match. Tolley was 2-down after the morning 18, but turned that around and stood 3-up with four holes to play. But Gardner won two of the next three holes, then won the 36th hole to square it. On the first extra hole, a par-3, Tolley watched Gardner make three, then sank a birdie putt for a two and the victory.

  • 1929 Amateur Championship: Aside from the victory itself, the highlight this time for Tolley was beating another top American, Johnny Dawson, in the semifinals by a 6-and-5 score. In the championship match, Tolley topped John Nelson Smith, 4 and 3.

More About Cyril Tolley

Cyril Tolley didn't win the 1930 British Amateur, but he played a match in that tournament that remains part of golf lore, albeit mostly because of the opponent rather than Tolley. The opponent was Bobby Jones, the British Amateur was the first leg of what would become Jones' Grand Slam, and the Tolley-Jones match was in the fourth round. It was arguably the toughest test Jones faced in that magical year, one that almost ended Jones' Grand Slam before it even got started.

The match alternated between 1-up and all square six times as the golfers traded the lead. When they reached the 17th hole at St. Andrews — the Road Hole — Jones hit an approach shot too strong. It appeared headed long — certainly onto the road, possibly up against the stone wall — until it struck spectators crowded close to the green's back edge and rebounded onto the green. This is usually called a lucky break, but Tolley always suspected (without knowing for sure) that Jones played the shot long intentionally, knowing the thick crowd pressed against the back of the green would stop the ball.

Tolley, whose own approach was near the Road Hole bunker, chipped close and parred out. Jones missed his birdie putt, halving the hole. They also halved the 18th, leading to extra holes.

Jones finally won the match on the 19th hole when Tolley was stymied by a stymie. Jones' ball was sitting between Tolley's and the cup, and in those days the intervening ball wasn't lifted and marked. The golfer facing the stymie, as the situation was called, had to either attempt going around or over the ball in his way. Tolley tried going over, chipping his ball over Jones', and nearly holed the shot. But his ball stopped on the edge of the cup.

Tolley advanced to the semifinals of the British Amateur in 1933. And he made the semifinals at age 54 in 1950, when he defeated Joe Carr on the 20th hole in the quarterfinals before losing to the eventual champ, Frank Stranahan.

Peter Alliss wrote about Tolley:

"His game lasted so well because of his full, rhythmic, powerful swing, which had enabled him on occasion to drive both the last at St. Andrews and the first at Troon, both holes of over 350 yards."
Tolley often played in plus-fours, especially early in his golfing life, and often smoked a pipe while playing. He would sometimes refill his pipe while studying the line of a putt, before walking up to his ball and knocking it in — and walking away before the ball even dropped.

He also reached the quarterfinals three other times in the British Amateur, including 1923 when he was knocked out by Francis Ouimet (after having beaten another American star, Max Marston, earlier). Tolley's other quarterfinal appearances were in 1936 and 1938.

Born in East Sussex, England, Tolley learned on the links at Eastbourne Downs Golf Club. As an adult, he usually played out of Royal Liverpool.

His life, and those of his countrymen and millions others around the world, was interrupted by World War I, in which Tolley served as a major in the Royal Tank Corps. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the Battle of Ypres, but later was captured by the Germans and spent 13 months as a prisoner of war.

After the war, Tolley took up studies at Oxford University, where he also excelled in tennis and cricket. (In the mid-1920s Tolley cut back a little on his golf in an attempt to work on his tennis game and make it into Wimbledon. It didn't work.) His victory in the 1920 British Amateur happened while he was a student at Oxford. About a month after that victory, Tolley lost to Tommy Armour in the championship match of the French Amateur.

Tolley, through his career, also played in the British Open 13 times, first in 1920 and last in 1949. His best finish was a tie for 18th place, which he accomplished twice: in the 1924 British Open (when he was low amateur) and in the 1933 Open.

He even beat the pros to win a pair of important professional titles. Tolley was the French Open winner in 1924 and 1928. In 1924 the runner-up, three strokes behind, was Walter Hagen. Other highlights among his tournament wins include a pair of victories in the mixed Worplesdon Foursomes, partnered by the legend of British women's golf, Joyce Weathered. He also was an early stalwart in the Walker Cup; more on that below.

When World War II broke out, Tolley once again went to war. He was a company commander in the Royal Sussex Regiment, and also served as a liaison officer with the U.S. Army.

In 1948, Tolley served a term as captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

In his life outside of golf, where he made the living that allowed him to spend time working on his game, Tolley was involved in finance, including working for the London Stock Exchange.

He also played a part in English legal history. In 1928, the English chocolate company Fry's published an advertisement that included a caricature of Tolley with a Fry's chocolate bar in his pocket. The image and the accompanying text implied that Tolley endorsed the product. In fact, he had been unaware of the advertisement until seeing it and had not agreed to appear in the ad. He sued, and in 1931 he won. That case set the legal precedent in England that prohibited companies from putting anyone into an advertisement without the subject's consent.

Tolley was the author of the 1924 book The Modern Golfer (affiliate link), which focused mostly on instruction. He also was featured in Flicker Book No. 12, Driver and Iron Shots, which is a valuable collectible today.

Tolley in the Walker Cup

Tolley was very involved in the early history of Team Great Britain in the British vs. American amateur competition, the Walker Cup. He played in the first one in 1922, and played in six Walker Cups total. That was a GB&I record until first Joe Carr reached seven playing appearances in 1959.

Unfortunately for Tolley, he set another record, one for futility, in the 1926 Walker Cup. He lost to Bobby Jones in singles, 12 and 11 (matches were 36 holes then). That was the worst defeat in the Walker Cup to that point, and, in the 36-hole era, only one match ended with a larger losing margin.

In the inaugural 1922 Walker Cup, Tolley, stuck with journalist Bernard Darwin, a last-minute replacement, lost in foursomes to Jesse Guilford/Francis Ouimet, and lost to Guilford in singles, 2 and 1. But Tolley went 2-0 in the 1923 Walker Cup, winning in foursomes with Roger Wethered against Ouimet/Jess Sweetser, then beating Sweetser in singles, 4 and 3.

In the 1924 Walker Cup, Tolley was the playing captain for Team Great Britain. Guilford/Ouimet once again got him in foursomes, but in singles Tolley beat Max Marston, 1-up. That singles victory was one of just three points for the British, however — his lone captaincy was a 9-3 defeat.

We've already seen what happened to Tolley against Jones in singles in 1926, but that was actually his second loss to Jones that year. In foursomes, Jones/Watts Gunn beat Tolley/Andrew Jamieson, 4 and 3.

Tolley played twice more, in the 1930 Walker Cup and 1934 Walker Cup. He split his matches in 1930, winning in foursomes but losing in singles (to Jimmy Johnston, 5 and 4). And he lost both matches in 1934, including a singles loss to Lawson Little, 7 and 6.

Overall, Tolley was 4-8 (four wins, eight losses) in Walker Cup play. Later, in the 1940s, he twice served on the selection committee that chose the players for Team GB&I.

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