The unorthodox Amateur final
John Gallagher did nothing for golf instruction by fighting his way through to the 2005 British Amateur Championship final at Royal Birkdale.
It’s hard to imagine today’s all-English final at Royal Birkdale between Joe Long (above) and Joe Harvey being as intriguing as Gallagher versus Ireland’s Brian McElhinney 15 years ago, the last time the Amateur Championship was staged over the Southport Links.
The buzz on the eve of the 2005 final was almost palpable. Not because Gallagher and McElhinney were deemed future superstars, but because Gallagher played a game with which none of us in attendance were familiar with, to paraphrase Bobby Jones.
He reached the final playing with a left hand below right grip. The first cack-handed golfer to reach the final since it began in 1885.
The then 24-year-old Scotsman overcame tournament favourite Lloyd Saltman by 1 hole in the semifinals. McElhinney, winner of the previous year’s European Amateur Championship, won by a similar margin over 16-year-old Oliver Fisher. A Saltman/Fisher final was the contest those of us in attendance had been anticipating. No way we thought Gallagher would beat Saltman.
Edinburgh native Gallagher admitted he’d never had a golf lesson in his life. Yet he arrived at Birkdale with a plus 2 handicap and never looked out of his depth on the Birkdale fairways.
“I once changed to orthodox for two or three weeks, and everything went wrong,” he said. “I feel much more comfortable this way, and I’ve managed to keep improving. My swing is all about timing, but there is no way I will change now.”
Gallagher was almost as surprised as the golf journalists in attendance at reaching the final. Deep down he probably thought there was no way he’d defeat Saltman, who arrived in Southport as a back-to-back winner of the Brabazon Trophy and St Andrews Links Trophy.
“Lloyd is a great golfer and is sure to be a future European Tour player,” Gallagher said, “But I’m a grinder not a golfer, and anything can happen in 18-hole match play.”
Gallagher’s biggest thrill in golf before reaching the Amateur Championship final was winning that year’s Craigmillar Park Open. He took that title the same weekend Tiger Woods won the Masters.
Gallagher can be forgiven for thinking he actually had a chance to joining Tiger at Augusta or in the next month’s Open Championship at St Andrews, the rewards on offer with a victory over McElhinney.
“It’s a school boy dream,” Gallagher said. "It’s scary to think of my grip at Augusta. I can’t wait to hear what the TV commentators say about my swing.”
Gallagher wasn’t entirely alone in playing with an unorthodox, left hand below right grip. Fellow Scotsman Jim Hay played cack-handed for Scotland in the 1970s.
A few players in the past have managed to go on to professional success playing cack-handed. South African golfer Seesunker “Papa Doc” Sewgolum won three Dutch Opens (1959, 1960 and 1964), two Natal Opens (1963 and 1965), and finished 13th in the 1963 Open Championship with a left hand below right grip. Countryman Vincent Tshabalala played on the European Senior Tour with a cack-handed method.
Gallagher’s low ball flight wasn’t designed for Augusta National. Not that the affable Scotsman cared much – playing in the Masters and British Open would have exceeded his dreams.
Alas, Gallagher didn’t pen a fairy tale story. He lost 5&4 to McElhinney. Two years later, Gallagher won the Scottish Amateur Championship at Prestwick. However, like Saltman, Gallagher hasn’t found success on the European Tour. His name still pops up from time to time. For instance, he finished 61st in the 2018 SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge on the European Challenge Tour and played in last year’s Motocaddy Masters on the EuroPro Tour.
McElhinney never made it on the European Tour either, but winning the Amateur earned him a spot with Saltman and Fisher in that year’s Walker Cup match in Chicago, which Great Britain & Ireland lost by a point. He also played in three majors. It’s a great story McElhinney will be able to tell his grandchildren, but not as good as a cack-hander golfer playing in the Masters.
#JustSaying: “If God wanted you to put cross handed, he would have made your left arm longer.” Lee Trevino
Photo courtesy of the R&A