David Max Marsh has a Wikipedia page, which describes him thus: “… British amateur golfer who was better known for serving as the chairman of Everton Football Club.” Perhaps not, but even if so, that is certainly an over-simplification.
Each of the playing milestones for Marsh, who died three months ago at age 88, was quickly followed by another. Successively, he was an England Boys International player; a Cambridge University “Blue” and captain of Cambridge; a Lancashire County player; an England International; English champion (twice); captain of England; and finally a Great Britain and Ireland International.
His later nonplaying roles were extensive: captain of both the Great Britain & Ireland St Andrews Trophy and Walker Cup teams; chairman of selectors; chairman of the European Golf Association Championship Committee; president of (firstly) Lancashire and (secondly) England Golf; chairman of the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf Committee; captain and then president of the Oxford & Cambridge Golfing Society. His last honour may have been as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or MBE, but his greatest accolade surely came in 1990 with the captaincy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. Marsh may not have had a green jacket, but he did have four red coats. (Was that a record? Possibly.)
It is now of course beyond unlikely that a medical student could leave Cambridge in June and play golf for England in September, at about the same time, playing in the centre for the 1st XV of Southport Rugby Football Club. But in 1956, Marsh showed that such things were possible. His win the following year, in the Boyd Quaich Memorial tournament around the Old Course, included an opening 66, at that time the amateur course record.
By 1958, he was on the winning GB&I team for the St Andrews Trophy against the Continent of Europe, and selection for the next year’s Walker Cup team followed. But with the USA team including many stars, most notably a young Jack Nicklaus, the GB&I captain deemed Marsh surplus to requirement and he did not play a game. If he was disappointed, Marsh reacted only to say that he was just not quite good enough and he would subsequently choose not to wear the Walker Cup jacket and tie to which his selection had fully entitled him.
After 1959, his golf was subordinated to the completion of his medical training, but five years later, he won his first English Amateur Championship, clawing back an early four-hole deficit to beat Yorkshire’s best player, Rodney Foster, and regain his place in the England team.
Marsh became, at 34, the youngest captain of Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club, of which he was given honorary membership, and that of nine more golf clubs followed in later years. The captaincy of his country came next, his second English Amateur, again coming from behind in 1970, this time to defeat Geoff Birtwell in the first all Lancastrian final.
Some four years earlier, one newspaper, in an account of Marsh’s golfing prowess, had contained a classic misprint, describing him as a 32-year-old Liverpool docker. But the Daily Telegraph this time did a better job. Its report of his win in the final, played in very blustery conditions, appeared under the headline: “Dr Marsh finds right prescription for wind.”
People will not speak of his 75 England appearances, nor the two English Amateur titles; nor will they even particularly dwell on the Walker Cup and “that shot.” They will all just talk about him as the kindest and nicest of men. They – we – will say: “He was a really great bloke, one of the best.”
To win the English Amateur again was a great achievement, but the best was yet to come. In the view of many, Marsh’s second Walker Cup selection, in 1971, was overdue. It had been 33 years since GB&I’s last win against the Americans, at St Andrews, and the Old Course was again the venue. In the final series of singles, the destiny of the cup rested on the shoulders of Marsh and his famous caddie, Alfie Fyles, who would later bring Tom Watson home to each of his five Open wins. One up with two to play, Marsh hit a fine drive – with persimmon – to set up his second shot to the 465-yard 17th hole. His opponent, Bill Hyndman III, by now was just short of the green in two.
What followed is the stuff of golfing legend, but this tribute would be incomplete without proper reference to “that shot.” The following description is a part extract from “The History of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, volume III,” written by Donald Steel and Peter Lewis:
“Triumph invariably hinges on the ability, mental and physical, to take the chance, the only chance, that makes the difference between success and failure, death or glory, renown or remorse. Too often, careful groundwork can be cast away in a moment of indecision or haste, but David Marsh’s appointment with destiny was carefully plotted. Faced with one of the hardest shots in golf, with one of the hardest clubs in the bag, he pitched a 3 iron on the seventeenth green, when nothing less would have done … a well judged … putt capitalised on his brilliant approach shot. It made him dormie one and secured overall victory.”
That slightly drawn iron shot, from 210 yards – which scampered up the green of the famous Road Hole – was described by Donald Steel as “one of the finest single strokes in the history of the Walker Cup.” In The New Yorker magazine, Herbert Warren Wind would later refer to this sequence of play as Marsh’s “small chunk of immortality.” It is entirely possible that nobody, in the history of the game at St Andrews, has played the Road Hole better under such pressure.
What made Marsh such a superb golfer? He was phenomenally good at holing putts that really mattered. He also had a fine, strong and repetitive swing, beautifully simple in style, which resulted in a quality of ball-striking that was majestic. But neither of these attributes provides the whole explanation. No. Despite his gentlemanly nature and great personal charm, he possessed both the will to succeed and also the competitive instinct to supplement that will.
And which of his special qualities sustained his reputation, once he stopped playing competitively, as such a giant of amateur golf within our islands? His own achievements were only part of the reason. There was an undoubted humility about him; his enthusiasm was whole-hearted and infectious; he had a deep knowledge of golf; and his human touch enabled him to foster good relationships with every age and class of player. And he always accepted, very graciously, every opportunity he was given to show his natural qualities as a leader.
As was the case in his lifetime, in the years ahead, when Marsh’s name is mentioned in clubhouses across the land, the theme will be the same. People will not speak of his 75 England appearances, nor the two English Amateur titles; nor will they even particularly dwell on the Walker Cup and “that shot.” They will all just talk about him as the kindest and nicest of men. They – we – will say: “He was a really great bloke, one of the best.”
Marsh’s distinguished contributions to our sport are marked forever on honours boards up and down the country and in the record books. What they cannot speak of is what he gave us all by exemplary behaviour, as dignified off the course, as it was modest and encouraging on the course. He was a delight to play with – self-deprecating and generous in his praise of others – and a joy to meet. He is and will continue to be missed by all of us, who were honoured by his love or friendship.
Ian Pattinson is a former chairman of the R&A Board of Directors.