James Ockenden 1885-1949
"Now that James Ockenden has won the French Open Championship, he may reasonably hope that his golfing luck has changed at last. For years the Raynes Park pro, with the free natural swing and the Jack Johnson smile, has been a consistent runner-up in big events. But though the soundest of critics recognised in him a rightful successor to the glories of the old golf triumvirate, somehow he never quite 'got there.' Bad luck dogged him, but no conspiracy of fate could vanquish such consistently steady yet brilliant form for ever. He is an Epsom man, still two years on the right side of forty, tall and big-limbed, with the sunniest sporting temperament either in defeat or victory. He hits a mighty drive straight from the tee, is deadly on the green, but his great mastery is with the iron."
"A Letter from London" - London, 5 July 1923
(Published in "The Advertiser" (Adelaide) - 22 August 1923)
James Ockenden, the fifth of ten children born to Edmund and Elizabeth Ockenden of Epsom, was born in July 1885. At the time of the 1891 census, James and his family were living at 7, Carters Cottages, Upper Downs Road in Epsom. By 1901, the family had moved to 13, Downs Cottages, Epsom. Significantly, both of these properties are but a stone's throw from Epsom Golf Club and presumably it was living in such close proximity to the course that led the young James to be "employed on the golf links" at this time. It must have been during these early years that James developed a talent for the sport because he became a professional golfer in 1905, and, by the time of the 1911 census, he was working at Wembley Golf Club. He had married Beatrice Maud Davie on 10 September 1907 in Romney Marsh, Kent. They moved together to Willesden in North London where, on 9 August 1911, Beatrice gave birth to their first son, James George.
During 1914, James took the professional position at West Drayton Golf Club and the young family moved to 2, Winnock Terrace, Yiewsley. The year 1914, of course, also saw the outbreak of war. James and Beatrice had a second son, Fredrick Charles who was born in nearby Uxbridge on 12 May 1915. James enlisted for the army on 4 May 1916 and served in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He embarked for France on 29 September 1916 just days after his younger brother Albert had died from wounds. You can read more about Albert by clicking on this link: War Memorials - Ockenden A
. James was discharged on 6 February 1919 and was awarded the British War medal and Victory medal. West Drayton Golf Club was used for building after the War and James found new employment at Raynes Park Golf Club. In January 1923, James confirmed to the Army that he was living at 88, Swaby Road, Earlsfield.
Despite regularly playing in professional golf tournaments, James had not celebrated any significant victories. His most notable performance had come at the Open Championship of 1914 at Prestwick where he finished 7th. He attracted attention at the News of the World Championship in 1920 by beating two former Open champions, James Braid and George Duncan. This was completely unexpected and caused quite a shock. "Golf Illustrated" even wrote that "no one outside a lunatic asylum would have had the audacity to imagine that Ockenden could defeat two such formidable warriors. But the wildly improbable happened." (Golf Illustrated, December 1920). James lost to the eventual champion, Abe Mitchell, but he had earned enough recognition to represent Great Britain the following year in the first International Challenge match against the USA at Gleneagles in Scotland. Also on the British team were the very best golfers of the day - Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, James Braid and Ted Ray.
James was finally victorious at the Roehampton tournament in 1922. He beat George Duncan in the final and the reports on his success suggest that it was long overdue and well deserved. "The Times" described it as "a delightful victory for an excellent golfer, who, hitherto, has not been rewarded in accordance with his merits." (The Times, 22 April 1922).
James Ockenden at Roehampton
Image source: The Times (London, England), Saturday, Apr 22, 1922
One newspaper report demonstrated just how highly-regarded and admired James had become and gives us a good insight into his character:
"Born at Epsom thirty-seven years ago, Ockenden is a great shot player. He plays the club with wonderful accuracy […] It is also his good fortune to be endowed with a splendid temperament. You can never tell when he has won or lost, even when defeat comes he has always a smile. And Ockenden is a magnificent fighter. […] His reward was no more than his due." (New Zealand Truth, 1 July 1922).
Following this win, public expectation rose and the press noted that "it is predicted of him by shrewd judges that he is a future champion." ("The Register" (Adelaide) 15 June 1923). In July 1923, James had his most famous win at the French Open Championship. This was a very prestigious tournament and it enabled him to go on a tour of the USA together with the 1923 Open Champion, Arthur Havers.
James and Arthur set sail from Southampton on 12 December aboard the Berengaria and arrived in New York 6 days later. They spent the next 4 months touring the country playing exhibition matches against some of the leading American golfers. They played 41 matches in total, winning 27. James also finished runner-up in the Texas Open. One newspaper report estimated that they each earned about £1000 from the tour ("The Advertiser" (Adelaide) 22 December 1924).
During the tour, it was widely reported that James had accepted a lucrative position and would move permanently to the United States. At this time, the popularity of golf was increasing rapidly there and a move across the Atlantic to work as a golf professional was seen as highly desirable by British players. "The Washington Post
" explained the reasons for this ambition to relocate:
"Salaries are higher here than in Great Britain and there is a larger earning capacity. Three pounds would be considered a good weekly salary there. This does not compare with the figures paid in the United States by larger clubs." (11 December, 1921).
The move did not materialise and James and Arthur arrived back in Southampton on 9 May 1924 aboard the Franconia. James confirmed he had been offered a number of positions but never seriously considered staying:
"All I can say is that I am glad I went on a visit before deciding to make my home in the country […] A few men undoubtedly make more money than it would be possible for them to do in this country, but the other players have a very hard struggle, and many find the utmost difficulty in paying their debts."
As the popularity of golf increased in the United States, so did the quality of the players. Before the 1920s, the British players had traditionally dominated but this was now coming under threat from America. This was clearly something that greatly concerned James, and he wrote a number of articles offering explanations for it. Due to the higher salaries, he believed that the American professionals were able to devote more time to practice and could prepare more thoroughly for the competitions than the British golfers. It does seem that the Americans were taking the sport more seriously but, in doing this, James believed they had "driven a great deal of the fun and pleasure out of the game." ("What is wrong with our golf? America's secret of success", 1926).
James also felt that British golfers were often "not in a fit state, physically or mentally, to do themselves justice." He regularly wrote pieces describing the pressures and difficulties of being a professional golfer.
"A championship is a big mental as well as physical strain, which I believe everyone feels. You are screwed up to a high strain of nervous tension from the first tee to the holing of the last putt, and there is no relief until it is over. […] It is something of an ordeal." ("Big golf test", 1923).
In another article from 1927, James describes a time when he was found lying at the side of the road following a round of golf. He had collapsed physically from the mental demands of golf. He recognised the importance of being mentally prepared and stressed the importance of relaxation and focusing on things other than golf when not playing. ("The strain of professional golf. Relaxation needed", 1927).
As mentioned, James had been working at Raynes Park Golf Club but this was sold for housing development in 1925 and James first moved to Hanger Hill Golf Club before becoming the professional at North Middlesex Golf Club in 1928. He did not feature prominently in other championships but he served the golf club for the next 20 years where he was assisted by both of his sons. Shortly after their move to Barnet, Beatrice died in 1930.
On 24 November 1933, James married Annie Aburow, also from Epsom, at Barnet Registry Office. "The Daily Mirror" reported on 15 June 1934 that James George had sailed for South Africa to take up a position as assistant professional at the Royal Cape Club in Cape Town. James himself left for South Africa in December 1948 to join his son who had been runner-up in both 1947 and 1948 South African PGA Championship. Shortly afterwards James had to have a leg amputated. "The Times" reported that Arthur Havers joined 3 other professional golfers, including the 1949 Open Champion Bobby Locke, in a charity match at North Middlesex which raised about £450 to assist James (5 September, 1949). James departed Durban, South Africa aboard the City of Hong Kong and arrived back in England on 10 November 1949.
James died in Barnet shortly after his return on 30 November 1949 at the age of 64.
Nicholas Tanner © 2014