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Jimmy Bruen (1920 - 1972):
Golfer


James Francis O’Grady (‘’Jimmy’’) Bruen was born on 8 May 1920 at Finaghy (on the outskirts of Belfast on the road to Lisburn, County Antrim) to James J Bruen, a Sub-Manager (and future Company Secretary) with the Munster and Leinster Bank, and his wife Margaret Shepperson (née Cooke). However, the family soon moved to Cork from where James J, who had served in the Connaught Rangers in the Great War, originally hailed - from the district of Wilton in the city. Jimmy was educated at the local Presentation Brothers College where he played rugby and, importantly for what later follows, also hurling.  

When he was eleven years old he was taken by his parents on holiday to Rosapenna, County Donegal, but stopped at Bundoran where Jimmy played what was his first round of golf, sharing a cut-down mashie with Nell, the ten-year-old daughter of a Dr. Cremin from Dublin who was his father’s playing partner during the stop. Jimmy was captivated by both golf and Nell (whom he would marry in 1945), and with the encouragement of his father, the advice of Jack Higgins (the professional at Little Island Golf Club in Cork), his burly physique and especially the great strength in his hands and arms, and the remorseless hitting of golf balls for hours without number in the field at the rear of the family house and at the nearby Muskerry Golf Club, where he also built on his natural putting ability, “a boy prodigy…who really astounded the golfing world with his power and skill” (in the words of Henry Cotton, the then doyen of European golfers) was emerging with a handicap of scratch before he was sixteen.  In what follows I have referred principally to Bruen’s golfing achievements either playing as an individual or as part of a team, at international, national or provincial level. For want of space I have omitted his considerable successes at intra- and inter-club level, in exhibition and challenge matches and the like, and I have followed a chronological order.

1935 - 1936: Jimmy, aged just 15, entered the Boys’ Championship in 1935 at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club (Blairgowrie) but was beaten in the second round by G Roughead of Falkirk.  In June 1936, just turned 16 and now with a handicap of plus one (+1), he played in the Irish Close Amateur  Championship held at Castlerock, County  Londonderry, but was beaten in the quarter-finals by John Burke, the ultimate winner and at the time Ireland’s leading amateur golfer.  In August he travelled to Royal Birkdale to play in the Boys’ Championship, and now equipped with a new set of clubs made by Fred Smith of Dollymount (Royal Dublin Golf Club) and a new Ben Sayers putter with a square handle purchased from the local professional only a few days before the matches started, he won the championship beating William Innes from Lanark by 11 and 9 (11/9) in the 36-hole final.  Bruen, always a brilliant short-game player, on occasions tried other putters but always returned to his favourite, the one he purchased at Birkdale that day in 1936.

1937:  Jimmy opened his competitive season with a victory in the Cork Scratch Cup, a popular “open” event played at Easter, beating Redmond Simcox by 7 and 6 (7/6) in the 36-hole final.  This was followed by runner-up placing to DHR Martin in the St George’s Vase played at Sandwich in May, and similarly, in the week following, in the Prince of Wales Cup at Deal when he lost narrowly to Charlie Stowe, one of England’s leading players.  In June he won the Irish Close Championship at Ballybunion, County Kerry, one of Ireland’s most difficult links, getting his revenge on John Burke, who had defeated him in the same championship the previous year, by 3 and 2 (3/2) in the 36-hole final, the youngest player ever to have won the championship.  In the Irish Open Championship played at Royal Portrush Golf Club in July over 72 holes, Jimmy finished joint sixth with the lowest score of any amateur or of any Irish competitor and set a new amateur course record of 71, all the while nursing an attack of tonsillitis and playing against medical advice.  Selected for the Irish team for the annual amateur international matches between Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales scheduled to be played at Portmarnock in the first three days of September, Jimmy, rarely for him, only came into best form on the last day beating the Welsh champion, D. H. Lewis by 5 and 4 (5/4); and he completed the year by setting a new course record of 65 for Muskerry Golf Club, Cork.

1938: This was Bruen’s most successful year and was dominated by his presence in the Walker Cup, the biennial match between a team of amateur golfers from the United States and one from Britain and Ireland, all of which the USA team had won, often by a wide margin. Bruen was among the twenty-four players from whom ten would be selected after preliminary trials in May at St Andrews where the match would be played on 3 and 4 June.  His golf was a revelation and acted as a team morale-booster throughout the trials and later during the match itself which would be won for the first time by the British and Irish team albeit by the narrowest of margins. In the trials Jimmy, barely eighteen (he had been granted leave from school in Cork to take part!) repeatedly scored in the low seventies and even had  a 68 which equalled the best score of the legendary American, Bobby Jones, when he won the Open Championship there in 1927.  No longer could his colleagues be satisfied with a score in the lower seventies when this mere schoolboy from Cork was out-scoring them. The morale and confidence of the team soared and this was reflected in their scores. No longer could his fellow-players set a target in the mid-seventies as a “reasonable” one when this schoolboy was out-hitting the longest and out-scoring the field; as the great Henry Cotton wrote, “it left everybody gasping”.  Jimmy duly played top in the 36-hole foursome and singles matches.  Although he himself scored disappointingly his good work had already been done and he returned to school in Cork!  In June at the Castle Golf Club in Dublin, Jimmy retained the Irish Close Championship beating Redmond Simcox in the final by 3 and 2 (3/2).  In early July he played in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s Golf Club at Sandwich but failed to qualify for the final 36 holes. The same month he played in the Irish Open Championship at Portmarnock, near Dublin, and again was the best amateur, as he had been in 1937, and had the best score (by nine strokes) in the inaugural Irish Inter-Provincial Competition played also at Portmarnock in August. In September he won the Irish Open Amateur Championship at Royal County Down Golf Club at Newcastle, County Down easily beating Dr. JR Mahon in the final.  In the home internationals played at Royal Porthcawl Golf Club at Glamorgan, Wales, he won two of his three singles matches but only managed to halve one of his three foursomes matches. At the end of the year Henry Cotton wrote: “I am still asked how good is Jimmy Bruen….I tell them quite frankly that in him we have the best young player in golf to-day, and he is not very far away from the first flight of professional golf either.”

1939:  In May, Bruen played in the Amateur Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake but was beaten by one hole (with the help of a stymie) in the last eight by Walker Cup player Alex Kyle.  In the Irish Close Championship at Rosses Point Golf Club, County Sligo, in June he was beaten 3/1 in the 5th round by Gerry Owens, a leading Irish player who went on to win the championship.  At the Open Championship at St Andrews in early July he was considered as one of the top three favourites.  With his mother now spectating he led the 129 qualifiers by four strokes with a 69 on each of the Old and the New Courses.  He played less well in the four rounds of the championship proper; some said that he was disconcerted by the crowds (up to 8,000), poorly marshalled but all wishing to see him play close-up, and he finished eight strokes behind the winner (Richard Burton) but still won the Silver Medal for Leading Amateur.  A week later he competed in the Irish Open Championship at Royal County Down  opening with a record-breaking 66; but by now, clearly tired, he fell away to sixth place although was still the leading amateur.

Championship golf was largely discontinued in Britain and Ireland during World War II but Bruen continued to play frequently, winning the Cork Scratch Cup for the third and fourth consecutive times (1940 and 1941) and other domestic trophies, often with amazing scores. He considered joining the British or Irish army (but without parental encouragement) and after a short spell in a textile factory in Cork he joined an Irish Insurance Company in Tralee, married in 1945 Eleanor (“Nell”) Cremin with whom he had played that first round of golf in Bundoran when aged eleven, and eventually went into insurance broking on his own account. After the war he played in the Amateur Championship in 1946 beating Robert Sweeney by 4 and 3 in the 36-hole final having broken a 7 iron club playing out of heavy scrub (he had already broken a club in the semi-final!) which he replaced by a similar club which Henry Cotton, that day a spectator, was using as a walking-stick.  This turned out to be the pinnacle of his career in golf.  Due to business demands he did not play in either the Irish Amateur Championship or the Open Championship that year; and then in March 1947 he severely damaged his right wrist at practice hitting balls from bad lies fabricated by his standing on the ball, damage which involved ligaments and the carpal bones in the wrist and which, despite best medical and surgical attention and intermittent partial relief, was to prevent a return to his previous form.  (He did not improve matters by the fact that he was a “do it yourself” enthusiast and liked to garden and construct minor building works at his house!)  As a result he declined to be considered for the 1947 Walker Cup matches, played no golf at all in 1948 but, his wrist seemingly improved, he decided to play in 1949 earning his place on the Irish team for the international matches at Portmarnock in May, where he played well; then in the Golf Illustrated Gold Vase competition at Royal Dublin he was tied first after the first 18 holes but fell away somewhat in the afternoon, and he withdrew from The Amateur Championship at Portmarnock, starting on 23 May “on medical grounds” (the wrist again). 

In August 1949 he went to the USA as a member of the Walker Cup team for the match at Winged Foot but the team was well beaten, Bruen lost both of his matches, and on return to Cork he decided on a long respite from golf, in fact until the Home Internationals in September 1950, a year later.  In these he won three and halved two of his six matches, and he also won the Daily Telegraph Amateur-Professional Foursomes at Formby in November (playing with Wally Smithers).  He was selected for the 1951 Walker Cup team for the matches in April at Royal Birkdale In the foursomes (with JLL Morgan as partner) his right wrist, after a typical crashing iron shot, became “swollen to double its normal size…. a swollen purple thing….terribly painful even on the shortest putts”, and he later had to retire as he could hardly hold a club. (The present writer, who knew Bruen, can confirm the newspaper reports of which the above is a sample, since he talked with Bruen the next day and saw the swollen and discoloured right wrist and back of hand). Bruen played no golf in 1952 though showed briefly an intermittent resurgence in interest and form in 1953, but for all practical purposes his days of serious competitive golf were over. 

Bruen did not, however, forsake golf and neither did golf forsake him. Apart from holding at one time or another honorary offices in his Clubs, he was an Irish selector (1959-1962) and a member of the central council of the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) for 1960-1962.  In 1978 the GUI decided to commemorate the memory of Bruen by inaugurating an inter-club tournament for “middle handicap players”, played by foursomes and to be called “The Jimmy Bruen Shield,” and this was met with such keen support that 151 (Irish) teams entered in the inaugural year.

In character Jimmy Bruen was a quiet, modest man popular with all; a family man of temperate habits devoted to his wife and his six children.  Outside the demands of golf he was something of a sporting all-rounder being a first class shot and proficient at table tennis, snooker and above all at sailing.  He always applied himself wholeheartedly to whatever job was in hand which included founding and building up the successful insurance broking business of James Bruen and Sons Ltd in Cork. He died quite suddenly from a heart attack in the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork on 3 May 1972, a few days short of his fifty-second birthday.

Postscript. I have not endeavoured to discuss Bruen’s famous swing (“The Bruen Loop”) and other aspects of his golf, which would be lengthy: those interested can do no better than consult the book by Bruen’s close friend and golfing associate and himself an Irish champion golfer, George F Crosbie, which is referenced below.  All the present writer need say is that “the loop” owes quite a lot to the fact that Bruen was a hurler at school: and I leave it at that!



Born: 8 May 1920
Died: 3 May 1972
Peter Froggatt
Acknowledgements:

Maud Hamill, a colleague on The Ulster History Circle, helped me to research the pedigree of James Bruen, and for this and for her ever invaluable assistance and infectious enthusiasm I and my colleagues are grateful

Bibliography:

Dictionary of Irish Biography, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy 2009; vol.1, p. 951.  Crosbie, George F (1998); The Bruen Loop; The Jimmy Bruen Story. Irish American Book Company (Boulder, Colorado): The Mercier Press.  Menton, William A (1991);  The Golfing Union of Ireland, 1891-1991; Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.  Newspapers; Family information; Personal knowledge.