Bruen, Jimmy

Jimmy Bruen Born: Belfast, 8 May 1920

James O’Grady Bruen (Jimmy Bruen) was born 8 May 1920 in Belfast to James and Margaret Bruen. At eleven years of age while on holiday at Rosapenna he started to play golf at Bundoran G.C. . His playing partner at that time was, coincidentally, to become his future wife (Nell). His father saw the potential and purchased a set of cut down clubs which he used during long hours of practice at the Alister MacKenzie designed Cork G.C.. While there he came to the attention of Jack Higgins the local pro and runner-up to Fred Daly in the 1940 Irish Professional Championship.

For a golfer who had only a relatively short competitive spell in the royal and ancient game the stories that abound are of near mythical proportions as he could regularly drive the ball over 350 yards and had equalled Bobby Jones’ record of 68 on the Old Course during the Walker Cup trials. At 19 years of age he led the qualifiers in the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1939 with two 69s and four shots ahead of Henry Cotton and Lawson Little? The child prodigy or phenomenon had his tournament years curtailed as war had intervened but his reputation was near hegemony for those of his disciples that saw him play.

At this early age clubs were made by the local professional probably still hickory shafted as the move to steel shafts had not yet caught hold in the early thirties and were likely quite heavy. It is conjectured, although the swing of the hurl shouldn’t be ruled out, that the weight of his father’s driver which he regularly practised contributed to the birth of the Bruen Loop as he would take it on the outside to manage the club’s weight and to clear his stoutish frame.

The speed of the clubhead was enormous, His hands only became cocked at a very late stage in the hitting area and the ever increasing speed was multiplied by a rapid uncock and crossing over of the hands.

C.E. Andersen

JB joined Muskerry G.C in order to secure the handicap he needed to play in the Boys championship the following year and it was here he received his first handicap of 6 at 15 years old in 1935. Presumably they were skeptical upon receiving his first three scorecards and invited him to play in a fourball, which included Dr. Billy O’Sullivan, to test the veracity of his submission. At the time JB was a student at the Presentation Brothers College in Cork.

JB won the Boys Championship at only his second attempt in 1936 beating William Innes (Lanark G.C.) by 11/9 at Royal Birkdale, his handicap by now was +1 and tales of his genius were beginning to permeate there way into the public domain as witnesses were recounting tales of his length. His maturity when playing the game was exceptional in the Boys’ Championship he recorded a 71 in his first round which was 7 strokes below the SSS.

Bruen had just taken delivery of a set of Fred Smyth golf clubs and a Ben Sayers putter from Royal Birkdale. In 1937 he beat John Burke in the Irish Close Championship by 3/2 and proceeded to play in the Irish Open Championship at Royal Portrush despite being asked to withdraw for medical reasons and was leading Irish amateur with joint 6th overall.

Bruen clocked up many notable results during the 1937 season all of which secured his place on the Walker Cup team which was to rack up its first win for the GB+I team at St. Andrews. His practice rounds during the Walker Cup trials just enhanced his reputation at the game and many accolades were being paid to him even before the formal event. He had equalled Jones record of 68 around St. Andrews and was putting below par figures together for all his practice rounds. George Greenwood of the Telegraph wrote “Bruen is as much a golfing genius as Jones or Henry Cotton…”

Bruen arrived at the 1938 Walker Cup with a handicap of plus 4 and gave the Amateur Championship at Royal Troon a miss so he could devote all his energies and attention to playing for his country. He likely put so much store in this event that the pressure got the better of him and while he halved the foursomes and lost the singles it was clear her wasn’t firing on all cylinders. At the age of 18 he led the Walker Cup team into battle and, while caught in his slipstream, they were victorious for the first time ever.

Bruen returned to the Amateur Championship in 1939 at Hoylake and was strong favourite after breaking 70 on each of his practice rounds and any perceived kinks in his swing were now truly ironed out given Cotton to state : I would rather play Locke for £500 than Bruen. However Bruen was stopped in the sixth round by Alex Kyle (Sand Moor G.C.), the eventual winner, who recovered from a bunker shot on the final hole to lay Bruen a dead stymie, nullifying his near perfect approach shot and preventing the match going down the 19th hole.

Royal Birkdale in 1946 was the scene of his greatest triumph but for all that the final wasn’t the greatest display of his golfing prowess, probably rusty from the war years and a reticence to entering the fray once more, but more an exhibition of his ability to recover from any position. Bruen met Robert Sweeney jnr., the 1937 Amateur champion from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, in the final eventually beating him by 4/3 which, apart from his first round match, was the biggest margin he had achieved during the tournament. JB decided not to play in the Open Championship citing business commitments at home allowing insufficient time to prepare for the event.

Although selected for the 1947 Walker Cup he had to decline as the wrist injury was becoming debilitating and the 1946 Amateur champion stepped aside while his wrist healed.

The loss of Jimmy Bruen was a cruel blow for the British team, because he was the automatic number one of the side, and it is a great thing to have a player at the top about whom there is no doubt.

Bernard Darwin

Before the war Bruen was a member of the County Louth Golf Club which he had regularly played with Clarrie Reddan (nee Tiernan), at the height of her powers, Jack O’Loughlin and Anderson. By 1949 Bruen was just playing golf at weekends as he managed a successful business and a growing family. He had a last minute withdrawal from the Amateur Championship in May of that year citing gastric problems. The Championship was being played at Portmarnock G.C. and outside Cork this, together with Baltray, were places where he could hone his game before travelling overseas. Laddie Lucas was captaining the Walker Cup team travelling to Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York and JB was selected on the team. The GB&I team suffered a heavy defeat and Bruen and Max McCready, the recently crowned Amateur champion, lost their foursomes match against Frank Stranahan and Chuck Kocsis. JB played Skee Riegel, the 1947 US Amateur champion, in the singles and lost 5 and 4.

Bruen’s odyssey finally ended at the 1951 Walker Cup at Royal Birkdale G.C. the scene of his greatest triumphs when his game finally succumbed to the wrist injury which had plagued him. The origins of the wrist injury like the swing are shrouded in some mystery as most stories refer to an incident during the war while gardening. However another story suggests the seeds were sown much earlier maybe as far back as 1939 when he shot a record breaking 66 around Royal County Down. On hearing his score the players went to the practice range to watch and witness the prodigious distances being recorded by the teenager. During this exhibition of power he would crack the metacarpal bones of his right hand which got progressively worse to the extent that closing his fingers would prove extremely painful and, went initially undiagnosed, but eventually led to a bone graft but it continued to plagued him and in March 1947 saw him pull out of the Walker Cup that year and he had never really recovered fully.

Henry Cotton, a great admirer of Bruen, made this prophetic observation of the teenager early on:

No man’s hands could withstand such acceleration

Henry Cotton

The loop in his swing allowed him to generate great power and speed at impact but his short game also earned many plaudits as did his silky smooth and amazing powers of recovery . However it was the enormous distances he achieved with his unorthodox swing that made their way into golfing folklore. It is suggested by Anderson that Bruen had actually two looped swings styles, the first was where he took the club on the outside and the other on the inside both with delayed cocking of the wrists which led to an incredible fast whipping motion at impact. The former was in common use before the war and in casual play while the inside loop was the more controlled shot returning, after the loop, to the conventional swing plane. While the inside loop was not the raw power seen in his other style it was still beyond anything others were remotely capable of. It must also be remember that Bruen was playing with a 15oz driver which is a third heavier than the modern drivers and, while not to mention the smaller head, tends to reduce the swing speed and as a result the distance off the tee which made the drives all the more impressive.

Bruen was 5′ 101/2 and 14 stone…a modest , polite, good humoured gentleman and a splendid companion.

C.E. Anderson

What they said:

“This young gentleman from Ireland regularly, whether in practice or in a trial match, went round the Old Course in about 69 or 70 and made it look quite an easy thing to do”

Bernard Darwin

“How good Bruen may be when golf begins again I know not; perhaps better still; perhaps never quite so good again in having lost that first careless rapture. At any rate he was excitingly good then.”

Bernard Darwin

“A golfing genius had suddenly come among us and it gave the side a tremendous lift.”

Leonard Crawley

“Bruen gave the Americans a bit of an inferiority complex”

John Beck, Captain 1938 Walker Cup team

Most people who saw Bruen’s swing said it wouldn’t last but I saw immediately that when he got to the top, his right elbow came down to his right hip and his hands flashed the club head through with such speed that the ball was hit with the biggest carry you have ever seen – up to 300 yards.

Henry Cotton

It is correct that when playing with Jimmy Bruen, when he was a teenager, from the back tees at Portmarnock he had driven the first three Greens; at the 3rd he took a line across the 5th Green, and was often in the Bunker on the left hand front of that Green.

I haven’t often related this as listeners seem satisfied that I am telling lies, but you and I know that only those who played at the time with him, or followed him, can understand his enormous power.

Harry Bradshaw (extract of letter to C.E. Henderson)

Of all the golfers I have watched down the years there was one whose game had a quality of excitement that was incomparable. Hogan and Cotton could stir the imagination..Thomson and Snead could create an awareness of beauty..but the golf of none of these men had a greater dramatic appeal for me than that of James Bruen, Citizen of Cork.

Pat Ward-Thomas

Bruen had other pursuits apart from golf and was a sailor, tennis player and was accomplished in the fields of shooting, deer stalking and wild fowling. He was a successful business man and lived with Nell at their home Castlemahon, a period home on Cork’s Castle Road near the Blackrock Castle. Bruen was president and captain, on two occasions, of the Cork Golf Club where a room was opened in his honour in 1988.

He died of a heart attack on the 3 May 1972 at the relatively young age of
51 but the 'Boy Wonder' will always stand like a Colossus in the world of
Irish golf. In the recent list of the top one hundred amateurs compiled by
Brian Keogh for the Golf Digest Ireland in 2014 he came in second. The 
legendary JB Carr, the first on this list, said of him: 
He was the best Irish Amateur I ever saw.

Video footage

Open Championship 1938 Sandwich, Kent

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