Neil Coles, one of England’s finest ever golfers, has been made a Life Member of The PGA. The eight-time Ryder Cup player, and former European Tour chairman, joins a select group to have received the honour.
Surrey-based Coles started his career as a young PGA assistant at Letchworth and went on to enjoy huge success – one of few players to win across six decades including 25 victories.
His rise to the top of world golf – which twice saw him ranked seven – was all the more remarkable given he was playing off a 14 handicap at 16.
Coles joined the PGA ranks after rejecting the chance to join his father’s shoe repair and leather business. His first job was as an assistant to Ken Adwick at Letchworth.
He later followed Adwick to Burhill before moving on to Coombe Hill with Dick Burton and Ken Bousfield. It was a talented line up with Tony Grant and Hugh Boyle also there.
“At one stage there were five from Coombe Hill in the Open Championship,” he recalls.
Coombe Hall proved a happy hunting ground with his first European Tour equivalent golf tournament win coming there with the Ballentines in 1961.
Earlier he’d won the Herts Championship aged 21 against Dai Rees and the Assistants. “That was from a standing start. It was something significant in my career.”
Coles revelled in the competitive arena and had five top 10 finishes in the Open and reckoned his best chance of lifting the claret jug came in 1961 when he shared third with Christy O’Connor behind Arnold Palmer at Royal Birkdale.
“I’m not sure if I was leading after nine in the final round but I had a very low nine holes and then went five at 10, five at 11, five at 12 – ended up with four fives in a row and that was it. It was probably pressure more than anything.
“That was the only one. At Troon (1973) I finished very strongly to get second but Tom Weiskopf was so far ahead I was never going to catch him.”
While he never tasted victory in the Ryder Cup he remained a formidable opponent and still shares the record with Colin Montgomerie for the most singles wins.
“I felt that I was equal to them, my first Ryder Cup was at Lytham and I played Gene Littler. He holed a putt on the last green for a half and I was only young then and I came into the team room and swung my clubs across the room in disappointment. And they said ‘He is the US Open champion you know!’ I just used to enjoy the fight, a lot of people didn’t and got very nervous.”
Coles competed against the Big Three of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and it’s the Golden Bear who impressed most.
“Nicklaus was a different class. I played quite a lot with Nicklaus but couldn’t fathom him out. I would look at him and think what are you thinking? I was playing with him in the last round in the Open at Carnoustie in 1975. We stood on the 16th tee and had to wait for the green. He didn’t talk much when you were playing with him but suddenly he said, ‘I need a birdie to win the Open’.
“And I thought how the hell does he know that? (Tom) Watson and (Jack) Newton tied for a play-off. Sure enough Nicklaus didn’t get a birdie, he got three pars to miss out on the play-off by one, but boy did he give it a go.”
Of his Life Member status he is genuinely pleased and says, “It’s a great honour when you think I joined the PGA way back in 1951. I was always a PGA Member unlike a lot of the players today so I have a loyalty to the PGA, that’s where I started from, the Tour came later, and it’s always nice to be recognised in this way.”
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