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Cyril Tolley: Univ's Greatest Golfer

Published April 2016

In a month when Danny Willett became the first Briton in 20 years to win the US Masters in Augusta, Georgia, it seemed appropriate to look back to Cyril Tolley (1895-1978), the greatest golfer ever to come up to Univ. We can do so through one of the archives’ treasures, namely the sequence of Junior Common Room photograph albums maintained between 1904 and 1968.

1919 was an extraordinary year in Oxford’s history, as a whole generation of young men whose lives had been consumed by the First World War were at last demobbed, and were able to start their delayed university careers. Among the Univ intake of 1919 was a Major from the Royal Tank Corps called Cyril James Hastings Tolley, who had been awarded an MC for his leadership in the battle of Cambrai, the first significant battle to involve tanks, and who was reading Modern History. It has to be said, though, that Tolley was no academic: he seems never to have completed his degree.

In the Univ of the 1920s, however, scholarly achievement was not the only measure of an undergraduate’s fame, and Tolley proved himself a prodigious sportsman, especially at golf. Even as early as 1924 it was claimed of Tolley that he could stand in the Main Quad of Univ, and hit a golf ball from there over into the Front Quad of Queen’s.

However, Tolley’s golfing fame was soon not just confined to his College. In June 1920, during his first year at Univ, he sensationally won the Amateur Championship at Muirfield. Unsurprisingly, the College was evidently delighted at its new sporting hero. In the archives we have this menu (Fig. 1) for a special dinner held at Univ on 14 June 1920 in Tolley’s honour, just after winning at Muirfield, with a caricature of him on the front cover, with pipe and golf club.

However, it is in the albums kept by the JCR to preserve group photos of the College and its teams that we can see the man for himself.

Figure 2 is a group photograph of the College taken in the summer of 1920. Tolley is seen in close-up in Figure 3. He is the only man in the photo to be wearing a blazer, but this photo may well have been taken around the time of his Muirfield triumph, so that we may presume that no one objected to his unorthodox dress.

At the same time as winning an international golf tournament, Tolley also spent part of Trinity Term 1920 playing tennis, because he shows up in the photo of the College’s tennis team, standing on the left-hand end of the back row (Figure 4). Tennis seems to have been the only sport for which Tolley represented the College: there was no College golf team at this time, and sports like rowing, football, rugby, and cricket required a commitment which a top-level golfer would have been unable to provide.

In the 1921 group photo of the College, Tolley, is more soberly dressed, as this close-up shows (Figure 5). He doesn’t appear in the College’s tennis team this year, but he does reappear in the 1922 team (Figure 6), sitting at the right-hand end of the front row.

On leaving Univ, Tolley continued to enjoy a very successful career as an amateur golfer. He won the French Open in 1924 and 1928, and in 1929 at Sandwich he won the Amateur Championship for a second time, losing it in 1930 in a closely fought contest against another great golfer, Bobby Jones (whose son had come up to Univ. in 1925). Between 1922 and 1934 he also regularly represented Great Britain against the USA in the Walker Cup, the amateur golfer’s equivalent to the Ryder Cup. There can be little doubt that Tolley was one of the best-known British golfers and sporting personalities of the 1920s and 1930s, and many Univ men of the time would have been very proud that he was one of theirs.

However, perhaps Tolley’s greatest legacy lies not in golf, but in English common law. In 1928, Fry’s published an advertisement for its chocolates showing a caricature of Tolley with a bar of Fry’s chocolate sticking out of his pocket, and a caddy alongside him, and the following excruciating caption:

The caddie to Tolley said, Oh, Sir,
Good shot, Sir! That ball, see it go, Sir,
My word how it flies,
Like a cartet of Frys,
They're handy, they're good, and priced low, Sir.

Tolley was furious, not because of the quality of the verse, but because Fry’s had run the advertisement without his permission. Arguing that some might presume that he had accepted money for this appearance, which would have jeopardised his amateur status, Tolley therefore sued Fry’s for libel. The case went right up to the House of Lords who in 1931 found for Tolley against Fry’s. Ever since that decision, it has not been possible for a person to appear in an advertisement in this country without their consent (and, of course, many sportsmen, unlike Tolley, have accepted considerable sums as a result).

Further reading:

Nick Smith: “A History of Univ. Golf”, University College Record, Vol. 15 no. 2 (2010), pp. 110-18.