Remembering Ronnie Shade, the best amateur golfer in the world

Shade seen in a new light”, roared the headline in the Irish Independent on 23 June, 1969. It was above a story about Ronnie Shade beating a star-studded field to record his breakthrough win as a professional, yet it remains a victory overshadowed by his amateur achievements.

Scottish golfer Ronnie Shade at the Senior Service Tournament at Dalmahoy in 1963. Picture: TSPL

In fairness, the Duddingston man was pretty amazing in the non-paid ranks before joining the professional game relatively late in his career at the age of 30. By then, he’d won a record five Scottish Amateur Championships in a row, as well as picking up the Brabazon Trophy, the prize on offer in the English Open Stroke-Play Championship, on three occasions.

In 1966, as well as winning the Scottish Amateur for the fourth time, he finished as leading individual player at the Eisenhower Trophy in Mexico, as leading amateur in the Open Championship – tying for joint-16th behind Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield – and reached the final of the Amateur Championship, losing to South African Bobby Cole. “Ronnie Shade was the best amateur in the world and for him to have played in the Lothians definitely raised the standard,” said Bernard Gallacher, who was ten years Shade’s junior as he finished runner-up to him 50 years ago last weekend as they made it a Lothians 1-2 in the Carroll’s International at Woodbrook Golf Club in Co Wicklow, the tournament that evolved into the Irish Open.

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Shade had made the switch to the paid ranks the previous October. His father John, who was the Duddingston club professional at the time, wasn’t keen on him making that move earlier in his career, though, unlike these days, it wasn’t uncommon for top players to remain amateurs throughout their careers.

According to the man who knew Shade better than anyone outside the family circle, he was probably past his best by the time he did turn professional, though rounds of 73-73-71-71 as he came out on top in a field that included the 1960 Open champion, Kel Nagle, as well as nine players who went on to become members of the GB&I team that tied with a star-studded US side in the Ryder Cup later that year at Royal Birkdale, would possibly suggest otherwise.

“It surprised me how well he did as a professional considering I thought he was past it,” said Finlay Black, who played his golf at Caldwell in Renfrewshire when he first crossed swords with Shade before becoming a close friend after joining Prestonfield in Edinburgh. “When he won his five Scottish Amateurs in a row from 1963-67, that to me was something else. But I played with him in the Home Internationals in 1968 and we weren’t very good, to put it mildly. I was pretty bad and Ronnie wasn’t much better. But he then turned professional and started winning things.”

Ronnie David Bell Mitchell Shade was his full name. Those first four initials led to him being nicknamed “Right Down the Bloody Middle”. His swing was more mechanical than stylish, but it was certainly effective. “No-one I have ever seen, even to this day, hit the ball as straight as Ronnie did,” added Gallacher. “He was an extraordinary player, and I can still picture his dad, John, teaching him down at Duddingston.”

There is a simple reason Black, a Scottish and British internationalist himself, chose Prestonfield, where he is the current club president, and not Duddingston to play his golf in the capital. “Because Ronnie was there and he normally beat everyone,” declared 84-year-old Black, laughing. “But it didn’t stop us developing a great friendship over the years. Along with Renton Laidlaw [who was golf correspondent for the Evening Dispatch at the time], we used to meet on a Friday night at the Canny Man’s in Morningside and give Renton all his material for the next week from our points of view on the game.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of Shade’s success in the Carroll’s International – he picked up a cheque for £2,000 from a prize pot of £10,000, which was the largest on offer in European golf at the time – a ceremony was held last weekend close to the cairn outside the front door of the Duddingston clubhouse that pays tribute to both Ronnie and his father with the simple words: “They Played The Game”.

“I was still a junior when Ronnie was making his mark in the game, but he was the role model for everybody and it was a big treat getting the chance to play with him because he was just so good,” said Mike Power, who organised the fitting tribute to the capital club’s favourite son. “I remember sitting in the clubhouse one day and the group of guys Ronnie had been playing with had come in and one of them said in a hushed voice, ‘Ronnie missed the 15th fairway’ and we were all surprised. That’s how good the guy was.”

Tragically, Shade was only 47 when he died in 1986 after a long illness, his passing being felt by many at the time, including another of his clubmates, Ewart Thomson. “Deary me, that was really sad,” he recalled. “He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer and was receiving treatment. I can remember quite clearly to this day that I met him on a Saturday morning in the clubhouse and he said he’d been released from the hospital the night before.

“He then said that he had a tumour in his stomach and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when he said that. He said he’d been given nine months to live and he turned to me and said, ‘would you like a drink?’. Unfortunately, a few people later on thought Ronnie was an excessive drinker. That wasn’t the case, but I think you could understand he was drinking a wee bit more after being diagnosed with cancer and having only nine months to live.”

Shade’s spirit lives on at Duddingston, the club he more than anyone helped put on the golfing map. “He would travel all over the world to play in events, yet he would still turn up at the club to play in team matches because, first and foremost, he was a Duddingston player,” added Thomson, the club champion 60 years ago. “The impact he made on Duddingston was special. Whenever you mention Duddingston to people, they always say, ‘that was Ronnie Shade’s club’. That is lovely to think, isn’t it?”