3rd February 2020
John Ernest Laidlay was born on 5 November 1860 at Seacliff House, near North Berwick in Scotland.
Johnny was the son of John Watson Laidlay FRSE, a wealthy indigo plantation owner and merchant and Ellen Hope. His brother was the cricketer and artist, William Laidlay.
Laidlay became aware of the game of golf and started to play whilst at Loretto School near Edinburgh between 1872–1878. Initially young John was called upon by a prefect to caddie for him but it wasn’t long before he too was swinging on the Musselburgh Links. He played in the grounds of Seacliff and at North Berwick G.C. in the holidays.
In 1878 he joined the old Luffness Club for a brief spell before moving to England. In 1883 he joined the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield.
History has portrayed him as one of the ‘last of the gentlemen golfers’, reflecting his family’s wealth and his ability to play golf at his convenience.
John Laidlay (Photo: Fine Golf Books)
In 1884, after a poor run of form, John decided to make changes to his game. At first he started to grip well down on the shaft to improve his control and this then developed into an overlapping grip with a more open stance. Not only did he find this grip helped his long game but he also became a better putter with it.
This approach to holding the club, now widely used, became known as the ‘Vardon Grip’. While Harry certainly popularised this approach it is generally accepted that Laidlay first played at a high level with it. He explained his reasoning in an article for Golf Illustrated shortly afterwards stating “that my hands being more opposite each other were more likely to work together and swing the club like a pendulum, and less likely to operate against one another.”
John Laidlay’s Overlapping Grip from Bedlam’s Great Golfers
The changes elevated his game to a position where he was welcomed as a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and quickly became capable of competing on a national level.
John Laidlay at St. Andrews (Photo: Wrench Postcard)
Laidlay played in the Amateur Championship 28 times between 1885 and 1920. He won 65 of his 91 matches during this time with his record in the seven year period 1888-1894 particularly impressive.
He won the Amateur twice at St. Andrews, in 1889 and 1891, beating Leslie Balfour-Melville by 2&1 and Harold Hilton after 20 holes respectively. He was also runner-up in 1888, 1890 and 1893 and reached the semi-finals in 1892, 1894 and 1904.
He won around 140 amateur medals during his career and played in many exhibition matches which often drew large crowds. Many of his medals are now on display at the British Golf Museum in St. Andrews.
His popularity saw him feature in a few of the earliest cigarette card series at the start of the 20th century.
John Laidlay Cigarette Cards (Photo: GolfBible)
He rarely practised – “golf can be overdone” he once said – and was known for playing his strokes off the front foot, for lurching forward threw impact and for his crouched putting stance.
He played in the Open Championship 16 times between 1885 and 1906. He recorded six top 10 finishes and was low amateur (LA) four times; 1886 Tied 8th LA, 1887 4th LA, 1888 10th, 1889 Tied 4th LA, 1893 2nd LA, 1901 Tied 7th. The closest he came to winning it was 1893 when he finished two strokes behind the winner, Willie Auchterlonie.
Laidlay represented Scotland every year from 1902 to 1911 in the international match against England. Scotland won eight of these 10 matches.
He was a member of many clubs and Captain of Prestwick (1894), Lundin Links (1894-6), Elie (1897), Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (1904-5), North Berwick (1906), Tantallon Golf Club (1906-08) and North Berwick New (1913-15).
John Laidlay (Photo: Sportfolio)
An all-round sportsmen he played cricket for Scotland on one occasion in 1878.
He married (Jane) Eileen Redmayne in Ambleside, Cumbria in January 1889. Their first son John was born there the following year. In 1891 the family moved back to Scotland and settled in Largo, Fife. The Laidlays had four more children, Richard Ernest in 1892 (who died after 15 months), (Eileen) Faith in 1895, Peter in 1896 and Robert in 1897 (who also died soon after his birth). In 1899 he returned home building the 10-bedroomed Invereil House overlooking the 8th fairway on the West Links in North Berwick.
Laidlay was a Justice of the Peace and sat at Haddington Sherriff Court.
After World War I Laidlay moved to Sunnningdale with his wife Eileen. He knew both Jack White, the club professional at the famous Berkshire club, and James Sheridan, the famous caddie master who both hailed from East Lothian and who had both caddied for him on many occasions.
In his book ‘Sheridan of Sunningdale’ James Sheridan said of Laidlay: “He was a most wonderful iron player, but wooden clubs were his weakness. Being a real wizard with the putter, the keener or more difficult the green the greater his artistry appeared. He seemed to revel in a big match and few men were his equal as a match player.”
Johnny continued to play the game at Sunningdale and recorded low scores well into his sixties.
He eventually died on 15 July 1940 aged 79 and is buried in Holy Trinity Cemetery in Sunningdale.
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