A life in golf – David Moffat

Dean Bailey meets Northumberland golf legend David Moffat to talk about his career, playing with Open champions and Ryder Cup players, and being part of a golden age for golf in the county.

There are people in golf who play the game, talk about it, and live it the right way. David Moffat is one of the finest examples of that ideal. Not one to boast of his achievements, at 86 he exudes total passion for the sport and tells the stories of his contemporaries and the players who’ve followed in his footsteps with vigour and encyclopaedic knowledge.

David, or Moff as so many know him, had a long and successful playing career himself too. While once tempted to turn professional in his late teens, he remained an amateur throughout his playing career. He would combine golf with work – first in the family business, a menswear shop in Old Eldon Square, before becoming an agent for brands including John Letters and later working in retail – first at Parklands with Andrew Mair, then finally with Philips Golf until his retirement at the age of 79.

Having picked up the game as a boy, following in the footsteps of his father – a county player and winner of the Inter-County Foursomes [then the Chronicle Cup] in 1927 and 1939 – David joined Benton Park before the club’s move to Arcot Hall. He then settled at the City of Newcastle in 1951.

David at the City of Newcastle in 1957

He began to focus on golf at the age of 12 and got his first handicap of eight – not quite as low as his great friend Jimmy Hayes, whose first handicap was one, David recalls.

“My earliest days on the course were with my father, a good player himself,” says David. “I had a few lessons with Herbert Jolly [who played in the first Ryder Cup] before moving across to the City at 13. I was coached by the fantastic Jack Armitage, who did a lot for me throughout our friendship.”

For many years, David would cycle to the practice ground early in the morning before work – hitting as many balls as he had in the bag as often as he could.

“The professionals who coached me as a youngster gave me a great deal and I’m forever grateful for that. As a boy, I worked a lot on my game, hitting balls and copying good players. The great Jimmy Snowdon was someone I looked up to. When I first played against him in the County Championship, he made sure to only beat me 4&3 when he could have thrashed a young lad.”

David at The Boys’ Championship in 1952

Having shown promise, David continued to reduce his handicap and won the first of his eight club championships at the City as a 17-year-old in 1954. That year also saw him play for England Boys. He would represent England multiple times between then and 1967, playing in international matches and in two European Teams Championships in Belgium and Sweden – winning the latter with a team including Michael Bonallack, Rodney Foster and Northumberland’s Alan Thirlwell.

“The European Championships were brilliant for a young lad from Newcastle who hadn’t travelled a lot for golf. We got a super win in Sweden with Frank Pennink taking one hell of a team over.”

In the 1960s, Northumberland experienced a golden age of golf. Players including Amateur champion and Walker Cup player Gordon Clark, two-time English Amateur champion and Walker Cup player Alan Thirlwell, Jimmy Hayes, Neville Dunn and Peter Davidson shone locally and nationally. The county team also won a lot – including the English Counties Championship in 1960, 1962, 1964 and 1965. David played in all four of those wins, and two more losses in the national final, while amassing a winning record in his 67 matches for the county.

“There were so many truly great players in Northumberland at that time, many of whom won on far bigger stages than I ever did,” says David.

The victorious Northumberland team at the 1960 English Counties Championship at Skegness. Back row l-r Bob Gill, Keith Tate, Stanley Lunt, Alan Thirlwell, Leslie Jones and David Moffat. Front row Jimmy Hayes, Peter Davidson and Gordon Clark

“My great friend and foursomes partner Gordon Clark was formidable and we shared a great partnership in county colours – though we were keen rivals locally. He got the absolute most out his game and never stopped trying – even winning the Scottish Seniors after recovering from a heart attack.

“Jimmy Hayes was a tremendous player as well, while Peter Deeble – who came in a little later on – was one of the best ever with two appearances in The Walker Cup and a pair of English Amateur wins.

“During the time when we went to six national finals, we were some team. Thirlwell and Hayes, myself and Clark, Davidson and Keith Tate – those pairings didn’t lose many matches in the foursomes. The camaraderie was fantastic too – we were a band of brothers.”

Individual honours – a subject David isn’t one to linger on – were also racking up at the same time. He won five Northumberland County Championships (1958, 59, 61, 67, 69) and led qualifying four times, including in 1955, 56 and 57 while winning the double in 1967. A hat-trick of 72-hole strokeplay titles (1963, 64 and 76) added to his impressive CV, which he capped with back-to-back Seniors’ Championships in 1997 and 98.

“There wasn’t a great deal to play in those days with just three county events, including the foursomes, but the competition was fierce.

England – European Teams Championship 1963

“My first County Championship win in 1958 was a memorable one. I’d been knocked out of The Amateur in the early rounds and caddied for Thirlwell, who got all the way to the final after beating the legendary Bob Charles. I came home, practised that week, made it all the way through at the City and beat Neville Dunn in the final.

“I made it to seven finals in total – including a great one I lost to Jimmy Hayes. The greatest joy however was defending a title, which I did once in each tournament, proving, at least to myself, that they weren’t flukes.”

In 1972, David also won the Champion of Champions at Arcot Hall. “It’s just over 50 years ago now, but I still remember the day – a blustery one. I played with Harry Ashby, shot rounds of 73 and 66, and beat Harry to the title. Winning an event like the Champion of Champions was a tremendous honour because of the quality of the field. There were some hellishly good players in the 1960s and 1970s from Northumberland and Durham, so that win meant a great deal.”

With success on the golf course and a flexible work schedule came opportunities to play in tournaments and exhibitions when the game’s biggest stars visited the North East – a regular occurrence as they looked to supplement their modest incomes at the time.

Bobby Locke (third from left) at Dinsdale Spa in 1958

David played with [and outscored, though he’ll not tell you that himself] four-time Open champion Bobby Locke in an exhibition at Dinsdale Spa in 1958.

“Playing with Locke was an honour,” he says. “I was incredibly nervous and couldn’t hit my hat in the six-hole warm up. Over lunch, he put his arm around me and said ‘I’m just a man you know’ which was incredibly kind. He was a charming man to play with.”

David played with three more Open champions – Tony Jacklin, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo – who he met in the matchplay stages of The Amateur Championship at Royal Liverpool.

“A teenager at the time, Faldo had won everything in 1975,” says David. “I was in my late 30s by this time and was very quickly 2dn. I got a couple of birdies and was back to square with a three at the 16th. We halved the last two, Faldo knocked it out of bounds at the 19th, and that was that. Gerald Micklem [who played in four Walker Cups] told me to buy every paper I could tomorrow as this boy was going to be one of the best we’ve ever seen. I got knocked out the next day and headed home – and Gerald was right.”

David also had the opportunity to play with long-time friend and tour pro Dave Thomas multiple times in exhibitions, as well as Ryder Cup stars Dai Rees, Christy O’Connor Snr and Peter Alliss to name just a few.

While golf is one cornerstone of David’s life, the other is his wife of more than 60 years, Nancy. “We would travel together sometimes, including to the European Teams in Belgium, and she has been the most fantastic supporter of my golf.

“Marrying Nancy was my only achievement to move me from the sport pages at the back of the paper onto the front, which says a great deal.”

l-r David Moffat, Jack Hermeston and John May in 2015

Having achieved so much on the course, as big a part of David’s life in the game has been supporting multiple generations which followed him – from serving two terms as county captain in 1977-78 and 1985-86 to continuing to attend county events and team matches.

“Northumberland has a great record of producing golfers – from David Curry and Shaun Philipson from Prudhoe to probably the best of them all, Kenneth Ferrie. That legacy continues today with national champions like Andrew Minnikin and Walker Cup players including Chris Paisley and Matty Lamb. That said, I think you’d walk many miles to find a better golfer than Sandy Twynholm. All these players have added, and continue to add, so much to the county’s great history in the game, along with our PGA professionals, including my friend Steve McKenna at The City.”

Though his rounds of golf are limited these days – David played four times in Portugal in 2022 – he still swings a club regularly at home and can be found chipping and putting in the summer.
“I’m still always thinking about golf and the swing,” he says. “I swing the driver I used for 30 years at home – though the game has changed a lot since those days.”

While golf has moved forward – for better and worse – David says there’s one element all the great players still share. “The same thread runs through them all. There’s a little voice in your head which makes winning difficult and every golfer fights that. The very best overcome it. For them, brilliant is simply ordinary.”

A gifted storyteller with an incredible ability to recall not only his own golf career, but that of his peers, mentors and those who followed him, David Moffat undoubtedly deserves his seat at the top table of Northumberland golf – even if he’d never claim it for himself.