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The Bruen Loop
© 2000, Douglas MacKenzie - All rights reserved
James Bruen, one of the most talented amateurs Ireland ever produced, played his part in two events which marked an end, however temporary, in US domination of golf. There were few who thought the Walker Cup at St Andrews in 1938 would result in anything other than a comprehensive American victory, making it ten wins out of ten for them since the competition’s inception in 1922. The previous meeting, at Pine Valley in 1936, had been a humiliation with the GB&I team unable to win a single match. All accounts of 1938 point to the 18 year old Bruen being inspirational and his belief that the Americans could be beaten was reinforced by his performance in the top foursome when, with partner Harry Bentley, three down at lunch to John Fischer and Chuck Kocsis, a four under par round in the afternoon secured a half. This helped the home side hold a one point lead going into the singles on the second day. Although Jimmy Bruen lost his singles match his belief spread through the team which went on to a rare 7-4 victory, the last until 1971.

The British Amateur Championship had been won by Americans six times between the wars and five of the seven after the second world war also went across the Atlantic. The two exceptions were the Irish successes of Sam McCready in 1949 and Jimmy Bruen who defeated Robert Sweeny in the final at Royal Birkdale in 1946.

There is little doubt that, had the war not intervened and an injury to his wrist shortened his career, Bruen’s haul of honours would have been much higher but, for all that, it was not how what he won but how he won it that attracted the spectators of the time: the famous ‘Bruen Loop’. There are those who argue that his unorthodox style led to the injury, he, himself thought not, and even in his prime, shrewd judges such as George Duncan said his swing would not stand the test of time. Henry Cotton, on the other hand, whom Bruen consulted about his swing had him try a ‘normal’ swing, with which he still hit the ball well if not as far, but recommended he stay with his loop as he felt it would last. Cotton also called him the best golfer in the world, amateur or professional. P A Ward-Thomas, historian of the R&A, mentions Hogan, Cotton, Thomson and Snead but maintained that none had a greater dramatic appeal than Bruen and describes his swing thus:

‘He drew the club back outside the line of flight and turned his wrists inward, to such an extent that at the top of the swing the clubhead would be pointing in the direction of the teebox. It was then whipped, no other word describes the action, inside and down into the hitting area with a terrible force. There was therefore in his swing a fantastic loop, defying all the canons of orthodoxy, which claims that the back and downswing should, as near as possible, follow the same arc. There must have been a foot or more between Bruen’s arcs of swing.’

James O’Grady Bruen was born in Belfast on 8 May 1920 but his family soon moved back to the traditional family home in Cork. As a child he played rugby, football and hurling from which his swing may derive. His first attempt at golf was partnering his father at age 11 at the Muskerry club. (Later he moved to the Cork Club). He found a new sport, and in his younger opponent that day, a wife to be. He first entered the British Boys’ Championship at Aberdeen at 15 and won it at Royal Birkdale the following year. That same year he reached the quarter finals of the Irish Amateur Closed Championship and, in 1937, won that competition at Ballybunion. The year after his Walker Cup debut he entered the Open Championship at St Andrews, was the leading qualifier with a 69 in each of the qualifying rounds and, with a four round total of 298 in the championship, was 13th, and leading amateur, eight shots behind the winner Dick Burton. He won the Irish Open that same year.

He contracted a severe case of rheumatic fever during the war and the injury to his wrist, lifting a garden tile in 1946, required surgery. He played little competitive golf after this and stopped altogether after the Walker Cup in 1951. Pat Ward-Thomas, however, recounts a rare appearance when the amateur championship came to Portrush in 1960,

‘His wrist had begun to hurt in practice but, after some hesitation, he decided to play. His golf was still impressive, even though its old power had gone, and he was soon in a winning position; but the wrist was swollen and he withdrew from the match rather than scratch after winning. This glimpse, brief though it had to be, was infinitely worth while for it stirred memories of the most fascinating golfer I have ever seen, or probably ever will see. There will never be another quite like him’.

He is remembered in a tangible way by the Jimmy Bruen Shield, an annual club competition in Ireland competed for by five foursomes from each club.

Sources include: P A Ward-Thomas, Masters of Golf; Henry Cotton, The Game of Golf (1948); G F Crosbie, The Bruen Loop (1999).