Great golf courses remembered

Golf as we know it goes back at least 500 years — a very long time. Though we can’t know all of its history (unless that’s our business) it does help to appreciate something of its background.

I could start with just about any city, town or village in Canada, but I’ll begin where I live — in Toronto. In fact, there’s a wealth of golf history within a five-mile radius of my home.

I’ll start at the Thornhill Golf and Country Club. This is where Byron Nelson won the Canadian Open in 1945 — the last of his amazing string of 11 consecutive tournament victories. That’s an amazing record that will likely never be broken in golf, even by Tiger Woods, who did manage to win six PGA Tour events in a row recently.

Members at Thornhill are rightly proud of Nelson’s accomplishment. They point to certain holes and tell guests what the great Nelson did there. Photos in the clubhouse further attest to his victory.

The Ladies’ Club

Now move across the road from Thornhill, to the Ladies’ Golf Club of Toronto. Ada Mackenzie, one of Canada’s top women amateurs ever, started the club in 1925 because she felt women should have a place to play. They cldn’t get decent times at other Toronto-area clubs, and so Mackenzie decided to start her own club. Only women can belong, although a small number of sponsored men can pay an annual fee and play there.

The course is a gem, too. Stanley Thompson, Canada’s finest architect ever — heck, there’s a society just to honour and study his works — designed it. The course is built on the same rolling landscape that one finds at Thornhill. It’s a treat of a course and a place all course architects who care about women’s golf should study.

"Directors and would-be members that have inspected the property and the Club cannot believe that our many desires and requirements could so admirably be filled," Mackenzie wrote in an article in Canadian Golfer magazine in 1924. "The beauty of the [clubhouse] and grounds is only realized when visited."

That beauty is also apparent at the Weston Golf and Country Club, further to the south and west of Thornhill and the Ladies’ Club. Here one can study the course that Willie Park, a former British Open champion, built. The club has an annual Willie Park tournament every fall that I usually play in. It’s one of those tournaments that I look forward to every year, because it honours the past while showcasing the present crop of fine amateur golfers.

Arnold who?

Weston has long been one of my favourite courses. This is where Arnold Palmer won the 1955 Canadian Open, his first win as a professional. Palmer remembers just about every single shot he hit at Weston. He swamped the field. Palmer had only recently turned professional, and so not many people knew of his ability. In fact, there wasn’t a caddie at Weston who sought his bag for the week.

"Among the caddies," Weston club historian Claude Hergott has written, "It was strictly a case of: ‘Arnold who?’"

Well, "Arnold who" went on to become somebody a name everyone would know. And just as the members at Thornhill relate stories about Byron Nelson, Weston’s members recall the time Palmer won the Canadian Open there. Not only do the older members speak of his accomplishment; the club tries to pass on this storied history to new golfers.

Golf course ghosts

Then there’s the York Downs club — it’s now Earl Bales Park but it once stood right across the street from where I live now. Here’s another Stanley Thompson course, and I can almost envision it when I jog there. I’m forever pointing out to my wife that this was a green site, and that over here was one of those traditional Stanley Thompson mounds.

Marlene Streit, another of Canada’s fine women amateurs, played at York Downs. I used to caddy there as a kid, and tried to visualize the time when I could play such fine courses. Now, when I go there, I see ghosts of golfers long gone. There’s history in the hills and dales of York Downs and I like to visit that history from time to time.

Any Canadian interested in golf history can do the same in his or her town. Montrealers could walk to the original site of the Royal Montreal Golf Club, founded in 1873; it’s the oldest golf club in North America. Golfers in British Columbia could visit and read about wonderful old Capilano Golf and Country Club, another Stanley Thompson stunner. If you would like to walk the same grounds where Canadian legend Moe Norman first picked the game up, wander over to Rockway Golf Club in Kitchener.

Walking the old courses

I like to think that the older we get the more we realize that the past isn’t only there for us to indulge nostalgic feelings. The past can be a vital presence in our lives. That’s the way it is for me — in golf anyway. Hey, here’s an idea. How about a society for golfers who like to walk older courses? Maybe we could dig up records and stories and find top players who competed at the courses. We could walk with them and reminisce.

"Seek and ye shall find." And what ye shall find is a wealth of golf history, all around you. I promise. It’s there. Just take your time and look, the better to digest what lies all around us, on the old courses across Canada.