Saturday 1 October 2016

Return of Olympic golf brings back some weird and wonderful memories

Dermot Gilleece

Published 17/01/2016 | 17:00

With the restoration of golf to the Olympic schedule in Rio de Janeiro on August 11 to 14, interest is certain to be revived in events of more than 100 years ago.
With the restoration of golf to the Olympic schedule in Rio de Janeiro on August 11 to 14, interest is certain to be revived in events of more than 100 years ago.

Many miles from these shores, it is the practice for guests at an annual golf awards dinner to deliver a rousing rendition of My Wild Irish Rose as a tribute to an outstanding player from another era. He was, in fact, Canadian not Irish and happens to have been the last winner of an Olympic gold medal for golf.

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With the restoration of golf to the Olympic schedule in Rio de Janeiro on August 11 to 14, interest is certain to be revived in events of more than 100 years ago. And the members of Hesketh GC in Lancashire will have reason for a special celebration of their own, related intriguingly to Hitler's pre-war Germany.

George Seymour Lyon, born in 1858 into a farming community south of Ottawa, was a seasoned 46-year-old when he beat Irish-American, Chandler H Egan, the reigning US Amateur champion, by 3&2 in the 36-hole final of the St Louis Games in 1904. And given an unsuccessful bid to revive golf as an Olympic sport at Augusta National for the Atlanta Games in 1996, his place in history remains secure.

Lyon, we're told, was a latecomer to the game, preferring to indulge his remarkable sporting versatility at such diverse activities as cricket, hockey, curling, tennis and baseball. Much against his better judgement, he was finally persuaded, at 38, to have his first round of golf. And was hooked instantly.

Blessed with a wonderful temperament, he had captured the 1898 Canadian Amateur title within three years, recording drives of up to 280 yards which was remarkable hitting with the equipment of the day, especially for a man of 5ft 8ins and 12st 12lbs.

He won the Canadian title on no fewer than eight occasions, the last one as a 56-year-old in his native Ottawa in 1914. Indeed he might have gone on winning it but for the outbreak of World War I. Still, the Olympics was unquestionably the pinnacle of a remarkable career.

Ironically, he had lost the final of the Canadian Amateur when, in September 1904, he boarded a train from Toronto to St Louis for Olympic competition at the 6,000-yard Glen Echo GC. From an original entry of 86, he came through stroke-play qualifying and on into the final of match-play with what local newspapers described, rather ungraciously, as "a coal-heaver's swing".

Stung by this, Lyon retorted: "Whether I play like a sailor or a coal-heaver, I never said I was proud of my form. I only do the best I can." In the event, his best was good enough to beat the outstanding American of the time. And so delighted was Lyon that he proceeded to walk on his hands through the hordes of spectators and up to the clubhouse for the presentation ceremony.

He then received what he described as "one of the finest, if not the finest trophy ever given in a golf tournament", along, of course, with a gold medal which was replaced recently by the International Olympic Committee at the request of his grand-daughter, the original having been lost some time ago. And we're told that before the evening was out, he had the entire clubhouse singing his party piece, My Wild Irish Rose.

Lyon died a few months before his 80th birthday but is remembered each year at the awards dinner of the Canadian Seniors' Championship where, as happened back in St Louis in 1904, the rafters are raised by the strains of his favourite song.

The inclusion of golf in the 1900 Games in Paris seems to have been kept as something of a secret. So it was that the accomplished American player, Peggy Abbott, competed in the nine-hole event thinking it was no more than a local tournament.

She had, in fact, been entered by her mother, who had brought her to France on a holiday. And in the absence of a medal ceremony, the pair of them returned home to Chicago unaware that Peggy had captured Olympic gold with a score of 47 while her mother was placed seventh. There was no women's event at St Louis four years later.

The men's gold medal in Paris went to another American, George Sands, who posted rounds of 82 and 85 for the 36-hole event. Given the Royal and Ancient's enthusiastic support for golf's return in Rio, it seems richly ironic that the excuse for its omission from the 1908 Games in London, was that the sport "wasn't suitable for the Olympics" - according to the R&A!

So to Hesketh and a Bavarian fir-tree which flourishes on a sand-dune close by the clubhouse, despite being used as an outside urinal during World War II, when members felt obliged to "honour" it as the "Hitler Tree". All of which has to do with a golf tournament held at Baden-Baden in conjunction with the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Golfers from seven countries - Germany, England, France, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and The Netherlands - competed in the so-called Golfpreis der Nationen (Golf Prize of the Nations), which was broadcast on German radio. By halfway, it looked as if the German duo might win, but when word came through that an English pair had rallied for victory, the car carrying Hitler to the presentation ceremony immediately headed back to Berlin with a furious Fuhrer.

Victory went to Arnold Bentley and his partner, Tommy Thirsk, who were presented with a potted fir-tree and a silver and gilt salver, inlaid with amber and crafted by a leading German goldsmith. As a gifted representative golfer just like his brother Harry, Bentley had been a member of Hesketh for 72 years when he died in 1998, aged 87.

Though the fir was planted, the salver disappeared, only to re-surface five years ago at an English auction. There, it was bought for £15,000 raised in subscriptions by members of Hesketh GC.

Known almost inevitably as the "Hitler Trophy", it is now proudly displayed in the Bentley Room of the Lancashire club.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the auction, the identity of the under-bidder was revealed. The budget of the German Golf Archive had apparently run out before that of their English rivals.

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