by Bruce Cherney (part2)
The Winnipeg Golf Club’s Norwood nine-hole golf course, the first ever links in the city, officially opened on Saturday afternoon, July 21, 1894. To mark the occasion, a large tent was erected and the grounds were decorated with banners and flags.
Upon presentation of their invitations, those participating in the ceremony were allowed to cross and return via the bridge without paying the usual toll imposed by the Norwood Improvement Company, which built the first Norwood Bridge in 1890.
“Miss Scarth,” the daughter of club president William B. Scarth, was given the honour of striking the first ball off the tee, and played a round accompanied by D. Simpson, the treasurer of the Winnipeg Golf Club (WGC).
The Daily Nor’Wester described the course as stretching “over some small hills to near the bush in the background and are very picturesque.”
“Considering the number of novices participating, the very windy afternoon, and the grass in some parts of the course being rather long, very fair golf was played,” reported the July 22 Manitoba Free Press. “To the casual spectator golf, similar to curling, seems rather uninteresting, but when one follows the balls round the course and watch the vain attempts to get
the ball in the holes, it is very exciting and sometimes amusing to the onlookers.”
As with playing the game, it is obvious by the reporting on the grand opening that it would take some practice by sports writers to understand the nuances of the sport and improve their golf coverage. For many of the local journalists, and the vast majority of Winnipeggers in 1894, golf was still very much an “amusing” novelty.
Still, the growing enthusiasm for the sport is evident by the fact that one week before the grand opening, there were a total of 77 members signed by the WGC, one-third of whom were women.
After the official opening of the golf course, the Free Press ran an editorial on July 23 meant to outline aspects of the game for the uninitiated. The editorial first concentrated on the alleged proper garb and accessories required by golfers, including hairdos for ladies, who it claimed should be “dressed a la pompadour with a bun (which) strikes us as very appropriate.”
When describing a putter, the writer said it was flat on both sides, “but is not the same as as the flat iron of domestic use. It can be used when cold without its outline being impressed on a blanket, and is no good to crack nuts with.”
The conclusion drawn by the writer was that a putter was “inferior to the household article.”
When describing the “golfing,” the newspaper said it resembled a garden party scattered about in search of mushrooms.
As in past reports on the game, the editorial emphasized that one of the curses of the Winnipeg golf course was badger holes inhabited by fierce denizens poised to eagerly devour any intruding ball, which necessitated having a brave dog on hand to battle the sharp-clawed burrowers in order to rescue errant balls and resume play. “When a ball goes into a badger hole the player must not take it out, but the rules do not forbid him (from) sending a terrier in to fetch it.”
Of course, the editorial was written more with amusement in mind rather than catering to any valid instructions on how to actually play the game.
The writer compared golf to life with its many ups and downs, successes and failures, “with resting places here and there upon the way, and by the time the final goal has been reached you will have learned to respect the superiority of some, and to be indulgent towards the shortcomings of others.
“This is the extent of our present knowledge of golf,” concluded the author of the editorial, admitting that while Winnipeg had become a “golf city,” many Winnipeggers had little knowledge about the game.
The WGC didn’t stay long at the Norwood grounds, opting to build a new course in the fall of 1894 on Portage Avenue, west of Mulvey School on the grounds of Happyland, an amusement park located between the major thoroughfare and the Assiniboine River.
“The new grounds are prettily situated,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on August 13, “extending to quite near the river. There are small hills and ditches which make excellent hazards and a graded road which will cross on the home stretch will be a mark for many of the unwary to come to grief over.”
A day later, the same newspaper reported it took members exactly 10 minutes to reach the grounds by streetcar from the corner of Portage and Main, “which shows that the new links have the advantage over the others as regards position.” The new course was located on the south side of Portage just 500 yards from the end of the streetcar line.
The August 14 article described the holes as extending from Portage Avenue to the Assiniboine River. The course was 2,000 yards in length, with holes “as far apart as follows: 275 yards, 180 yards, 210 yards, 165 yards, 200 yards, 150 yards, 220 yards, 225 yards, 400 yards.”
With the exception of the last hole, the layout would now be classified as similar to a nine-hole course entirely made up of par-3 holes. Of course, neither the clubs nor the balls of yesteryear matched the quality of today’s golf equipment, which made even such short yardage holes difficult to play.
According to a June 6, 1903, Free Press article, entitled The Game of Golf, the average player drove the ball off the tee (then merely small mounds of sand or earth) about 150 yards, while a good drive was 175 yards. An expert golfer with a wind at his back could only launch the ball 250 yards from a tee, which explains the hole lengths of the period.
Scores from the first play for “club buttons” on August 27, 1894, which began shortly after one o’clock in the afternoon and continued until dark, provide an example of how tough the new Portage Avenue course was to play. Professor Duncan W. McDermid, the principal of the Deaf and Dumb Institute of Manitoba (later the Manitoba School for the Deaf), won the gold “button” by shooting 55, while Thomas Robinson shot 57 to claim the silver button and Major R.N. Ruttan won the bronze by shooting 58.
Other players entered in the tournament failed to hand in their score cards, apparently embarrassed by their scoring totals. “It was further discouraging for those (who) were ending the end of the round with a splendid record to their credit,” reported the August 27 Daily Nor’Wester, “to make an unwary shot which sent the ball to the bottom of a deep ditch or landed it out of sight in the middle of a thick patch of weeds where it took anywhere from ten to fifteen shots to dislodge it. But these little things only add interest to the game as there is something pleasant about seeing one’s opponent who is leading by a few strokes run amok in this manner.”
The newspaper said a number of novices played their first game of golf that afternoon, and were observed “alternately fanning the air and hitting the ground with terrific force in their efforts to send the ball to the next hole (as a result) they realized the truth of the saying that the only way to learn golf is to hire a desert island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and play steadily for three years after which return to civilization and start playing with the beginners.”
Some of the scores recorded that afternoon by non-competition players beat or tied McDermid’s winning total. For example, D.J. Beaton marked a 53 on his score card, while R. Stewart tied McDermid’s 55. Earlier in the day, McDermid shot a round of 52, but this score was not part of the button competition. The best nine-hole score by a club member in the days proceeding the tournament was a 48 shot by McDermid.
All of the players mentioned above were noted by the Daily Nor’Wester as “beginners who are becoming quite proficient.”
John Harrison, the “golfmaster” and a veteran player originally from Scotland, shot a round of 41, “but has not yet gone for a record.” Harrison only remained with the club for a year, leaving to become a professional player in the United States.
Another tournament on October 13 that year showed that Winnipeggers were becoming more proficient at the game. C.P. Wilson won the gold button by shooting 48, D.W. McDermid claimed the silver with 51, and H. Cameron’s score of 59 was good enough for the bronze button.
For some unreported reason, the scores from the ladies’ portion of the tournament were not recorded, but Miss Fortin won the gold button, Mrs. Knight the silver, and Mrs. A. Burrows the bronze.
In subsequent years at the Portage golf course, a tournament using handicap rules was held every Saturday afternoon with gold, silver and bronze buttons awarded.
An article on August 28, 1894, in the Free Press had tips on how to play the game and avoid the frustration experienced by an unidentified Wall Street broker. After listening to words of encouragement from a New York golf club member, the broker was quoted as saying: “I would like to know where the fascination of golf comes in. I have had my hat smashed, my collar torn off, and my coat ripped off up the back on the floor of the Stock Exchange for a good cause, but I don’t see what in playing golf would compensate me for running the risk of having my shins broken.”
It seems that golf of the era was noted for being rather dangerous with a club wielded by an inexperienced player commonly striking ankles, feet and toes as well as other golfers.
The expert told the disgruntled golfer that one afternoon, he became so “interested in watching the ball obey the strokes of the different sticks (golf clubs) that I remained until dark.”
The experienced golfer explained that the game was similar to whist, with a card played badly serving as a lesson for future improvement.
“In golf playing one sees that a certain strike is required. The player picks out the particular stick for that stroke, and if his aim is true he can do what he pleases with the ball.”
The June 6, 1903, Free Press article, the Game of Golf, said very few who take up the game are willing to relinquish the sport. “A man who once commences it does not have to urge himself for the sake of the exercise to keep at it, but the biggest trouble he has is to keep away from it when he should be attending to business ... It is an effectual balm to the troubles of the day, erasing from the mind for the time being all memory of the fortunes and misfortune’s of the day’s dollar ... business cares are soon forgotten.”
The article claimed it was interesting to hear businessmen discussing with their companions “a little battered, insignificant ball, and wondering if it were better to use the brassie or niblick.”
By 1903, the WGC had a membership of nearly 150 with 43 of the members ladies. The Free Press said none of the members “can claim recognition in the first rank of golfers,” but there were “a large number of about equal rank who would be given a handicap of 5 or 6 from the first class players.”
Among the best local players mentioned was McDermid, who held the Winnipeg club’s record of 77 for 18 holes. In “merit,” he was followed by C.P. Wilson, J.F. Drummond, A.R. Hargraft, J.B. Monk, W. Ramage, K.B. Stoddart, F.L. Patton, J.S. Ewart and L.D. Ford.
The WGC expanded the Portage Avenue course to 18 holes in 1896.
A nagging problem with the course was expressed in the May 16, 1903, Free Press. The Winnipeg Riding Club received a letter from the WGC complaining that “the golf links were damaged by horsemen riding over them, and asking the members of the club to keep to the regular beaten track when on the links. Most of the riders did so, but a few, not knowing the annoyance which hoof marks on the course caused golf players, sometimes cantered over the links or practiced jumping ditches or bunkers, evidently under the impression that if they kept to the grass they could do no harm.”
Apparently, horse hooves were creating deep divots capable of making the course nearly unplayable.
The members of the riding club “heartily concurred” to the suggestions made in the WGC letter and agreed to refrain from using the course as a show-jumping arena.
Since it was first laid out, horses were a problem at the Portage Avenue golf course. Horse-drawn wagon drivers and those riding steeds were accustomed to using the old trail which ran from Upper Fort Garry westward along the north bank of the Assiniboine River. On November 5, 1894, the Daily Nor’Wester reported that the course’s fairways were in fair condition, but the putting greens were in poor shape. “This roughness is to a great extent caused by people driving wagons and machines over the putting greens in rough weather (apparently the greens offered a more solid footing than the fairways) and thus distributing the mud on the surface of the greens.”
Following the formation of the Virden Golf Club in 1892 and the WGC in 1894, courses were built and clubs established in Portage la Prairie in the spring of 1896 and Brandon in 1899.
According to the Portage la Prairie Weekly Review, the first president of the local club was Lieut.-Col. Anstruthers, who was assisted by a management committee made up of G.H. Webster, A.H. Dickins and C. Heath.
The Brandon Golf Club course and club house were established in the “neighbourhood of the court house and hospital,” according to a March 20, 1902, report from Brandon published two days later in the Free Press.
“Three years ago Dr. Gill, then of the Brandon asylum, established the club and it has steadily grown in size and popularity since.”
The most pressing concern for the WGU and its Portage Avenue course was the heavy tax burden imposed by the city. In 1902, the WGU investigated an amalgamation with the Winnipeg Tennis Club (WTC), which had its courts on Roslyn Road in Fort Rouge. The April 3, 1902, Morning Telegram said discussions on a new location were initially hindered by “the general advance in real estate values that has been made manifest in all Manitoba land, both urban and rural and suburban ... (which) interfered with their well laid plans ...
“After many deliberations it was decided, that as the (Winnipeg) Street Railway company was going to extend its (streetcar) line out on Portage into the municipality, some grounds along the line would offer the most advantages for the clubs.
“The intention of the amalgamated clubs was to form one joint stock company for the purchase of the land and then each of the separate organizations would attend to the accommodation of its members.”
It was also decided that WGC frontage along Portage Avenue would be subdivided into building lots, “so as to save frontage taxes, and the grounds would be so arranged to be attractive to the general public for whom a restaurant would be provided, so that other club members and their friends could obtain refreshments.”
The negotiations between the two clubs didn’t advance any further and a solution for the WGC's tax burden had to wait.
With the establishment of the new St. Charles Country Club in 1905, it was proposed to wind up the affairs of the WGC, but the disbanding of the club was vigourously opposed by a minority of members led by Alexander Reid and K.B. Stoddart.
At the 14th annual meeting of WGU on April 26, 1907, secretary-treasurer H.M. Trenholme’s report included a mention of the opposition to the proposal. According to the report, it was because of the opposition “that the club had such a good season on the new Norwood links. As you are aware the grounds were rented from the Norwood Improvement company at the rate of $20 per year, with the understanding that the club could have the use until building operations started.”
Trenholme reported that the WGU had spent a considerable amount of money moving the Portage Avenue club house to Norwood and in laying out the new course.
In an article on the 50th anniversary of the Norwood Golf Club, the Winnipeg Tribune on June 26, 1944, said the club, which was established in 1894 as the WGU, had in 1914 — “to avoid confusion with the later formed Winnipeg Golf Club, Ltd.” — changed its name to the Norwood Golf Club.
According to the May 11, 1907, Telegram, the realty firm of F.W. Heubach, Ltd., “placed the old golf grounds property, now Canora and Ethelbert streets, from Portage avenue to the Assiniboine river, on the market.”
Demand for the residential lots was great, “as both streets are high class locations for residences.”
(Next week: part 3)