by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
Members of the Winnipeg Golf Club (WGC), established in 1894 as the city’s first club dedicated to the “royal and ancient game,” proved to be wandering spirits, who were never content to put down roots in a single location for too long. As a result, club members established five courses in and around Winnipeg over the years of its existence.
While the WGC was engaged in a search in the early 1900s for a location to build a new golf course, it continued to rent land near Lyndale Drive from the Norwood Improvement Company, owners of the Norwood toll bridge, for a nominal fee of $20 per year.
According to the May 11, 1907, Morning Telegram, the realty firm of F.W. Heubach, Ltd., “placed the old golf grounds property (at Happyland), now Canora and Ethelbert streets, from Portage avenue to the Assiniboine river, on the market.”
The golf course was the victim of progress, as residential developments began to surround the golf course, which became a common theme whenever the WGC attempted to establish a golf links within the city. With the grounds on the market, the clubhouse was moved from the Portage Avenue site to the new Norwood course.
Demand for the residential lots south of Portage Avenue was great, “as both streets (Canora and Ethelbert) are high class locations for residences.”
All homes in the subdivision were restricted to a minimum of construction value of $3,500, and no building could be erected within 20 feet of the street line. The imposition of building restrictions by developers was a practice first used when Crescentwood subdivision lots went on the market in 1904.
According to the feature article, The Royal and Ancient Game of Golf, published on September 5, 1908, in the Manitoba Free Press, the first years at the new Norwood links (the second WGC location in Norwood near Lyndale Drive; the first was near the Norwood Bridge) were not “altogether encouraging. The course was poor, the enthusiasts few, no events were held and predictions were freely made that the club would not long survive.”
The rapid growth of the city was encroaching upon the WGC links at Norwood, resulting in a motion being passed in October 1908 to purchase land in another location to build a new golf course.
“The march of improvement is inexorable, as where to-day the members congregate and the general foursome is in evidence, to-morrow will be paved streets and handsome residences,” according to the September 5 article. “The question of moving has always been discussed, but next time it will be to stay.”
By 1908, membership was no longer a problem, as there were 150 male and 100 female members with a number of people on a waiting list to join the WGC.
At the 14th annual meeting of WGC, the club was making overtones to move to new grounds in the Tuxedo Park development. Heubach was instructed by the grounds committee to look into for how long and for how much land could be leased at Tuxedo Park, which was comprised of the 2,000-odd-acre former Mary and Archibald Wright farm as well as other properties to bring the total to about 3,000 acres.
Instead of Tuxedo Park (when the development was underway in 1906 one of its selling features was a proposed golf course, but a Tuxedo course wasn’t approved until 1932), the WGC chose to relocate to 120 acres of land, termed lots 39, 40 and 41, which the club purchased for $32,000 along Crescent Road (now Roblin Boulevard), south of the Assiniboine River. The March 23, 1912, Free Press, when relating the background of the relocation, said the purchase was regarded by many club members with suspicion in September 1909, despite the low cost of the property.
“In 1910 the present upward real estate movement began and no district felt its effects more than the one in question. By 1911 the price had advanced so that the management began to look around for another location with the idea of selling the Crescent Road lots.”
Although they built a nine-hole course along Roblin, which was completed in 1910, the members of the Winnipeg Golf Club, Ltd., never played a single round of golf on the links.
The WGC sold 60 acres in the eastern portion of the site (west of today’s Alcrest Drive) in 1911 for $90,000 to a real estate syndicate. The remaining land the club owned in Winnipeg was marketed as a new residential development through the Hall Company, Ltd., a real estate firm and insurance company based in the Great-West Life
Assurance building at 6294 Main St.
The Alcrest subdivision was called “the cream of Winnipeg’s residential properties” in a May 12, 1912, full-page Free Press advertisement. The accompanying map of the subdivision in the ad contained names of streets that never, or have since, ceased to
exist, including Mull, Travis, Hilton and Bain streets, as well as Bard, Hedley, Bedford and Cuthbertson avenues. The only street shown on the map still in existence is Haney.
The WGC’s land transactions resulted in a tidy profit being realized, but future events would indicate that the outcome of the sale was more disruptive than beneficial to golfers using the Roblin Boulevard course.
With plenty of cash in hand, the club obtained a long-term lease from Elisha F. Hutchings, the owner of Great West Saddle Company in Winnipeg, for property in Birds Hill. A March 23, 1912, Free Press report said the club had “spent a lot of money upon” the golf course. “Indeed, if the new links at Bird’s Hill (old spelling included the apostrophe) had not been acquired it was the intention to start playing there this year.”
The newspaper said the new Birds Hill location was so appealing to a club blessed with “a plethora treasury” — the result of the Alcrest land sale —that it was an opportunity too “incredible” to be ignored. “To have a real championship links coupled with a beautiful view ... It is no wonder that the stock subscriptions which had to be begged for in September 1910, should go to $300 a share — and hard to get at that.” The prediction was that shares would soon rise to $500.
By the fall of 1911, the WGC had
already spent $12,000 on the Birds Hill course. “The successful sale of the
(Alcrest) subdivision will mean that the work remaining to be done upon the Bird’s Hill links ... will be completed this season (it actually took another year), that a handsome club house will be built, and that questions in relation to transportation will be easily solved.”
Unfortunately, the relocation was not greeted with universal approval and eventually contributed to a division in the club’s ranks.
The sale of the Alcrest lots “was a turning point in Winnipeg golf,” according to a July 16, 1920, Free Press article on the history of the local game, by H.H. Pigott, an early member of the WGC.
“The subsequent advantageous sale created a fund which was available for the development of the Bird’s Hill links, and this in turn led to the other courses which are now the pride of Winnipeg golfers (Elmhurst and Pine Ridge). Without that fortunate deal Bird’s Hill might never have been discovered as a golf Mecca, and our golf history would undoubtedly have been very different.”
Actually, WGC members may have been the first to lease land in Birds Hill and commence building a course, but the Pine Ridge Golf Club, an offshoot of the St. Charles Country Club, was the first to complete a course in the area, opening its 6,490-yards links on a quarter-mile square piece of property in 1912.
The “beautiful” WGC links at Birds Hill officially opened on August 23, 1913. In describing the new course on 100-acres of land to an unnamed Free Press reporter, Harold Keene, the secretary of the WGC, said it would take time before the course would be completed to the satisfaction of the club’s membership. Work was still underway on bunkers, the fairways of some holes, as well as some greens.
“When we acquired the property about two years ago it was a forest and fields ...,” Keene explained as the reason behind the difficult and ongoing construction process.
The 18-hole 6,052-yard par-73 course was designed by Tom Bendelow, who was the architect of over 700 courses in Canada and the United States. Bendelow took advantage of a picturesque main ridge running east and west through the property when designing the course. In later articles, the Birds Hill club house on the crest of a hill was described as only exceeded in grandeur by the accommodations at the St. Charles Country Club.
A March 23, 1918, Free Press map of the area shows the WGC’s Birds Hill course about a kilometre directly south of the Elmhurst and Pine Ridge golf clubs in the RM of Springfield.
The Elmhurst club, organized in 1914 and initially referred to as the Prairie City Golf Club, Ltd., played at the golf course laid out by the WGC off Roblin Boulevard.
In 1914 under the name Elmhurst Golf Club, members leased a quarter section of land for 999 years from J.H. Ferguson of Winnipeg adjacent to the Pine Ridge club in Birds Hill, but continued to play at the Winnipeg course until their new links were ready for golfing in 1917. According to a 50th anniversary special on the Elmhurst club, published in the Free Press on April 4, 1964, the clubhouse didn’t open until 1918.
A brief mention in the May 29, 1914, Free Press, about the club leasing land in Birds Hill, indicated the Alcrest land on which the clubhouse and course stood was then owned by E.E. Ball. He allowed the Elmhurst club members to use the course free of charge, and in appreciation he was given an honorary life membership in the club. By this time, the WGC membership had split into two divergent groups.
J. Alan Hackett, who wrote the 300-page book, Manitoba Links, A Kaleidoscope History of Golf, said the Winnipeg Golf Club ceased to exist in 1914, when it became the Norwood Golf Club.
In an interview prior to his death, he told Free Press columnist Tim Campbell for an article published on May 13, 2004: “The reason was that a lot of people left the Norwood Club and started a club out at Birds Hill and called it Winnipeg Golf Club Ltd. When I was researching (the history of golf in Manitoba), two Winnipeg golf clubs made it very confusing. Getting to the bottom of that was interesting.”
Indeed, it is extremely confusing to be confronted by two different groups claiming the right to the legacy of the WGC name. It is difficult to separate the two entities as the WGC name for the membership at the Birds Hill course persisted in newspaper reports until 1931.
The confusion is a direct result of the members of the WGC choosing to split into two groups — one remaining at Norwood, while the other opting to move to Birds Hill and retain the Winnipeg Golf Club name.
The Winnipeg Golf Club, Ltd. came into existence before the establishment of the Norwood Golf Club, and arose when the club became involved in Alcrest real estate transactions. Newspapers of the era made it plain that the WGC membership formed a company in order to sell the club’s land holdings. In 1914, the club playing at Birds Hill was still made up of original WGC members.
In a July 4, 1913, Free Press article, the WGC was reported to have “outgrown the old links at Norwood ... this being the seventh season at Norwood. A stock company, having a provincial charter, and known as the Winnipeg Golf Club, Ltd. with the authorized capital of $50,000, is now the centre of interest. Four years ago the members bought land on Crescent Road (now Roblin Boulevard), but it was found to be too flat and low and was abandoned for a fine site, secured two years ago at Bird’s Hill.”
Alex “Sandy” Weir, the author of the Tee Topics column in the same newspaper, said he wrote Jack Cuthbert in 1964 when attempting to compile an early history of golf in Winnipeg, since club records from the period were extremely scanty and he needed the help of original members to fill in the gaps. Cuthbert, at the time the club pro at the Calgary Country Club, replied he played his first golf in Winnipeg in 1912, which was the year he won the WGC championship.
“The Winnipeg club was then at Norwood, the only club in the city aside from St.Charles, and became the Norwood Golf Club when the Winnipeg Club moved to Bird’s Hill somewhere around the start of the First World War,” added Cuthbert, who was the Manitoba amateur champion in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1925, and won the Manitoba Open in 1925 (November 27, 1964, Free Press).
A June 26, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune article, 50 Years of Golf Activity: Norwood Marks Anniversary, which said the Norwood club “was known as the Winnipeg Golf Club, but later, in 1914, to avoid confusion with the later-formed Winnipeg Golf Club, Ltd., the name was changed to Norwood.”
The confusion may have also arisen from the fact that Norwood and the WGC had been associated with one another off and on since 1894, when the Winnipeg club built the first golf course in the city. There was a break in the association with Norwood when the club relocated to its Portage Avenue site in the same year. The association was re-established when the club returned to Norwood and built its second course in the area. This association was technically broken once again with the relocation to Birds Hill, but members remaining at Norwood persisted in maintaining their legacy was to carry on as the founding golf club in Winnipeg.
Later accounts always referred to the Norwood club as being the original WGC. The Free Press in its June 26, 1944, account of the 50th anniversary of the WGC echoed the Tribune in claiming the Norwood club had the right to celebrate its 50th year in the city, originating in 1894 as the WGC, “but the name was changed in 1914 when a number of members decided to break away from the mother club and lay out an 18-hole course at Birds Hill.”
The October 30, 1961, Free Press article, First Golf Course Here was ‘Cow Pasture,’ by Roger Newman, recounted the WGC’s moves from Norwood in 1894 to Happyland in the same year and back to Norwood.
“The next milestone occurred in 1914,” wrote Newman, “when a group of the original club members broke away to form a new course at Birds Hill. At that time, the club removed the word ‘Winnipeg’ from its title and became officially known as the Norwood Golf Club.”
The Norwood club officially disbanded in 1948 when the Lyndale Drive housing project got underway, swallowing up the golf course lay-out. Its members dispersed to other golf clubs throughout the city.
(Next week: part 4)