by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
With driver in hand, the golfer swung, striking the ball and sending it soaring upward. When it hit the ground, the ball bounced once, twice and then disappeared. Cursing, the golfer had observed his ball’s flight path and knew it had trickled into a badger hole.
If one believes the newspaper reports from the era, badger holes were a common hazard on the first golf courses in Manitoba to the frustration of the province’s then primarily novice ball strikers. With such hazards in play, it’s a miracle the golfers-in-training didn’t throw down their clubs and vow en masse never again to play the maddening game. But in fact, golf flourished despite its initial growing pains and the odd badger hole appearing on a prairie course layout to swallow up hapless balls.
The sport’s introduction to the province and Western Canada came when a somewhat eccentric and sports-minded prison warden decided idle hands were predisposed to mischief. Lt.-Col. Samuel Lawrence Bedson, who took the position as Stony Mountain Pententiary’s first warden in 1877, was noted as being both firm and fair towards inmates, as well as coming up with some novel projects to keep the Mountain’s prisoners occupied. One such enterprise was building a nine-hole golf course near the penitentiary, the first links in Manitoba’s history.
A May 24, 1889, Manitoba Free Press article provides a vivid description of the course that heralded the arrival of the “Old Scotch Game” in the province. It was described as three miles long and offering “heaps of opportunities for swiping and driving.”
It had to be one of the more unique course layouts in golf history. The fact that the course was centred around a penitentiary wasn’t unique in itself, but the many obstacles found along its layout that threatened to impede the progress of a golf ball were exceptional. “Taken all round, the Stony Mountain link is a hard one; knolls, bunkers (sandpits), ploughed land, burnt prairie, bushes and long grass all helping its diversity.” Badger holes, cottage lawns, brickworks and railway tracks all had to be traversed by a ball struck by anyone wielding clubs that then went by names quite unfamiliar to today’s golfers such as spoon, brassie, cleek (sometimes spelled kleek) and mashie, which further added to its “diversity.”
The first tee of the nine-hole course was conveniently located for the colonel immediately opposite his residence. The following holes went in a westerly direction toward the CPR station, and then along the railway tracks until the fourth hole was reached at Joe’s (Stableton) Hotel, allowing golfers to pause for refreshments. The layout then proceeded southeast across the spur line to the “track hole,” onward to the brickworks and then to Dr. Sutherland’s cottage where the course turned in a northerly direction. “The last stretch of link, crossing the ditches and the ploughing, landing you at the eighth hole on the breast of the hill, the last drive being over boulders and badger holes ... and down the same hill west to the first putting grass.”
The newspaper termed the obstacles as “pretty pronounced hazards.”
It claimed there was no reason why golf, especially among the many avid curlers then in Manitoba, “should not the roarin’ game of the dog days (of summer) ... As a healthy, honest pastime, calling for all athletic qualities, the advent amongst us is to be welcomed, and as a golf club exists in Montreal, the necessary ‘outfit’ is at once solved.”
The eastern club mentioned in the Free Press article is probably the Royal Montréal Golf Club, Canada’s first golf club, which was founded in November 1873 by Scotsman Alexander Dennistoun, who was also its first president and the captain of the club.
Since he was born in Montréal in 1849, Bedson must have learned about golf while living in the city noted for the pursuit of pastimes imported from Scotland such as curling. Bedson left Montréal before the first golf club was formed, but the game had been already played there for years. In 1826, the Montréal Herald ran a notice: “To Scotsmen: A few true sons of Scotia, eager to perpetuate the remembrance of her Customs have fixed upon the 25th December and the 1st January, for going to the Priests' Farm, to PLAY AT GOLF ... Steps have been taken to have CLUBS provided."
Bedson served with the Col. Garnet Wolseley Expedition sent to the Red River Settlement in 1870 to quell the so-called rebellion led by Louis Riel, and was subsequently put in charge of the prison at Lower Fort Garry.
The Canadian government established a federal penitentiary at the fort and Bedson became warden, serving there until Stony Mountain was completed in 1877.
The Free Press called upon other communities, including Winnipeg, to create clubs across the province.
“In Winnipeg Mr. John Baisillie and Mr. Oswald, both old time golfers, can be counted upon to take the initiative.”
The Free Press article reported the first game of golf in Manitoba was played several days earlier, and involved the pairs of Dr. Sutherland and Walter Nursey competing against Bedson and Dan Smith. The difficulty of the course is evident in the scores recorded. Sutherland and Nursey took 97 strokes to complete the nine holes, while Bedson and Smith finished with 113 on their score card.
The first mentioned pairing won despite recording a 20 on the fifth hole. But the losing twosome had an 18 on the same hole, as well as a 17 on the following hole and a 15 on the penultimate hole. The lowest one-hole score was a three for Sutherland and Nursey on the second, which was six strokes below what Bedson and Smith marked on their score card. There is no mention about what was considered to be par on the Stony Mountain course.
Two years after the first golf course in Manitoba opened, Bedson resigned as Stony Mountain warden to accept a job with the Alaska Boundary Commission (Canada was in a dispute with the United States over where the international boundary between Alaska and British Columbia should be located). While in Ottawa to prepare for the commission, the man who brought golf to Manitoba died on July 17, 1891. A special train brought his body back to Winnipeg where he was buried at St. John’s Cemetery on July 22.
Just a year after his death, the Stony Mountain golf course was probably abandoned, although Golf Manitoba claims the course closed around 1894.
While Bedson was Manitoba’s pioneer golf course architect and builder, the town of Virden can boast of having formed the first golf club in the province. The March 5, 1892, Free Press has a short note from its Virden correspondent that “an enthusiastic meeting was held here last Tuesday evening (March 1) for the purpose of organizing a golf club. It was decided to call it the Virden Golf Club.”
C.J. Thomson was elected president and captain of the club, while the other officers were vice-president P.B. Ramsey and secretary B.A. Herring.
“Golf is not a new game to our town,” wrote the correspondent, “as several played last year, but the sticks (golf clubs) arrived too late in the season to organize a club.”
It was Thomson of the Virden club who proposed bringing the game to Winnipeg, according to the July 16, 1920, Free Press article, Golf First Played Here in the Year 1893, by H.H. Pigott. That issue of the newspaper featured numerous articles on the 50 years of sports since Manitoba officially entered the Canadian Confederation on July 15, 1870.
Pigott wrote that it was not generally known that Thompson (his spelling and not the spelling without the “p” that appeared in the articles about the first years of the sport in Virden) introduced golf to Winnipeg. He explained that Thompson, who was an agent of the Loan & Trust Company in Virden, sent fellow Scot, John Harrison, to Winnipeg “with the idea that ...(he) ... might obtain employment in starting a golf club. Harrison saw and interested a number of athletically inclined Winnipeggers and a beginning was made by laying out first three holes, subsequently extended to six, in Norwood not far from the present links.”
In fact, a February 13, 1892, letter to the Free Press, encouraging Winnipeggers to continue with their plan to form a golf club, may have been written by Thomson, although it is simply signed “An Auld Edinburgh Gowfer.”
“It has often occurred to me when in Winnipeg that no place in the world was more in need of a golfing course than your splendid and wonderful city; with so many strong, healthy and energetic men engaged in business and professionally, when cricket, football, running and even rowing is the favorite pastime.”
The “Gowfer” said golf can be taken up any time in life, but “the young have the best chance of becoming the greatest proficients in the game.” It was a sport that could be played by both sexes, he added.
The letter writer explained in some detail how the game could be played in “twosomes,” although he preferred “foursomes,” and how it was played by people from all walks of life in Scotland, his native land.
“It is a game that sinks all differences of rank, and the expert though a duke or a lord is invariably delighted to meet in friendly rivalry with one his equal or a better player than himself. although he may be but a tradesman ...”
True to his instructions from Thomson, Harrison wrote the Free Press on June 22, 1894 (the letter was published a day later on the front page), that he felt it would not be difficult to find “suitable grounds” for a golf course within reasonable distance from the heart of the city.
“I have met with considerable success in the way of meeting gentlemen who are willing to go in for the game provided a club is formed,” wrote Harrison.
“Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, will find the game on trial suited to their age and so fascinating that one or two trials will ensure their becoming golfers for life.”
Harrison promised to meet with anyone expressing an interest in the game, adding he was prepared to arrange “a few practice games, and would be glad to have on-lookers.”
A day after the Harrison letter appeared on the front page, John Summerville wrote the newspaper to express his amazement that a city with so many “Scotchmen” didn’t have a golf club.
An explanation for the lack of a golf course may be found in a later article in the Daily Nor’Wester (July 7, 1894), which claimed many Winnipeggers confused the sport with polo. When many were asked if they wanted to take up golf, the common reply was “that they couldn’t ride a horse while it was walking much less running at a breakneck speed around the field.”
The Free Press reported on July 7 that an exhibition game was held that evening at the Winnipeg Cricket Club (WCC) grounds in Norwood, “and was watched with keen interest by a number of spectators.”
D.D.England, who called himself a “city gardener,” observed Harrison’s golf demonstration, and wrote to the Free Press on July 8 (published two days later), telling the editor, he and a friend saw “quite a crowd of people” at the WCC grounds. While his friend was mystified by golf, England said it brought back memories of the Old Country where he had lived for four years adjacent to “one of the finest golf grounds in the north of England.”
He heard several remarks from spectators that there was no fun in the game. “But,” he wrote, “when played on the full set of nine links, full size, there is very much interest in it, as young and old, male or female, can go in small numbers and enjoy themselves in a game that is good exercise without the unpleasantness of being overheated.”
Apparently, not having to break out into a sweat due to the absence of overly-strenuous activity was for England one of the game’s great selling features.
He told those who found the game uninteresting that its potential was evident when taking a tour from Liverpool to Somerset in England, where”ladies in jockey caps, red and white on blue waists, in threes or fours, following up the links, also gentlemen with caps, knickerbockers, short jackets with belts, in all colors ... it is one of the most popular games fashionable in the old land and if carried on, will be here in time to come.”
England commented that the singular difficulty faced in establishing golf courses was the flatness of the prairie landscape. He said a good golf course required hilly land, such as was found in his native country.
Summerville’s amazement ended on July 6, 1894, when a meeting was held at the Manitoba Hotel and the organization of the Winnipeg Golf Club (WGC) was completed. Elected officers were William B. Scarth as president, D. Simpson as treasurer and W.W. Beaton as secretary. According to an article about the first golf club in Winnipeg, which appeared in the April 25, 1904, Free Press, Scarth was a reluctant president “on the ground he did not know the details of the game.” But he was not alone, “as most of the others present were in the same predicament.”
An executive committee was formed comprised of R. Stewart, J.G. More, M. St. John, L.A. Hamilton, T. Robinson, J. Harrison, H. Cameron, H.J. Wilson, D.J. Beaton, and D.W. McDermid.
The committee was instructed to telephone for a supply of “sticks.”
Just four days after the golf exhibition at the WCC grounds, according to the Daily Nor’Wester, “A staff of men were put to work on the golf links at Norwood this morning ... The ground around the holes is being smoothed and a mower will be put on to cut all the grass and weeds and other obstructions between the holes are being removed.” The newspaper explained that the course was to the right-hand side of the (Norwood) bridge beyond the Canoe Club house. “Nine holes have been laid out in such a position that more may be added at any time.”
Harrison was made the superintendent of nine-hole the course, overseeing the workmen preparing it for its official opening. The Free Press referred to Harrison as the “golfmaster,” who expected a supply of clubs and balls to arrive from Toronto within a week, while other clubs were ordered fromMontréal and Edinburgh, Scotland. More balls were to be sent to Winnipeg from Virden.
The golf ball then in use was totally different from today’s version. It was made of gutta-percha (often referred to simply as “gutty”), a material similar to rubber. The balls were formed in two-piece steel moulds and came out as smooth round spheres. After a round of golf, the player worked a ball on a wooden board in order to restore it to its original round shape. Over time, golfers noticed that the more nicks a ball had the easier it was to predict its flight. A bramble ball — so named because its pattern resembled the bush’s berries — made of “gutty” with raised dimples was soon developed. Rubber core golf balls. similar to those used today, were only developed at the beginning of the 20th century.
On July 14, a week prior to the official opening of the course, some WGC members were finally able to hit the links. But a limitation on their numbers was a lack of clubs and balls, which was reported in the July 16, 1894, Free Press. According to the article, Scarth’s brother in Toronto sent a telegram informing the WGC captain “that a number of cleeks and balls” had been shipped and would arrive before the official opening. Fortunately, a “large supply” of “cleeks” arrived on July 20, just a day before the official opening.
“All of those who played on Saturday (July14),” according to the article, “expressed themselves as highly pleased with the links ... Six of the nine holes which are to constitute the course have been put in fairly good shape and it is expected that the remaining holes will be got into order early this week.”
(Next week: part 2)