Dan Davies recalls the remarkable stories of the 17-year-old prodigy from Chicago who won a team gold medal on the last occasion golf featured at the Olympics, and the 46-year-old champion who celebrated victory by walking on his hands
In August golf will return to the Olympic Games after an absence of 112 years. Following the decision made by the International Olympic Committee in 2009, many but not all of the world’s top male and female professionals will line up to compete in 72-hole individual tournaments over the newly built Olympic Course within the Reserva de Marapendi in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite the well-publicised withdrawals of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and others, most of those playing in Rio will be known to the millions worldwide who follow the sport — a far cry from the last time golf was part of the Olympics.
In 1904, the last occasion golf featured, the tournament was dominated by leading amateurs from the American Midwest. Among them was a 17-year-old prodigy from Chicago whose team gold medal, one of only three known surviving Olympic gold medals for golf, is offered in the Out of the Ordinary sale at Christie’s South Kensington on 14 September — http://www.christies.com/features/Golfing-for-gold-at-the-1904-Olympics-7560-1.aspx
The 1904 competition was held at Glen Echo Country Club on the outskirts of St Louis, opened three years previously. Today the course — designed by the 1896 US Open champion Jim Foulis, a native of St Andrews — is largely unchanged, other than for the mature trees that now line the fairways. The Olympic flag still flutters outside the clubhouse.
It could be said that Glen Echo C.C. owes its place in Olympic history to the organisers of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Chicago had originally won the bid to stage that year’s Olympic Games, but the movers and shakers behind the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, as the fair was formally known, threatened to stage their own, superior sporting events unless the Olympics were moved. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, eventually bowed to pressure and awarded the games to St. Louis.
A combination of global tensions over the Russo-Japanese war and the difficulty of getting to Missouri meant that many top international athletes did not attend. The United States fielded 526 participants across 94 events in 19 disciplines, which included tug of war, hurling and roque, a form of croquet. The next biggest national team was Canada’s, with 56 competitors. Great Britain sent just six athletes, while France was represented by a single competitor. The fact that the games were treated as something of a sideshow to the World’s Fair is reflected in the performance of American George Eyser, who won six medals in gymnastics despite possessing a left leg made of wood.
Golf had appeared in just one previous Olympic Games, four years earlier in Paris, when a 36-hole competition had been staged for men and a nine-hole contest for women. For the St Louis games, however, the women’s championship had been dropped, replaced by a men’s team championship held over 36 holes.
77 golfers — 74 leading American amateur players, chiefly from the St Louis area, and three from Canada — assembled for the competition which began on 17 September. As The Golfers’ Magazine reported at the time, ‘The entries for the Olympic championship were rather disappointing, particularly so in those from the East. The known apathy of New Yorkers for any Western event should have been taken into consideration.’
Among those who did attend was Robert E. Hunter, a 17-year-old member of the Midlothian Golf Club, one of Chicago’s most celebrated courses. At this nascent stage in the development of the sport, the Chicago area was regarded as one of the hotbeds of American golf.
Hunter had won the Junior Handicap Cup at the Midlothian Country Club in July of the previous year, coming within one stroke of the amateur course record with a round of 80. He went on to win the prestigious Chicago Cup in October 1903 and, two months before the Olympic event, played in the US Open Championship at Glen View Golf Club in Illinois where he would have finished as the top amateur had it not been for one H. Chandler Egan, a 19-year-old from Chicago. Egan was a tyro who won the 1904 US Amateur Championship at the Baltusrol Golf Club, as well as the coveted Western Amateur Championship.
Hunter was a member of one of three U.S. teams in the Olympic event, his made up of representatives of the Western Golf Association and led by Egan, whose cousin also played. The other two teams representing the United States consisted of players from the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association and the United States Golf Association, which entered late after other teams had dropped out.
In the 36-hole qualifying competition for the matchplay stages — which also counted for the team event — Hunter comfortably made it through to compete in the knockout phase. His rounds of 87 and 84 were good enough for 14th place, although such scores would likely guarantee any 2016 competitor a spot at the bottom of the Olympic leaderboard. H. Chandler Egan finished five shots ahead of Hunter, on 166, while the only non-American qualifier, the 46-year-old George Lyon of Canada, qualified on 169.
Hunter went on to win his first match comfortably, played over 36 holes in the knockout stages, before bowing out in the round of 16 to Burt McKinnie. His conqueror would make it all the way through to the semi-finals, where he eventually lost 4&3 to Egan.
On the other side of the draw, the main talking point was the progress of George Lyon. An outstanding all-round sportsman from Toronto, Lyon had made his name as a cricketer before taking up golf at the ripe old age of 37. Three years after picking up a club for the first time, the fire insurance salesman won the first of eight Canadian Amateur Championship titles.
In the heat of St. Louis, Lyon thrashed a series of opponents before squeezing past Francis Newton to secure his place in the final. A diabetic who suffered from chronic hay fever, he nevertheless strode the fairways of Glen Echo Country Club in thick trousers, an undershirt, tie, waistcoat and jacket, using his unorthodox swing to unleash a series of huge drives.
Egan, who had won the long-driving contest that preceded the tournament, was tipped by almost everyone to win. Young, successful and also a prodigiously long hitter, the reigning US Amateur champion was quite unprepared for Lyon’s opening salvo, which saw the Canadian drive the green on the 276-yard par-4 first hole.
It was a shot that set the tone for the final — as Egan found himself being consistently outdriven, his swing gradually disintegrated. He eventually found himself two down standing on the 15th tee in the second round of the final. When his drive found water and Lyon drove straight and true up the fairway, the match was as good as over. A plaque on the tee at Glen Echo commemorates the moment, with the body of water it overlooks having been renamed Lake Egan.