Old Gold

This week marks the 105th anniversary of golf's only true Olympic moment, when a little known Canadian medaled at Glen Echo CC near St. Louis

George S. Lyon

all-around athlete: Lyon was a standout in baseball, cricket, tennis and the pole vault but didn't play golf until a friend urged him to give it a try at 37.

September 21, 2009

When the full legislative assembly of the International Olympic Committee convenes next month in Copenhagen, it will decide whether to include golf in the 2016 Summer Games. More than a century has elapsed since the last Olympic golf competition, leaving a yawning void in the otherwise rich history of the sport and relegating that event to a footnote in the game's musty back pages.

Coincidentally, it was 105 years ago this week that Glen Echo CC in Normandy, Mo., about 12 miles northwest of St. Louis, hosted the last—and some would argue only—Olympic golf competition. Canada's George S. Lyon, a 46-year-old insurance salesman, upset H. Chandler Egan, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, 3 and 2, to capture the gold medal.

The upset Lyon orchestrated amid a chilling rain on Sept. 24, 1904, deserves recognition. While perhaps not as jarring as Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan or the recent setback Y.E. Yang dealt to Tiger Woods in the PGA Championship, Lyon's triumph was nonetheless a shocker in its day.

Consider the match-up: Egan, a member at Exmoor CC in his native Chicago and just graduated from Harvard, was more than twice Lyon's junior, only 20, and possessed a powerful and stylish swing, which he used to great effect in '04, winning both the U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol GC, where he dusted Fred Herreshoff, 8 and 6, in the final, and the Western Amateur. Egan had played golf since age 12.

A world-class cricket player, Lyon also had been a golfer for eight-plus years, but he was 37 when a fellow member at Rosedale GC in Toronto goaded him into giving the sport a try in the fall of 1895. He took it up in earnest the following summer. "I caught the fever then and there," Lyon wrote in 1906 in British Golf Illustrated. Though strong and sturdily built, he had to endure 36-hole matches each day at Glen Echo, an exacting assignment for a man his age with chronic hay fever. Unlike Egan, Lyon's swing lacked artistic merit. He employed what observers described as "a coal-heaver's swing." Others opined derisively that his lurching movement resembled that of "a baby elephant."

Those barbs notwithstanding, by 1903 he had won three Canadian Amateurs and mastered many sports, including hockey, baseball and tennis. In 1876, when he was 18, Lyon set the national pole vault record of 10 feet, 6 inches.

He would add five more Canadian Amateurs, and with his third straight victory in 1907 he became outright owner of the Aberdeen Cup (just as Young Tom Morris gained possession of the Challenge Belt for his three successive British Opens in 1868-70). Lyon also was runner-up in the 1906 U.S. Amateur and in the 1910 Canadian Open. He served as president of the Royal Canadian GA in 1923.

In addition, Lyon served in 1916 as first chairman of the RCGA's Rules Committee. This was no coincidence. An affable man of immense good humor, Lyon was nonetheless a stickler for the rules. George Stephen, club historian at Lambton G&CC in Toronto, which Lyon helped organize in 1902, used to play golf with Lyon's son, Fred. A favorite tale highlights Lyon's steadfast adherence to golf protocol. One year in the city finals at Lambton, George's opponent hooked his tee shot at 18 into the billiard room. Lyon made the man play his next back into the fairway from atop the billiard table. The opponent was Lyon's eldest son, Seymour, who lost the hole and the match.

In Golf in Canada: A History, James A. Barclay wrote that "what George Lyon did for Canadian golf Bobby Jones was to do for American golf 20 years later." Karen Hewson, director of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame and Museum, likens Lyon more to Francis Ouimet; the former's Olympic victory stirred greater interest in golf in the northern country just as Ouimet awakened the game in America with his epic 1913 U.S. Open triumph over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. "He certainly is among the top half-dozen figures in the history of the game here," Hewson says. "His impact was immense."

Lyon had never seen Glen Echo prior to the Olympics, which began Sept. 16 and also featured a team competition. This was another hurdle to overcome. Many of the 77 competitors were from St. Louis or Chicago, and 16 were members of the host club, which opened May 25, 1901.

How Glen Echo, the oldest private 18-hole course west of the Mississippi, earned the privilege of hosting the Olympic golf tournament was itself an upset and can be traced to the success of a popular pharmaceutical agent—Listerine.

Colonel George S. McGrew founded Mound City Club, as Glen Echo was initially named, after traveling to St. Andrews and becoming enthralled with the game while playing in the company of Old Tom Morris. Back home in St. Louis he purchased 167 acres of rolling farmland and hired 1896 U.S. Open champion James Foulis to design the layout, though Foulis' brother Robert—who like James was a protégé of Old Tom before they ventured to America—did the bulk of the shaping.

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