July 13, 2008

Golf's Dubious History In The Olympics

A checkered history for the game in the Games

Olympic golf winner Peggy Abbott never realized she had made history.

Olympic golf winner Peggy Abbott never realized she had made history.

Historically, golf's association with the Olympic movement has been decidedly bizarre. The Games of 1900 were held in Paris. The previous year Captain Alfred Dreyfus of the French army, a Jew, had been convicted on a charge of treason. It was undoubtedly a bum rap and France was riven by the Affaire Dreyfus.

With world attention focused on France by the Games, the government wanted to demonstrate itself to be untainted by anti-Semitism. It dismissed Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the organizer of the Games, and his committee, some of whom were believed to be royalists and anti-Semitic, and handed responsibility for the Games to the Paris Exposition Company. A contemporary historian remarked of the new organizers that "their intelligent appreciation of the task before them remains yet to be disclosed." The Olympics were doomed to chaos.

Peggy Abbott, an art student and member of the Chicago Golf Club, was visiting Paris at the time with her mother and both of them entered an international golf tournament at Compiegne. Peggy won the nine-hole event with a score of 47. Her mother finished in seventh place. Such was the farcical organization that they understood this was the ladies' championship of Paris and went to their graves without realizing that Peggy had in fact become America's first woman Olympic champion.

The men's tournament was won by Charles Sands of the St. Andrew's Golf Club of Yonkers with scores of 82-85. Another American, Albert Lambert, a left-hander who was on a business trip to Paris, finished eighth with rounds of 94-95, but he won the separate handicap event with 83 minus his 10-handicap for a 73. It was through his wealth and influence that the Olympics were held in St. Louis four years later.

Those Games of 1904 were held in conjunction with the World's Fair, and preparations for the golf competition began three years in advance with the building of Glen Echo, the first golf club west of the Mississippi River.

The members of the new club did a thorough job of publicizing the event and nearly 100 amateurs from America and Canada entered for the competition. The hottest of favorites was the newly crowned U.S. Amateur champion, H. Chandler Egan, a 20-year-old Harvard student. Egan's presence and easy progress through the qualifying stroke-play stage insured heavy press coverage, much of it of a speculative nature seeking to identify the sacrificial lamb who would be ritually slaughtered in the final by the invincible Egan.

The hapless victim-elect turned out to be George Lyon, a 46-year-old Canadian who had taken up golf only eight years previously when he grew too old for the exertions of cricket.

The final was played in dreadful conditions of wind and rain and after 18 holes they were level. On the second circuit Egan betrayed signs of his irritation at being routinely outdriven by the cricketer and he did his cause no good at the short ninth where he hit his tee shot into a pond.

Lyon wrapped it up 3 and 2, and he went on to make this upset victory seem less of a shock by winning the Canadian Amateur five more times (for a total of eight) and reaching the final of the U.S. Amateur in 1906.

Lyon was therefore entitled to feel reasonably sanguine about his prospects of jousting with the formidable British amateurs such as John Ball, Harold Hilton and Robert Maxwell as he sailed to defend his title in the London Olympics of 1908.

Some measure of the esteem in which the Olympics were held by the golfing establishment may be judged by the response of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews to an invitation to join the British Olympic Council. No reply was sent.

Mr. Ryder Richardson, secretary of Royal St. George's Golf Club, was co-opted onto the Olympic Council and arrangements were made for a six-round competition over St. George's, Princes and Royal Cinque Ports golf clubs.

The Royal and Ancient did eventually become involved, to the extent of a dispute over eligibility that resulted in all the home players withdrawing their applications. So when Lyon arrived he discovered he was the only entrant for the Olympic golf tournament. He was offered the gold medal but refused it.

The next attempt to include golf in the Olympics was for the Games of 1920 in Antwerp, but once again the plans had to be scrapped for lack of interest. The following year the International Olympic Committee drew up stricter conditions for participation in the Games, including the provisos that a sport must be played in 40 countries and have an international governing body.

Golf, with its two separate ruling bodies, was therefore not eligible as an official participating sport for the 1936 Games in Berlin. But a tournament was held in association with the Games, at Baden-Baden, and Adolph Hitler gave a trophy and promised to present it in person if a German pair won.

In the event, a German pair held a handsome lead with one round to go and Count von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of the Third Reich, felt justified in sending a message to the Fuhrer telling him a German victory was in the bag and he could start his long journey from Berlin for the presentation.

When Hitler arrived an embarrassed von Ribbentrop had the delicate task of telling him how the British pair of Tony Thirsk and Arnold Bentley had broken the course record and overhauled the Germans. The Master of the mastered race got straight back into his Mercedes to return to Berlin, leaving the president of the German golf federation to present the trophy.

Shortly afterward the world became engulfed in a competitive international contest that reversed Baron de Coubertin's edict that it is not the winning but the taking part. The "win at all costs" philosophy of the world war survived to infiltrate the Olympic movement and golf organizers decided that in the future they would organize their own international competitions.

This article originally appeared in the April 1993 issue of Golf Digest.