Golf and the Olympic Games

Olympic Games Paris 1900

©IOC

On 2 October 1900, twelve gentlemen gathered to play 36 holes of golf at the Compiegne Club, about 30 miles north of Paris. Though only a few of them may have realized it at the time, they were the participants in the first Olympic golf tournament. Even many of the best golf historians will tell you that golf has never been held in the Olympics but, in fact, twice the sport has been on the modern Olympic program.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896 thru the efforts of a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin chose Athens as the site of the first Olympics and the Games were a resounding success. Golf was not on the program, certainly one reason being that, in 1896, there were no golf courses in Greece.

The 2nd and 3rd Olympic Games have been termed the farcical Olympics. Both were sideshows to World’s Fairs - the 2nd in Paris in 1900 to the Fifth Exposition Universalle, and the 3rd to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. In both cases, the Olympic events suffered from a lack of interest relative to the fairs. One other thing both Olympics shared was the inclusion of golf as a sport.

The 1900 Olympic Games were not even called that by the organizers of the sporting events; they preferred the name “Championnats Internationaux.” The events were spread out over six months’ time and years later, many of the victors did not even know that they had competed in the Olympics. Amidst this setting, it was decided to stage a golf event in October at Compiegne, organized by the mayor of Compiegne, Monsieur Robert Fournier- Sarlovèze.

There were two golf events in 1900 – one for gentlemen and one for ladies, using the vernacular of the time. Charles Sands, of the St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, played the Compiegne course in rounds of 82-85 to win the gentlemen’s event by one shot over Walter Rutherford of Jedburgh, Scotland. The next day, October 3, the ladies’ event took place and was won by Margaret Abbott of the Chicago Golf Club, who played her requisite nine holes in 47 strokes. A third competition was held on the final day. However, this was a handicap event for the men, and cannot be considered of Olympic caliber. It was, however, won by an American, Albert Lambert, (a ten handicap) about whom more will be said later.

The events were a success well attended by the society elite as evidenced by a description of the time from Golf Illustrated, “The entries were numerous, the play good, the weather admirable and the company (by which I mean spectators, officials, and others connected with or responsible for the meeting) distinguished and enthusiastic. Amongst others were present – Prince and Princess R. du Lucinge, Mme. Vagliano, Comte and Comtesse Robert de Breda, Vicomte and Vicomtesse d’Hautpou1, Comte and Comtesse de Moussac, Lord Sudeley.

1904 Olympic Games

©Getty Images

Charles Sands took up golf in 1895 and only three months later went to the final of the first Amateur Championship of the USGA. There he met the redoubtable Charles Blair MacDonald, and Sands’ lack of experience showed as MacDonald won easily, 12 and 11. Sands never again played in the U.S. Amateur, and that and his Olympic triumph constitute his entire golfing laurels.

Sands was a well-known athlete, though. Primarily a tennis player, he was the United States’ champion in 1905 in court tennis, the original form of the game. He is one of only two American athletes to have competed in the Olympics in three sports – 1900 in golf, 1900 in lawn tennis, and 1908 in jeu de paume (the original name of court tennis).

Behind Margaret Abbott in the women’s tournament came Polly Whittier and a lady listed in the past as Mrs. J. Huger Pratt of Dinard, France. The three women were mysteries until research by Dr. Paula Welch, a sports historian at the University of Florida, unearthed their identities.

Margaret Abbott was born in Calcutta, India in 1878 to wealthy parents. She learned her golf at the Chicago Golf Club but in 1900 was studying art in Paris, accompanied by her mother, who also played in the Olympic golf tournament (she finished seventh). By winning the Olympic golf tournament she became the first American woman to win an Olympic event (and only the second overall).

“Polly” Whittier, listed in older records of the International Olympic Committee as being from Switzerland, was actually Pauline Whittier of Boston. Also from a wealthy family, Whittier was a descendent of the famous poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, and in 1900 was studying in St. Moritz, hence the mistaken affiliation.

Mrs. J. Huger Pratt of Dinard was the former Daria Pankhurst. Vacationing in France in 1900, she played her golf at the Dinard Club. A short time after the Olympics, Daria Pratt divorced her husband, later marrying Prince Alexis Karageorgevitch of Serbia, thus becoming the Princess Alexis Karageorgevitch of Serbia.

Albert Lambert, the winner of the handicap event, also competed in the Olympic competition, finishing eighth with rounds of 94-95. Lambert was from St. Louis and when Olympic golf returned to St. Louis in 1904, Lambert would again compete, making him the only person to play in both Olympic golf tournaments. In fact, Lambert was the man responsible for the 1904 Olympic golf event.

Lambert was a wealthy man (this seemed to be a common affliction among Olympic golfers). He founded Lambert Pharmacal Co., later Warner-Lambert, best-known as the makers of Listerine. His avocation in later years became flying and he was the primary benefactor for Charles Lindbergh’s trans-atlantic flight. For his contributions to aviation, the St. Louis airport was named Lambert International Field.

In 1900 Lambert played the Olympic golf event while on a business trip to his Paris office. On his return he mentioned the Olympic golf event to his father-in-law, Colonel George McGrew. McGrew was the founder of Glen Echo Golf Club in St. Louis and with the Olympics coming to St. Louis in 1904, Lambert and McGrew put forth plans to conduct an Olympic golf tournament at Glen Echo.

Seventy-four Americans and three Canadians came to Glen Echo to contest the Olympic championship. They were greeted by a plethora of golf events – driving contests, putting contests at night under the lights, handicap events, flights for non-qualifiers and match- play losers, and team Nassau competitions. Just two of the many events can be considered to be Olympic championships – a team event of 36 holes stroke play on Saturday, September 17, and an individual match-play event which ran the week of September 19-24.

Of the six ten-man teams which had entered, only two showed up on September 17, the Western Golf Association and the Trans-Mississippi Golf Association.   A third team was organized at the last minute from among the golfers present and it represented, very loosely, the USGA. The Western GA, led by current U.S. and Western Amateur champion, H. Chandler Egan, won fairly easily.   (The previous week, Egan had defeated Walter Travis to win the U.S. Amateur. Travis entered the Olympic tournament but declined to compete, citing illness.)

On Monday, September 19, 75 golfers teed off for the match play qualifying. First player off the tee was Raymond Havemeyer, donor of the Havemeyer Trophy given to the U.S. Amateur champion. Qualifying medalists were Stuart Stickney and Ralph McKittrick of the St. Louis Country Club, with a 36-hole total of 163. A score of 183 was sufficient to move on to match play. Only one of the three Canadians survived the qualifying, George Lyon of the Lambton Golf & Country Club in Toronto.

Match play began Tuesday and consisted of daily 36-hole matches. Advancing to the semi-finals were Egan, Lyon, Frank Newton of the Seattle CC, and Burt McKinnie of the Normandie Park Golf Club in St. Louis. McKinnie, a music teacher, was the current St. Louis city champion, while Newton was Pacific Northwest champion in 1902 and would win, in 1926, the first New England Amateur at the age of 52. Egan easily defeated McKinnie while Lyon bested Newton to move to the finals.

Egan, based on his summer record, was the favorite in the final, but Lyon was a fine player. Before Lyon’s career was done he would win the Canadian Amateur eight times and finish second in both the U.S. Amateur and Canadian Open. Lyon was known as one of Canada’s great all-round athletes, having been in the 1890’s their top cricket batsman. After five straight days of 36 holes, one factor against him in the final, it was thought, was his age, 46.

The day of the finals dawned cold and gloomy and both contestants would fight the rain for the entire day. When the battle was over, George Lyon was Olympic champion by 3 and 2. His body, hardened by years of athletic endeavour, had pulled him through. While

Egan was a classic stylist, Lyon had an ungainly, flat swing, relying on his natural coordination and great strength, which made him easily the longest driver in the tournament. After the match, Egan went to bed exhausted. Lyon went to the awards dinner and further showed his stamina by walking the length of the dining room – on his hands!

And thus ends the history of golf competition in the Olympics, though there have been a few attempts to revive the sport as an Olympic event.   Golf-mad Britain was to host the 1908 Olympics and it seemed natural for the London organizers to include golf on the program. They planned a 108-hole stroke play event at three courses – Royal St. George’s and Prince’s GC, both in Sandwich, and Cinqueports GC in nearby Deal.

The Royal & Ancient, however, became embroiled in a dispute over eligibility with the Olympic organizing committee and all the British entrants withdrew. Some measure of how the Royal and Ancient felt about golf in the Olympics can be gleened from their original response to the letter sent by the London Olympic organizers. They did not reply. Eventually, however, the organizing committee gained some support and planned the Olympic golf event. W. Ryder Richardson, Esq., secretary of Royal St. George’s, was on the Council of the British Olympic Association in 1908,. and was placed in charge of the golf event. The event then had to be cancelled due to lack of entries. George Lyon sailed for Britain to defend his Olympic title prior to the event’s cancellation. He was offered a symbolic gold medal but declined.

Golf was not included in the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm. Although a few Swedish courses existed at that time, the sport was not very popular in Scandanavia. In 1920 the Olympics were held in Antwerp, Belgium, and a golf event was scheduled to be held at the Golf Club of Cappelen but again a lack of entries prevented its being held.

In 1936, a golf tournament was contested at Baden-Baden, Germany as an exhibition just prior to the Olympics.  Adolf Hitler donated a trophy and hoped to present it to a winning German team. With one round remaining, the German duo led, and Count von Ribbentrop, foreign minister to the Third Reich, sent a message to Der Führer about the German lead, and Hitler began the trek from Berlin to Baden-Baden. The next day, when Hitler arrived, von Ribbentrop informed him that the British pair of Tony Thirsk and Arnold Bentley had broken a course record and won the tournament over the Germans. Hitler got back in his car and returned to Berlin, leaving the trophy presentation to the president of the German golf federation.

Extract from “Golf and the Olympic Games” by Bill Mallon – ISOH


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