All Hail the Olympic Champion!

The defending Olympic golf champion won’t be defending his title at the much-anticipated golf competition next year in Brazil. If he was alive, that gentleman would be 168 years old when they tee it up in Rio, for the first time in Olympic competition in 112 years.

Surely everyone reading this column knows that it was George S. Lyon, a Canadian from Toronto, who won the first and only Olympic golf tournament in 1904. The event was held at Glen Echo Golf Club in St. Louis. Lyon was 46, probably the oldest player in the field, if not the entire St. Louis Games, but not too old to have accepted his medal by walking to the podium on his hands. Or so the story goes… we really can’t be too sure.

But there’s a lot of true stuff we know about George S. Lyon, and his is a very interesting story. I extend my thanks to Ginger Burke at Lambton Golf & Country Club for sending me some info. Lambton had a reception recently to honour old George, who was one of the founders of that club in 1902, and served as its Captain for 23 years, as well as a few years on its Board.

Lambton very proudly displays a beautiful silver trophy that G.S. won for that 1904 Olympics, and a ceremonial golf day is held between the members of Lambton and Glen Echo, every year. But interestingly – and no doubt rather annoyingly for Lambton – the Gold Medal that Lyon won in St. Louis is proudly on display in the spanking new clubhouse at Rosedale Golf Club in Toronto. Before moving over to Lambton, Lyon had started his golf career and been a three-time club champion at Rosedale, which was located just north of the Glen Road Bridge at the turn of the last century.

Lyon was also a member of Toronto Golf Club in those years… all at a time when it wasn’t uncommon for enthusiastic players to join two or more clubs. (It was a little more affordable then: the initiation fee at Rosedale, when Lambton was founded, was $15, same as the annual dues.) As a result, Toronto GC likes to claim a piece of the Lyon legacy, too. In any case, Lyon’s connection to Rosedale was such that his family donated the Olympic Gold Medal to that club, rather than Lambton, a generation ago. (What isn’t widely known is that the medal is, in fact, a replica of the original… no one knows what happened to the one George received walking on his hands in 1904.)

Lyon didn’t start playing golf until he was in his late ‘30s, at Rosedale, in the summer of 1895. He was widely known for his athletic prowess in other sports, notably cricket. Like many a true athlete, however, once handed a club, the challenge of self-competition and natural coordination overtook any lack of training, and in short order, he ranked among the best players in the city… although to look at his golf swing today (I’ve seen film of it), any modern golfer would wince at the awkwardness and ugliness of it.

Nonetheless, that weird swing worked, and at Glen Echo, Lyon used it to full effect, beating the heavily favoured and reigning U.S. Amateur Champion, Chandler Egan. Egan was less than half George’s age, but went down 3-and-2 over the 36 hole final.

“I am not foolish enough to think I am the best player in the world; far from it,” Lyon was quoted as saying, with characteristic Canadian modesty. “I know that there are many better, both here and abroad, but I am satisfied I am not the worst.”

If George had not won in St. Louis, he would never have achieved the international fame that keeps him in the footnote category of golf history. But certainly around these parts, and from coast-to-coast in Canada, his name appears on Champions Walls and in sepia photos hanging in clubhouse lobbies, and with good reason.

Following St. Louis, Lyon was the runner-up in the 1906 U.S. Amateur. He won the North American Seniors Championship three times, as late as age 74. He was runner-up in the 1910 Canadian Open. He won the Canadian Amateur eight times, the first one coming two years after he first picked up a club. He was one of the founders of the Canadian Seniors Golf Association, and won their annual tournament 6 times. He served as President of the RCGA (now Golf Canada) in 1923. He shot his age at least once every year from age 69 to 78.

George S. Lyon’s name is honoured every year by a tournament in southern Ontario that features four-man teams from dozens of private clubs. The event has been held annually since 1931, and was inaugurated when George was 73 years old. Fittingly, that first year, two clubs tied for the victory: Lambton and Royal York (now St. George’s).

One of the members of the Royal York team was George S. Lyon. Lest we forget.

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