Toronto’s Rich and Plentiful History of Golf

Have you ever considered that the ground you’re standing on right now might once have been part of a golf course?  No, neither have I.

But if you’re standing (or sitting or lying) somewhere in Toronto as you’re reading this, you might well be on the old third tee or 14th fairway of a long lost links.  And probably the only person alive who could tell you for sure is my friend Scott Burk.

In fact, Scott has probably already answered that question for you, with the publication last week of his remarkably handsome, fascinating and very readable new book.

It’s called, plainly enough, Toronto’s Lost Golf Courses – How the Game of Golf Shaped a City.  And it’s a revelation.

As a lifelong student of golf, and to a lesser degree, a student of my city, I can tell you quite selfishly, that I think Scott wrote this book for about five of us who would genuinely be interested in knowing about long lost golf grounds.  But having now read through it, cover to cover, I believe there will be several thousand people who will find it fascinating, illuminating, and entertaining; and another several hundred who will find it of significant historical value.

Scott and I are both members of a small group of recreational golfers in Toronto who very much appreciate the heritage of the game in these here parts.  I met Scott about five years ago at his first meeting of the group, and someone casually mentioned the huge task that he’d taken on.  I mentioned that I had been thinking of writing a column for Fairways on that very same subject.

Scott then said, “ah well then, you probably know about the University of Toronto course, and A.E. Ames’s personal course, or the one that pre-dated Casa Loma, and of course, the old Upper Canada College course…”

“Uh, wha??” I said.  I had no idea such courses had existed.  I knew there had been a course across the road from the current Don Valley layout, and the original Rosedale Golf Club had been in Rosedale, but that was about it.  I quickly decided to let Scott do the work from there on.

What Scott and associate Joanne Doucette have done has required several years of laborious research, but they’ve unearthed (so to speak) a total of 29 lost golf courses that at one time graced our city.   Unfortunately, most have long since given way to residential and industrial development, relocated to new venues, or just expired due to neglect or usurpation by clubs with bigger, more robust memberships.

It’s quite fascinating to think, as you drive along streets you take every day, that 100-150 years ago, stalwart chaps in suits and ties, and hardy ladies wearing six layers to the ground, were out in this very air, whacking gutties and Haskells at distant flags, never imagining that more than ten decades hence, their great grandchildren would be living in houses there, or driving paved but potholed roads on the very fairways they were playing from.

For example, do you happen to live in the neighbourhood east of Broadview, between Hogarth Avenue and Riverdale?  Or how about St. Clair Avenue, north side, just east of Yonge (where the library sits now)?  Do you live on the Baby Point estate, just west of Jane, north of Bloor?  Southwest corner of Lawrence and Yonge?  Yup… all those areas at one point, over 100 years ago, were the home of flourishing golf courses!

Not many of the courses had very creative names, sadly.  No Devil’s Paintbrushes or Humber Rapids or Hogg’s Gawf Holler.  The clubs basically took their locations as their names, so you became a member of the Yorkville Golf Club, or Spadina Golf Club, or the Dennison Estate Golfing Grounds.  There was an Old Rye Field Club on the south side of Gerrard just east of today’s Woodbine (actually, bordered on the west side by appropriately named Golfview Avenue.)  And there was an Aura Lee Club that played for over 20 years in what today is Ramsden Park, across the road from the Rosedale subway station.

To imagine these courses, you have to close your eyes and realize that, at the turn of the last century, and before, most of Toronto north of Bloor Street was largely farmland.  Upper Canada College stunned the city in 1891, by moving from its longterm site on King Street west of University, up to its current home at Avenue Road and Lonsdale.  The property to the immediate west was a huge empty estate owned by the descendants of Robert Baldwin, who leased much of the grounds to UCC for a golf course.  The boys and masters of UCC played the course for about five seasons before the acreage started to get ploughed under for the high-end neighbourhood it remains today.

So when did golf actually begin in Toronto?  Scott has traced its roots back to 1869.  He credits the origins of golf in our city to a wealthy land developer and industrialist by the name of J. Lamond Smith, who was born and raised, not surprisingly, in Aberdeen, Scotland.  After moving to Canada in his early 20s, and building a successful career, Smith and some pals began smacking a ball in the town of Little York, which existed just northwest of today’s intersection of Danforth and Main.  The “course” they played on was part of the infield of a very popular horse-race track.  Lamond Smith eventually became the first Captain of Toronto Golf Club, which was formed in 1876.  The club was established at the intersection of Woodbine and Kingston Road, and enjoyed a couple of moves before it relocated – presumably forever – to its current location at Dixie Road north of the Lakeshore in Port Credit, in 1912.

I could go on and on (and usually do).  But let’s suffice it to say that if this column has whetted your appetite for more fascinating information, then buy Scott’s book!  (It’s available at Chapters, or online through Amazon.ca.)

It’s what I would call a perfect bedside table book… one which you could pick up each night before bed, read a chapter, then put down till tomorrow night.

Same book, different course.

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