There are probably many more people outside of Canada than inside our country who are aware that Canada has been uniquely honoured in the world of golf over the past year.
As a reader of Fairways, you may be aware that Canadian businessman Bruce Mitchell was selected as Captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and sworn in for the traditional one-year term in September, 2017. Actually, to be more accurate, Bruce became Captain when he successfully hit a ceremonial drive off the first tee at the Old Course, in front of about 300 spectators, on a chilly morning last Fall. (Whether Bruce was fortified for the occasion with a wee dram of Scotland’s number one export, he’s not willing to discuss.)
In so doing, Bruce became the first Canadian member of the R&A to be anointed to the Captaincy since the club began electing respectable gentlemen to the position somewhere back in the mid-18th Century. Canadians have been members of the R&A for a long time, as have golfers from many other countries.
(And for those of you who aren’t quite sure what the R&A is, it’s the governing body of the game of golf throughout the world, except for the US and Mexico, which are governed by the United States Golf Association.)
The past Captains of the R&A form the body that reviews and selects a new Captain every year. It’s all quite confidential, and the first time that the chosen member is even made aware of his candidacy, is when he receives a letter informing him he’s been selected.
When Bruce Mitchell got his letter, he was dumbfounded.
“It was a handwritten letter from a Past Captain,” he says, “and at first I wondered if it wasn’t a very creative prank from my R&A friends.
“I was shocked, but deeply honoured. And honestly, to this day, I’m not sure why they chose me. Generally, R&A Captains are men who’ve been amateur champions, or who’ve made significant contributions to the R&A and perhaps to golf development in their home countries.
“Pretty much the best I can come up with, from my golf résumé, is being the Club Champion at Windermere in Muskoka, 20 years ago, and being the President of two golf clubs I belong to. But I wouldn’t have thought that would impress anybody – even my wife.”
Even though Bruce is an extremely successful, and extremely busy, CEO and owner of a holding company called Permian Industries (which employs about 4,000 people), and a father of four and grandfather of eight, he managed to arrange his life and his business to enable himself and his wife, Vladka, to take most of the following twelve months off to properly perform the role.
The job of Captain is not to sit in leathery board rooms discussing changes to the rules, but rather to act as the unofficial Worldwide Ambassador for the R&A, and in a sense, for the game of golf itself.
Over the course of his term, Bruce and Vladka visited 18 countries, attended dozens of tournaments – from three of the four men’s majors, a couple of women’s majors, and numerous amateur events – dinners, luncheons, breakfasts, cocktail receptions, and even got to play a few rounds of golf. (“Not as many as you might think,” he says, somewhat ruefully.)
He also delivered nearly 70 speeches – each one of them individually crafted for the occasion. (“I discovered that among her infinite menu of talents, my wife is also an excellent editor and critic.”)
While the R&A pays a number of the expenses for such travel and activities, the Mitchells still had to physically get from A to B to C, which meant crossing the dateline more than a few times, passing through all of the world’s 24 time zones, and even driving across Scotland and northern England from St. Andrews to Royal Birkdale in a blizzard at one point. (“Only a Canadian would be dumb enough to make such a trip, for the privilege of delivering a 15-minute speech,” says Bruce, with a shake of his head.)
But let’s not pretend that this was a grueling year. Most of us could never dare to dream of such an itinerary, or such an honour. Much less have it offered to us.
Was it the best twelve months of Bruce’s 70-plus years on the planet?
“Well, I used to say that my Grade 13 year was the best, when I was lucky enough to go to school in Switzerland. But how could anyone not look back on what Vladka and I experienced… the places we saw, the people we met, the way we were treated with such respect and kindness… and all in the service of golf… you’d have to be insane not to believe that you were truly blessed to have been given the opportunity.”
But lest one think it all might’ve gone to Mr. Mitchell’s head, he is quick to put all this royal treatment into perspective.
“For formal occasions, and there were many during the year, the Captain is expected to wear a ceremonial red coat, complete with tails, as they’ve done for at least 100 years. One evening, as I was waiting by the front desk of the hotel, for my taxi to take me to a Gala Dinner and speech at one British club… a distinguished-looking man was checking in a few feet away from me.
“He finished signing the register, then looked over at me, with a look on his face as if he knew me. Now, I met a lot of people during the year so I could understand if he remembered meeting the R&A Captain at some earlier golf event. I smiled.
“’Helllooo’, he said. I expected him to say his name and where we had met before. But before I could say ‘hellloooo’ back, he stared straight at me and said ‘I say, how jolly nice to see you. Would you take my bags up to my room?’ Evidently he mistook me for the bellhop.
“That’s probably not the best memory of the year,” says Bruce, “but it’ll certainly be one of the long-lasting ones.”
And for the rest of us, let’s hope that Bruce is the first of many more Canadian Captains to come.