Canadian Golf History An Early History of Golf in Canada prepared by: Ms. Karen Hewson Curator / Archivist Canadian Golf Hall of Fame
It should come as no surprise to find that the game of golf in Canada owes its establishment to the massive immigration of Scots during the 19th Century.
The game had been played in Scotland for well over 300 years by the time the word “golf” is first found in print in Canada. That was 1826, when the Montreal Herald ran a notice “To Scotsmen A few true sons of Scotia, eager to perpetuate the remembrance of her Customs have fixed upon the 25th December and the 1st January, for going to the Priests’ Farm, to PLAY AT GOLF. Such of their Countrymen as choose to join them, will meet them before TEN O’Clock, A.M., at D. M’Arthur’s INN, Hay-Market. Steps have been taken to have CLUBS provided.”
Unfortunately, there is no record following up this invitation, so we may never know how many, if any, took up the offer. Likewise, there are many theories that golf was played earlier than 1826, but no proof has been found as unequivocal as this invitation.
The next time golf made it into print was 1854, when a young man from a merchant vessel came ashore at Quebec to practice his swing on the Plains of Abraham. That it was reported certainly indicates this was still unusual behaviour. While there may have been avid closet golfers throughout the young dominion, it undoubtedly was an uncommon occurrence.
Various other reports throughout Canada during the next two decades substantiate that the game itself had taken some hold. Still, there was no formal organization of the golf until Alexander Dennistoun relocated from Peterborough, Ont. to Montreal.
It was in Montreal, in the fall of 1873, that this relocated Scot gathered seven of his fellow expatriates and local businessmen to establish the first club in North America, the (Royal) Montreal Golf Club. This was quickly followed by the creation of a club in Quebec City, which led to the first inter club matches to be played on this continent.
The Scottish invasion was just beginning in the 1870s and 1880s. Scottish bankers, doctors and engineers, among others, poured into the newly formed country. Throughout these decades several more clubs were formed, some to survive to this day, others to struggle and fail before golf was to flourish in the next decade.
With the formation of several clubs in Ontario (at Toronto, Brantford, Kingston and Niagara) the first inter provincial matches were be held beginning in 1882 between Quebec and Ontario. In 1888, the first club was founded in the United States, at St. Andrews in Yonkers, New York.
But the 1890s saw a tremendous boom in the game. Clubs began to appear in every province and territory. This was due mainly to the influx in immigration during this period, however, there were several other contributing factors. The change from a rural society to urban centres began to take place in the 1890s. Urban living increased the desire for leisure activities that would take one outdoors. A growing middle class of clerks and office workers, along with a shortened work week, also made their appearance in these years. Transportation improved, the hardship of long distance travel was eased by the completion of the Canadian National Railways, while local commutes were improved through the introduction of many urban trains and trolley systems.
Strangely enough, though, it may have been the invention of the bicycle that played the biggest role in establishing golf. It was during this decade that the restrictions of the Victorian era woman began to fall away. The bicycle provided middle-class women with an easy form of unaccompanied transport. A tremendous number of women entered the sport in the 1890s. There was a movement toward health and exercise, which no doubt aided and abetted the efforts of women taking up the game. While we can certainly still find references of men and women alike who abhorred this change, there are at least an equal number who supported it.
The first women’s clubs were established in 1891 at Royal Montreal, Quebec and Toronto. They were joined in droves. It is likely that the number of women members did two things for the game: establish large enough memberships to sustain the clubs, especially 20 years hence when WWI would devastate the male membership; and also turn golf clubs into family-oriented social gathering places.
Regardless of the reasons for the boom, the 1890s saw tremendous growth in the game around the globe. The next logical step was the founding of associations to organize championships. In response to the formation of an American golf association, A.J. Simpson of (Royal) Ottawa Golf Club invited Canadian clubs to gather at Ottawa-to play a national championship and discuss the formation of a Canadian golf association.
The Governor General of Canada, Lord Aberdeen, attended that first meeting, June 6, 1895, where he presented a trophy for play at the national championship. T.M. Harley won that trophy at the first championship. The Aberdeen Cup is not the trophy played for today, however. Lord Aberdeen attached a proviso to the trophy when he donated it. If anyone should win the championship three years in succession, it would become that player’s to keep. Early Canadian golf sensation George S. Lyon took the trophy home in 1907 by doing just that. Earl Grey, then Governor General, presented a new trophy for play in 1908, with no such proviso. It is still played for today.
That meeting in Ottawa created the basis for a golf organization. The first official meeting was held that fall during the interprovincial meet. Ten clubs committed to the Association, to which Queen Victoria gave the Royal designation. The founding clubs were: Royal Montreal, Toronto, Quebec, London, Kingston, Winnipeg, Victoria, Brantford, Hamilton and Niagara.
As the game continued to grow around the country, other events were added to the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s mandate, including the Canadian Ladies’ Amateur-first played in 1901 followed by the Open Championship in 1904.
For more Canadian golf history, visit the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame at www.cghf.org or at Glen Abbey Golf Club, 1333 Dorval Drive, Oakville, Ontario. Another comprehensive source is James Barclay’s Golf in Canada: A History, published by McClelland & Stewart, 1992.