George Lyon : The Accidental Golfer

George Seymour Lyon – Gold Medal Golfer …
c.1858 – 1938
Information Sources:
en.wikipedia.org, http://www.histori.ca, http://www.rcga.org, http://www.lyonbutler.com, http://www.aafla.org, http://www.cbc.ca
Copied From: CBC Sports

Golf may be one of Canada’s most popular pastimes, but if you went back in time you might not recognize it. At the turn of the century there was no ping of a No.3 titanium striking balata. Instead clubs and had names like mashies, niblics and jiggers, The only sound you’d hear was the thud of persimmon wood meeting a simple rubber ball. Golf was even an Olympic event and only one gold medal was ever awarded – to Canadian golfer.

George Lyon was born in Toronto, and originally disliked golf. He didn’t pick up a club until he was 37-years-old, preferring games that required strength and constant movement. Lyon’s first love was cricket. In 1894, he made 234 runs before going out. It was a world record that would last 40 years.

George Lyon was the first and only man to ever win an Olympic gold in golf

“(Golf ) was a wimpy game. People stood there and hit the ball, then walked a bit and hit it again. And I think he felt it wasn’t a go-go game,” recalls Lyon’s granddaughter Sue Long.

A natural athlete, Lyon seemed capable of doing anything. In 1895, he was asked to try his hand at golf. Lyon literally climbed over the fence between the Rosedale cricket club and the Rosedale golf club.

Lyon was an avid cricket player. At one time he held the record for most runs scored

without an out

“One day he was on his way to the cricket ground, and he met one his neighbors who said ‘Lyon, why don’t you come across here and see if you can hit a golf ball as well as you hit a cricket ball’ And George did. At first he thought it was a pretty stupid game, but like all of us, in a matter of weeks he was hooked,” says golf historian Jim Barclay.

Lyon would write about his new found obsession in a newspaper column he sometimes wrote

“I had a sort of contempt for the game, though I had never played it… I remember I drove a fairly good ball… I cared little for what was called the short game… Like all other beginners, I caught the fever then and there,” he wrote.

At the turn of the century, golf was a novelty. In 1894, when the Royal Canadian Golf Association was created, it had less than ten member. courses across Canada. Most of these courses were private, so the game was reserved for the wealthy

Lyon wasn’t well to do but his job as an insurance agent allowed him and

Lyon began playing golf at 37
“(Lyon) had golf in his blood for a start. His paternal grandfather, George Lyon, came over to Canada in, to fight in the War of 1812. So George had Scottish blood. He married, his father married and Irish woman and George married an Irish woman so he had a touch of the Irish in him. So he had two great combinations of Irish blood and Scottish blood,” he explained.

Just three years after picking up his first golf club, Lyon won the Canadian amateur championship in 1898.

“He was playing cricket all that summer. Knowing the championship was coming up, he took two weeks off cricket and practiced golf for two weeks solidly. Then went into the championship, knocked out the favorite in the first round, then went right through and won convincingly,” says Barclay

Lyon would go on to win seven more Canadian amateur championships over the next 15 years. A remarkable feat, considering Lyon had one of golf’s ugliest swings.

Gord Dellatt saw Lyon’s swing first hand. As a teenager, Dellatt caddied for Lyon.

“I can recall watching him practice, standing on the practice tee. It was so interesting because he had such an unorthodox swing. He had very powerful arms and wrists, and as I understand it, this was mostly because of his cricket background. When he stood up to the golf ball, you could picture him standing up at the cricket wicket trying to hit the ball,” recalls Dellatt.

“He was not a very stylish golfer. His swing has been described, particularly by the Americans, as a man cutting wheat with a scythe,” says Barclay.

Lyon’s swing may have been unorthodox, but it was deadly accurate. To prove his precision, Lyon would drive balls off of friends’ noses.

Olympic organizers decided to make golf an official medal event in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Eighty golfers, including Lyon, participated in the qualifying round, with 36 golfers advancing to elimination match play. The head-to-head round would continue until there were only two men left.

Although he wasn’t considered a contender, Lyon easily qualified. He was even stronger in match play, setting a new course record. The final came down to a contest between Lyon, the 48-year-old underdog from Canada, and Chandler Egan, the 20-year-old favourite from the United States.

Lyon prepares to drive a ball off of a friend’s nose.

Lyon and Egan would play two rounds, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Whoever won the most holes would be Olympic champion.

After the first 18 holes of match play, Lyon was one up on Egan

In the second round Egan’s game collapsed. The problem was his driving, which was surprising since he had won a driving contest earlier in the week. On the second hole he drove into the rough. His third his tee shot landed behind a tree, and on the 15th he dropped his drive into the drink.

“Lyon was so straight down the middle, Chandler was trying to get that extra length and ended up hitting a lot of wild shots,” says golf historian Jim Healey.

Even when Egan’s drives were closer to the pin, Lyon would make strong puts and prevent the American from cutting into his lead.

Heading into the 16th hole Lyon had a two-hole lead. Egan’s poor driving continued. He sliced the ball toward the lake and ended up losing the hole. Lyon was three holes up with only two holes left. Egan had run out of holes and Lyon was the Olympic champion. Lyon celebrated by walking the length of the club house on his hands.

“He was not a very stylish golfer.”
– Jim Barclay, golf historian
Lyon summed up his Olympic victory in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“Now I’d just like to say that, though the winning of this trophy carries with it the title of Champion of the World, I am not foolish enough to think that I am the best player in the world, but I am satisfied that I am not the worst,” said Lyon.

Lyon’s Olympic gold also won the admiration of American golf fans. This was evident at U.S. Amateur championship in 1906.

“The winner went into the clubhouse but the crowd wouldn’t let George go in. They wanted to speak to him, they were cheering him and applauding him and insisted in him saying a few words, which he did very modestly,” says Barclay.

In the 1908 London Olympics, golf was again an official event. But bickering between the British and Scottish teams scuttled the tournament.Lyon would be the first and last man to win an official Olympic gold medal in golf.

According to Barclay, Lyon played a huge part in making golf more popular.

“(Lyon) popularized golf much the same way Tiger Woods popularized golf this decade. People read about him. People who thought they were too old to take up the game realized they were not too old.”

Lyon was never too old to play the game he loved. In his 70s, he was shooting 70s. At 76 years-old he shot a hole in one. He would die four years later in 1938.

But the last chapter in the Lyon golf saga was just recently written. Last summer, Sue Long asked the International Olympic Committee to recast her grandfather’s gold medal. Lyon’s gold medal had been lost for decades. That medal is now on display at Rosedale golf club, where Lyon jumped the fence into Canadian golf history.

Lyon’s gold medal is on display at Rosedale golf club

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