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Canadian Golf HOF member and historian Jim Barclay passes

I was saddened to learn this morning that Canadian Golf Hall of Fame member and historian Jim Barclay passed away last night. Jim was a member of St. George’s, the writer behind the monumental Golf in Canada book, and a man I considered a friend. A few years back I had the privilege of giving his Hall of Fame induction introduction, one of the highlights of my career. He was very helpful in many articles I’ve written and his passing is a real blow to Canadian golf.

Interestingly, a few years back I had a pretty good argument with a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame about whether Jim deserved to be there. The individual said he didn’t — I obviously disagreed. It was great to see him get there and I think two of his several works, the previously mentioned Golf in Canada and his history of St. George’s, are among the better golf books written by a Canadian.  In fact, I borrowed one of his books last spring and promised to return it — it is sitting behind me in my bookcase now. I borrowed it during my last meeting with him in March of this year — we had lunch at a Red Lobster and Jim told me how he was back playing golf after having troubles with arthritis. It was a nice conversation and Jim charmed the waitress.

Here are my remarks from that introduction — I think they provide some context to a life whose second act was dedicated to golf. You’ll be missed Jim.

 

Perhaps it is only when looking back at one’s life that you understand the happenstance that affects your time on this planet. I’m referring to the subtle nuances that present options. The roads taken and not taken. Decisions large that may turn out to be insignificant, and the decisions, however small, that turn out to change everything. Our lives are full of these.

And so it is with Jim Barclay. Scotsman. Engineer. Oil man. Executive. Golfer. Historian. Writer.

And now a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame.

I don’t want this to sound like a memoriam – because Jim is very much with us today, still debating the little nuances of the game’s history in this country. And, as a writer, I will say this emphatically: The game is a better for it.

Rarely does a man have two successful careers. Jim’s life has had two major occupations. But if it hadn’t been for a chance discussion in 1983 in regards to the need of the RCGA for a curator to help with their historical material, there’s a good chance we would not here looking back at the remarkable accomplishments of a quiet, strong and humble man who so deserves to be celebrated for his selfless dedication to the game we love and hold dear.

This room is full of friends and family here to celebrate Mr. Barclay’s induction into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame.

I’m certain many will know Jim’s story well, though others may not be as familiar with it.

I’m going to ignore his embarrassment and provide some context on his life – as any good historian would appreciate. Now like many historians, in gathering the information for this speech I’ve relied heavily on primary sources – personal interviews with those close to Jim, those who have known him for many years, and those who have come to revere him as one of the best sources on historical golf information in all of North America.

I’ll add a disclaimer here that Jim will appreciate – primary sources can get it wrong, so if I’ve muffed something here, please see me afterwards so we can get the second edition of this speech corrected.

Jim Barclay was born in 1923, in Glasgow Scotland. The son of George and Elsie, he became an engineer, eventually commencing work with the British Petroleum Company in 1946. That job allowed him to see the world, leading to his arrival in Canada in 1965

He was good at his job, but eventually BP’s operations here were acquired by Petro Canada in 1983. At the time PetroCan was a crown corporation and Jim wanted no part of it.

“At my age, I wasn’t going to work for the government,” he says.

But he was still young at 60 and still in search of a use for his boundless energy.

At the request of an associate who knew of his interest in golf – he found a second calling as curator of the RCGA’s Hall of Fame and Museum.

Call it ambition, service, dedication or madness – but in 1986, Jim decided to embark on writing a book that told the entirety of the history of the game of golf in Canada.

Past attempts to write a history of golf north of the 49th parallel was, by Jim’s admission, “sloppy and full or errors.”

Besides, he says, it appeared the author of a previous history had never heard of Canadian Golfer, the periodical that served as Jim’s bible for his history of the game.

“It offended my sensibilities,” he says.

To me, writing such a book sounds like such an imposing task that any further discussion of the undertaking would have been shelved. Not so with Jim. By his own admission he started flying all over the country,  digging through dusty minute books, logging countless hours scanning Canadian Golfer magazine. Nose down in micro fiche.

“Time meant nothing to me,” he says in his matter of fact tone. “My wife was only too happy to have me out of the house and flying to Victoria to dig through Oak Bay’s archives.

Jim now refers to the period as “the finest thing that ever happened to me.”

His desire was to set the record straight.

“Oh yes, I was surprised at all the lies that had been told and that people had been telling for years,” he’d say.

He followed his nose – as any good historian would.

“The information from 1915 was vastly different from what it is today,” he told me as we sat in this very building.

That meant challenging long held opinions. That meant saying when a club had listed their origins as being three or four years earlier than the documents proved. It meant raising the profile of little-known pros and putting their place in the development of the game in perspective. It meant celebrating George S. Lyon and George Knudson.

The book appeared, after countless trips across the country, in 1992.

Jim told me he was stunned by it when he first saw it, and that his wife Helen said he just stood and stared at it for a long time. Even to this day he’s particularly fond of the cover photo, that of a solitary golfer playing at The National.

“It cost me $400,” Jim says. “But it was worth it.”

Golf in Canada would sell well for such a large book – more than 5,000 copies in fact. Today it is necessary reading and reference for anyone like me who writes about the game, and, in fact, for anyone who wants to understand the game.

“Others might have done it, but I doubt anyone would have done it as well as Jim,” says Karen Hewson, the current director of the RCGA’s archival operations. She’s known Jim for more than 20 years.

Lorne Rubenstein, my mentor at the Globe and Mail, and an inductee into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame himself last year, said the book is vital. He bought a second copy for his winter home in Florida, just so he’d have it ready to reference.

World Golf Hall of Fame member Marlene Stewart Streit, who could unfortunately not be here tonight because of a prior commitment, said that Jim’s accomplishment in crafting Golf in Canada rivals that of any professional golfer in the country’s history. He may not have won the Masters, as Mike Weir did in 2003, or taken the Canadian Open, as Pat Fletcher did in 1954. But by writing the definitive history of the game in this country, his accomplishment is, in many ways, very comparable, says Marlene.

“You guys are the one’s that tell the story of the game,” she says. “Without a book like Jim’s, who would know about all of these achievements?”

Jim’s second career as a historian and writer started with Golf in Canada. It wasn’t his last book. Others followed – books on the country’s founding golf professionals; an important work on legendary golf designer Stanley Thompson; and finally a fine history on this very club – St. George’s.

But it is still Golf in Canada that started it all.

“It is the weight of the thing – I can’t read it now without propping it up,” he says.

Which is probably a good point to end this introduction. Jim thinks Golf in Canada is a heavy book. I agree – it is a weighty accomplishment. It has heft and created an impact – a lasting one.

“Golf is a private game,” Jim writes in his introduction to Golf in Canada. “It brings the joys of experiment and discovery, the intellectual challenge of finding out things for yourself.

“All that is equally true of the writing of golf history, for the history of no other sport has been woven into such an intricate and colourful fabric of legend, myth and fact.”

Jim Barclay celebrated the history of the game in a way no one had previously and in which no one has since. And now we’re here to celebrate his induction among the game’s greats – which is perfectly fitting to me.

Let me introduce Jim Barclay, a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in the builder category.

 

 

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Canada and the rest of the world has lost a great ambassador to the history of and to the game of golf.

    Jim was a true gentleman and a friend.

  • I feel honoured to have met and corresponded with “Jim”, as he insisted on being called. He not only encouraged my research on golf history, he also paid for my first year’s membership in the GHSC when I was still a student.

    Canadian golf has lost a truly great gentleman, but his legacy will live on through his unmatched research and publications.

  • I was lucky enough to spend quite a few lunches with Jim discussing the history of Canadian Golf, the life of Stanley Thompson and the architecture of St. George’s.

    I benefitted greatly from his research and his knowledge.

    I was really pleased to see him honoured in the Hall of Fame because his work was essential to many of us in the golf industry.

    The legacy of his great books will live on for generations to come.

    I’ll miss Jim

  • It is a shame to lose Jim and many of his compadres who founded the Golf Historical Society of Canada. I have a copy of Jim’s book and it is an invaluable resource? We are losing many of our great resources and much knowledge goes with them.

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