The Truly Great Thompson

Yesterday, the Royal Canadian Golf Association finished its seminar series on dead Canadians who influenced the game by presenting a talk on Stanley Thompson — the man who has likely had the greatest influence on the game in this country.

Stanley Thompson

The great Stanley Thompson
The panel included Jim Barclay, perhaps the biggest gentleman in the game in Canada and the author of a book on Thompson; John Smith, a mining engineer who wrote a book on Thompson’s Cataraqui; Doug Carrick, one of Canada’s best golf architects; and Bill Newton, a relative of Thompson and the head of the Stanley Thompson Society.
The discussion was full of interesting anecdotes, often from Carrick, who was mentored by Robbie Robinson, Thompson’s right-hand man for many years.
“Young man, I’m not building courses for today, I’m building them for posterity,” is one of the quotes Carrick attributed to Thompson via Robinson.
In fact, the event was strong on anecdotes, with Barclay recounting several of the key points of his book and Newton speaking about some of the Thompson lore that has been passed down through his family (Newton was very young when Thompson died). Realistically it is difficult to determine what is truth and what is fiction when it comes to Thompson’s life. A notorious story teller, Barclay points out that many stories changed every time they were told.
“He would fabricate these tales to hide his shyness,” Barclay said.
My only qualm with the whole affair was Newton’s insistence that “a great sympathetic restoration,” of Thompson’s work has happened in the past few years. Certainly Ian Andrew, while working for Doug Carrick and now on his own, attempted to restore Thompson’s work to the best of his ability. His work at Highlands in London, St. George’s in Toronto and Kawartha in Peterborough, all demonstrates his ability to work within the Thompson look and style.
But I think we are being self-serving if we think all of Thompson’s work has been placed in such reverential hands.
Leave it to this reporter to ask a tough question in two parts: 1) What is being done to actually protect Stanley Thompson golf courses and 2) If Thompson’ work was so great, why did his so-called “disciples” like Robbie Robinson, Norman Wood, and Bob and David Moote, spend so much time gutting them like fish after Thompson’s death? It seems to me one of the great growth industries for the previously mentioned, along with Bill Robinson and Les Furber, has been to dramatically alter the great man’s original courses. Needless to say this question went over like a fart in a small room with the group. Smith and Barclay didn’t weigh in, but Newton defended the Mootes, Robbie and others saying they engaged in “sympathetic restoration.” Tell that to the likes of St. George’s, Kawartha, The Ladies Golf Club, Highlands Links, Whirlpool and the outlandish looking 17th hole at Burlington, all apparently part of this “sympathetic restoration” movement over the past two decades. Maybe the better term, as Thompson aficianado Chris Parker said, is “apathetic restoration.” Either way, there are some clubs, like St. George’s and Kawartha, that have been properly restored — but that has only occurred in the past few years. Until then it was open season on most Thompson work, some of it done (like Mayfair in Edmonton or St. George’s in 1967) in an attempt to modernize the courses. The results were almost always spectacularly bad.
In truth, the seminar, which was presented to about 25 people, was quite interesting. The only drawback was that apparently none on the panel had seen Thompson’s masterwork, Highlands Links, and there was actually very little discussion of his architecture. One might have assumed someone would have posed a question to Carrick about what made Thompson’s work so distinctive and how he evolved as a designer. But that never came up. Of course that leaves the opportunity for another seminar in the RCGA’s seriese — the development of golf architecture in Canada, something they could tackle next year.
I had a chance to speak with Newton after the seminar and he said the Thompson Society is working hard to protect Thompson’s legacy. He says Dundas Valley, his home course, is planning on restoring its bunkers by using David Moote, someone who has in the past proven unable to replicate Thompson’s style or grace on the golf course. Best of luck. Needless to say, the Thompson Society could wield a great deal of influence, but it isn’t clear that they’ve been particularly successful to date.
In the end, Thompson died with great debts, money that was forgiven, according to Newton.
“Each of those owed money agreed to forgive Stanley’s debts saying, ‘He did more for us than we did for him,'” Newton said.
Indeed he did.

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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.

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