I’m off for a few days to Nova Scotia to give a speech at a symposium on Stanley Thompson at Highlands Links in Ingonish, on the north-east side of Cape Breton Island. That means I’m saddled with some travel companions — namely golf designer and Brantford resident (who knew golf designers came from Brantford) Ian Andrew, as well as designer/writer Jeff Mingay — on the way up to the Keltic Lodge.
My talk is on the myths of Stanley Thompson — the stories that came out largely late in his life about his occasionally remarkable, often funny exploits across Canada. The tale of the 26-hole course in Niagara Falls that was to be built for millionaire Harry Oakes; the concept of Cleopatra, the anatomically-correct 9th hole at Jasper that replicated a reclining woman; Capilano and Thompson’s fight with the law (and Thompson won).
The essence of my talk is whether any of these stories have a basis in fact. I’ve spoken to several Thompson experts (namely biographer Jim Barclay and former Thompson associate designer Geoff Cornish), as well as dug through the accounts and literature on the subject. Sometimes, when evidence wasn’t available, it just comes down to what smells right (The Oakes course, for example, with its 26-holes at 900 yards a piece, with no doglegs and no bunkering sounds ridiculous).
When it comes right down to it, most of the great Thompson stories come from a handful of magazine features written about the designer at the end of his life. Most of the time the writers let Thompson regale them with wild and occasionally whacky tales of his life without questioning the facts or seeking out secondary sources to confirm any of the details. The features are constructed for entertaining reading, not necessarily to detail the truth.
One of my favourites details the results of Cleopatra once the head of the railway, which paid hundreds of thousands to build Jasper Park Lodge, came to realize what he was looking at:
ËœThompson took great pride in this anatomical breath-taker until he was playing in a foursome with Sir Harry Thornton, then the head of the CNR empire.
When Sir Henry, about to tee off, saw the form of the fairway and its topographical embellishments, he quietly blew a gasket.
Mr. Thompson, he said, we have been friends for many years. I never thought you would have the audacity to do this to the Canadian National.
I’ve seen Cleopatra and run under the assumption that either the story isn’t true, or Thompson made adjustments to the hole (he came back a few years after opening to rework the bunkers in a showier style). Of course, there is that little issue of the oddly-placed bunker well short of the green. In Thompson’s original vision of the hole, I wonder what that was supposed to represent…
The Symposium is free — all you have to do is get yourself to Highlands Links tomorrow. Other speakers include Globe and Mail columnist Lorne Rubenstein and historian Ken Donovan.