Column: Stanley Thompson's Vibrant Legacy

This one got lost in the Ryder Cup hysteria, and I forgot to post it. Interesting to write a column generated by some of the comments on this blog.

Here goes:

On Golf in INGONISH, NS – Highlands Links will never hold a Canadian Open. Heck, it hasn’t actually had PGA Tour players walk to its tees in almost 50 years ago, since a sprightly up-and-comer named George Knudson took on cagey veteran Al Balding in a made-for-TV episode of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.

But the course, and its famed Canadian designer, the hard-drinking and brilliant Stanley Thompson, are suddenly back in the news. Thompson is finally receiving the recognition he’s due as one of the great artists Canada has ever produced. For his role in creating many of the greatest golf courses north of the 49th parallel, places like Banff Springs and Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta, Capilano in Vancouver and numerous others around the country, the Canadian government has decided to name Thompson a person of “national historic significance.” The Group of Seven worked on canvas; Thompson worked on the landscape. Both left a collection of work so extraordinary that it remains vibrant and significant even decades after their demise.

It is a title that seems timely, especially given the influence Thompson, who died in 1953, should be capturing national interest in coming years. After all, it is Thompson’s St. George’s Golf and Country Club, that in two years will become the first Toronto course to hold the Canadian Open since, well, its fairways last saw PGA Tour pros in 1968. Eight Thompson courses have held the Canadian Open, but not since Mississaugua Golf and Country Club in 1974 has one of the designer’s creations held the country’s top championship.

Golf designer Ian Andrew led a significant restoration of St. George’s and has recently been appointed to plan to return Highlands Links to its former glory. He says Thompson’s work, defined by his use of natural landscape and bold, sand-faced bunkers, represents what golf is in Canada.

“There has never been a Canadian architect who holds a candle to him,” says Andrew, based in Brantford, Ont. “His work needs to be preserved for future architects and players to see and understand. It is hard to have great art without great examples.”

Not all great art is housed in galleries and golf courses are functional as well as creative works. Highlands Links is run by Parks Canada, a division of the Canadian federal government, and has struggled due to lack of attention. The federal government, after all, isn’t in the golf business and it shows, though the course remains one of the Top 100 in the world according to Golf Magazine. Andrew says some basics – clearing trees to improve turf quality – will bring the course closer to Thompson’s vision. An overall restoration could be costly, but Andrew argues that it would benefit those interested in golf in Canada. After all, Highlands Links is open to anyone willing to plunk down their credit card and head out for the first tee.

“This is a really true public golf course – anyone can go and play it,” Andrew says. “That’s part of the reason it is significant, but there’s more. It represents an era with the way it was constructed. It was built by hand. With every great architect, there are examples of work that should be preserved and Highlands Links is that work.”

If a course in a remote area of northern Cape Breton doesn’t garner Thompson the needed attention, than perhaps Canadians will discover the architect’s work at the 2010 Canadian Open at St. George’s, which he designed just prior to World War II.

What will holding the Canadian Open at St. George’s do for Thompson’s reputation? It should be a celebration of the man’s genius and proof that his work is still vibrant and important even in the era of the ProV1 and titanium-face drivers. But for Andrew, bringing the Canadian Open to St. George’s is part of reclaiming the tournament’s rightful place as an event of importance. If the tournament returns to more of Thompson’s best designs – places like Westmount Golf and Country Club in Waterloo, Ont., for example – Andrew says the Canadian Open, and in turn, Canadian golf, will improve.

“By holding the Canadian Open at places like St. George’s, we’re showing off the greatest courses we have,” Andrew says. “And that will bring great players back.”

National Post

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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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