On The Ride of A Lifetime
At the age of forty-six Chris Learmonth is coming off one of the highlights of his lengthy career in golf. In late August he prevailed at the Titleist/FootJoy PGA of Ottawa Zone Championship, the premier event on the Flagstick.com Tour. The relevance of the win was not lost on him. In fact he still finds it hard to believe it actually happened.
“I’m still at a loss for words to describe what it means to me,” he relates one afternoon from the confines of his office of the Deep River Golf Club where he is both Head Professional and General Manager. “I tried so hard to win it all those years and this one kind of fell into my lap.”
As elated as he was with the victory, one that had eluded him despite many wins within the Zone through the years, it was also met with delight by his fellow professionals. In fact, at The Marshes Golf Club where the tournament dinner was held, his peers quickly rose to their feet to applaud Chris upon completion of his victory speech.
The subtext of that response was about more than a championship though; Learmonth has grown to become a respected figure among his PGA of Canada peers. A great player, a friend to many, and a fine example of his profession, it’s something the man himself deflects with modesty but points to his industry mentors for anything positive people see in him.
Born in Ottawa, Chris spent his formative years in Montreal (his father, Ron) was a banker for RBC) and when he was eleven, after the premature death of his mother Sharron, his dad moved him and his sister to Oakville, Ontario.
Typical of a Canadian child Chris was involved in hockey early on. Always tall for his age, he naturally gravitated to football and basketball at White Oaks Secondary School.
On the golf side of the ledger, his attention was drawn to the game early. His father played on a recreational basis but by 1979, at age 13, Chris was working as a caddy under Head Professional Dave Clayton at the historic Oakville Golf Club. Soon after that, as Clayton gave way to Bill Bevington, Chris made his way from the caddy ranks to the back shop.
During summers spent back in Smiths Falls, where his father was from, lessons from the pro there at the time, Tom McPhee, shaped his form and showed him his potential in the sport. Chris recalls his first lesson with Tom at the age of 15. “I remember we worked for about an hour, he only charged me for a half hour and I went out and shot 36 on the front nine.”
That was unusual for Chris at the time; he could break 80 on a regular basis but says he would not consider himself an exceptional golfer at the time. With his focus more on other sports it was not until his 18th year that he started to find real success in golf.
“Something just happened and I started breaking par every second or third game and it just gradually progressed from there.”
That “progression” led to success on the “Apple” tour (yes, the computer manufacturer) where he would be one of the top players and a new focus, on getting a golf scholarship. “I kind of said to my dad that I was going to stop playing football and concentrate on golf. We talked to a few schools and I ended up going to Grayson, a junior college, in Texas for two years.” At Grayson he took the agronomy program, building on his summers back home working on the greens crew at Oakville.
From Grayson, where Chris learned to compete against a bevy of players who would go on to be regulars on the European Tour , Chris shifted to the University of West Florida in scenic Pensacola where he obtained a scholarship after great play at Grayson.
In his junior year at West Florida Chris played as the number three guy but his senior year found him as the top man on the squad as he completed his degree in Sports Management. The NCAA Division II School was a good place for Chris to develop his game. “We held our own; we were solid,” he says of the team that finished 3rd at the NCAA Div. II Championships in his junior year.
As Chris worked his way through his collegiate experience his focus was first on potentially having a career on the agronomy side of the business but as his game blossomed his thought more about being a club professional.
“I thought, hey, I’ll join the CPGA and give that a year or two. I had been around a shop so I knew how it worked, it just ended up being one of those things I started doing and I haven’t looked back in 21 years.”
After completing college Chris caught on with Al Paterson at Cedarbrae in Scarborough where he would spend five years starting in 1991) and earn his Class A status within the PGA in October of 1995. In his time at Cedar Brae Chris would play mini-tours each winter in Florida and would also win the Ontario Assistants’ Championship.
He eventually came back to Ottawa to work for Graham Gunn at Carleton Golf & Yacht Club before taking on a position at Elm Ridge with Andrew Phillips. At Elm Ridge he had a chance to teach, play the Quebec Tour (where he won a couple times), and enjoy golf with the members.
“I was fortunate. The three guys I worked for in the industry were all class acts. They were all good players; they were all good men to work for. They were tough but they were all fair.”
In 1999 gave the PGA Tour a shot, heading to qualifying school where he would miss advancing past the first stage by just a few shots. “I was always a player who could put one or two rounds together but playing four solid ones was tough. I’m glad I did it. It was not something I ever expected to do but was glad I had the opportunity.”
Chris says that as he got more and more into the business he realized that as much as he loved playing the business side of things, particularly the pro shop, was going to be his livelihood, and eventually he gave that part of his profession more attention.
“It’s great to be able to go out and play well but your bread and butter is your pro shop. You have to be able to take care of that no matter what, 100 percent.”
It would pay off when he eventually took on the Head Professional role at the Glengarry Golf Club in Alexandria in 2000. He would spend five years there before going back to Elm Ridge for three seasons. He took on his current role at Deep River Golf Club five years ago.
Now settled in at Deep River, Chris thrives in a position that sees him divide his year between time there and winters in Montreal with his common-law partner France and their three year-old daughter Sabrina. “In the winter it’s all about being the best dad I can be,” says Chris. “I read a lot and walk a lot but otherwise I pretty much stay at home.”
During the season though Chris is a whirling dervish, handling the dual responsibilities at the club, an arrangement he welcomes.
“I don’t look at this as a job here. It’s more like a family. We have a great membership, a solid golf course and I try to ensure we do some things differently each year so things are always fresh. It’s always evolving.”
In the end Chris filters down golf in his life to one simple thing. “For me, it’s been a conduit to meet people. I’ve met some amazing individual through the golf industry. Great people to work for, so many good members through the year, and made a lot of friends. I’ve been able to make a living at something that has added so much to my life, enough to write a book about. It’s been a pretty interesting ride…”