Small in Stature but Big in His Profession
If he had been a little taller as a youngster the golf world might not have heard about Ernie Wakelam, one of Canada’s significant golf professionals who spent a major portion of his golf career at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club in Aylmer, Quebec.
He came close to becoming a soccer player even playing with England against Scotland in a British Championship, but size in this case matters. As an adult, Ernie’s height eventually peaked at 5’4” and he weighed in at just over 100 pounds.
Ernie’s father was a labourer in a shipyard and instilled the foundation of hard work into his son. Ernie earned his spending money and helped out with the family funds by caddying for sixpence a round on the famous Royal Liverpool golf course at Hoylake, England. He caddied once for Lloyd George – Chancellor of the Exchequer, who would go on to become Prime Minister of Britain.
He progressed from caddy to assistant professional at Prenton before the outbreak of WW1, but not without having to prove himself to his father that he was ready for a career in golf. Following the tips given to him by his caddy, Ernie proved himself with a championship win. As an apprentice, he learned the art of clubmaking at the bench at the Prenton Golf Club.
With the start of WW1, Ernie joined up and served with the English Army. Wounded in France, Ernie was shipped home and upon recovery signed up with the Royal Navy and saw action in the Dardanelles. Ernie also gained notoriety as a champion bantam boxer during his time in the Royal Navy.
According to the December issue in 1930 of Canadian Golfer magazine, “Ernie was disappointed to find his job at Prenton had disappeared when he returned home after three and a half years of doing his bit and doing it well.” Ernie then joined the Merchant Navy and crossed the Atlantic 108 times before finally settling in Canada on July 2, 1922.
Charlie Wakelam, Ernie’s son, tells the story of how his father eventually came to Canada permanently to work in the golf industry. “On his second last crossing, Ernie was asked to sub in for a game of golf with his ship captain and promptly scored a 66 on the Isle d’Orleans course. His fellow competitors, both amazed by his score and his golf background encouraged Ernie to stay and take on the professional position at their club. But dad had signed on for a return trip and he was a man of his word. He said he would schedule a one-way crossing to Canada upon his return to England and he did.”
Ernie’s first golf professional position in Canada was at the Isle d’Orleans Golf Club (1923-24) in Quebec City. It was also where Ernie met his wife Mary Elizabeth May. Ernie was giving a lesson to a female member and Mary was crossing the range and was hit with a golf ball. One thing led to another and they were married in 1926. Sons Alan and Charlie and daughter Phyllis completed the family in a short period of time.
Before he became Karl Keffer’s assistant in 1935, Ernie held head professional positions at the Kent Club, Montmorency Falls (1925-27), Brockville Country Club (1928-30), McKellar Park Golf Club in Ottawa (1931-33) and Gatineau Golf Club in 1934. Ernie would succeed Karl Keffer at the Royal Ottawa upon his retirement in 1945 and hold the head professional position until he retired in 1962. For years Ernie also worked in Barbados during the winter months.
Apart from his renowned playing abilities, Ernie was also known for his golf instruction (both summer and winter), greens-making, course designing (Norway Bay) and club-making skills. For his time Ernie was one of the few professionals around who could build a set of clubs from scratch and many Royal Ottawa members benefitted from his skills.
Ernie’s record for tournament play speaks for itself and it is evident why he was rated one of the best golfers in the country by his peers. Aside from his local wins throughout the Ottawa Valley and Quebec, Ernie would always finish high in National competitions and was runner-up once at the PGA of Canada Championship and the Quebec Open Championship twice. Ernie was also the low Canadian in the Canadian Open field in 1929 at Kanawaki. In 1936, Ernie was teamed with Chaudiere’s Bobby Alston on the Canadian Team in the International Matches against the United States in Toronto. The U.S. team featured some of the top players in the U.S. including Sam Snead, Harry Cooper, Tony Manero, Horton Smith and Jimmy Thomson and handily won with a score of 8-4. Ernie and Bobby contributed 3 of the 4 points for the Canadian side. Before WW2, Ernie was also the winner of the Northern New York State Open at Massena.
As a senior professional golfer, Ernie came into his own with five Quebec Senior Championships and four PGA of Canada Senior Championships.
Charlie Wakelam tells the story about his father’s relationship with the caddies at Royal Ottawa. “Dad would always go to bat for the caddies. He was able to change the method of payment for caddies from a fee-per-round system to an hourly rate that benefitted the caddies. He was the first to hire girl caddies in the Ottawa Valley and also introduced a caddy tournament on the short course. The only condition placed on the caddy tournament was that the caddies had to be out of the greenskeepers’ way necessitating an early morning start.”
Considered the “Dean” of Ottawa’s playing professionals, Ernie loved the game of golf and thoroughly enjoyed his Sunday afternoons competing with his fellow professionals and enjoying the camaraderie. The professionals would generally put on a show with their various skills after their competitions which became a highlight for members watching the action. Charlie indicated that his dad could talk for hours on the subject of golf and was a great story-teller. A favourite story was about Harry Towlson, head professional at the Ottawa Hunt who during a game hooked his ball OB hitting a cow, with the ball bouncing back 100 feet coming to rest inches from the hole.
A description of Ernie Wakelam can be found in the Royal Ottawa Golf Club 100th Anniversary book. “He was well-mannered and meticulous in his appearance, and a stickler about protocol and etiquette.” Ernie was liked by the membership and the official scorer at the majority of club events as well as the handicap manager for the membership.
In 1962, at the age of 64, Ernie retired as the head professional at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club turning the reigns over to Marcel Desjardins. In retirement, Ernie helped out at the Chaudiere Golf Club and it is reported that when he and Stan Kolar teamed up in golf matches, their competition was generally left with lighter pockets.
In late October of 1972, the Canadian golf community mourned the passing of one of their own, a man who thought of himself as a golf professional looking after the needs of the country’s golf hungry amateurs – Ernie Wakelam.