George S. Lyon – Olympic Gold Medal Champion

1904 Olympic Golf Trophy won by George S. Lyon Photo: Scott MacLeod)
George S. Lyon, 1904 Olympic Champion
George S. Lyon, 1904 Olympic Champion

Golf has not been part of the Olympic Program since 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri until this year when the game of golf makes its return as part of the Summer Olympic Program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and where Canada will defend the gold medal in Men’s individual competition.

Mr. Lyon has a connection to the Ottawa area as he was born on July 27, 1858 in the Village of Richmond in Carleton County, Ontario. He was one of thirteen children born to Robinson E. Lyon and his wife Sarah Maxwell.

According to the May, 1914 edition of Canadian Golfer Magazine; “Mr. George S. Lyon was educated at the old Grammar School in Richmond. These old grammar schools throughout Ontario, by the bye, turned out a product that our much-vaunted public school system to-day would do well to emulate.”

As a young man, Mr. Lyon moved to the Toronto area and became involved in the vibrant amateur sports scene. He was more than proficient in the sports of baseball, curling, football, hockey, soccer, swimming, tennis and track and field, but his favourite sport was cricket. At the age of 18, George pole-vaulted to a Canadian record. Also representing Canada, George held the Canadian record scoring 238 not out for his club, a record which would last for 40 years.

Mr. Lyon served as a member of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada for nine years including action during the Métis uprising and was also a partner, until his death in 1938, in the Toronto Agency of the Sun Fire Insurance Company.

His interest in golf began in 1895, while he was waiting for a cricket practice to begin, when he was encouraged by Rosedale Member John Dick to play nine holes at the Rosedale Golf Club.

As related in the Rosedale Golf Club Anniversary Book by Jack Batten – Rosedale, The First 100 Years of Rosedale Golf, Mr. Lyon didn’t think much of the game. “Not on your life,” were Mr. Lyons thoughts on the invitation. As he said later in life, “I had a sort of contempt for the game, though I had never played it.”

But out of curiosity George S. Lyon did play nine holes and as he is quoted in the Rosedale Anniversary Book, “Like all beginners, I caught the fever there and then.” George was proposed for membership at Rosedale, accepted and with his membership paid; another saga in his history began.

Competition Beckons

George wasn’t completely sold on golf as he only played in the spring and fall of 1896 and 1897 reserving the summer for cricket. That timeline changed in 1897 when he successfully advanced to the third round of the Canadian Amateur championship. Buoyed by his success, Mr. Lyon became serious about the game and he devoted two weeks in advance of the 1898 Canadian Amateur to practice.

This dedication to the game worked out so well that George S. Lyon went on to win his first of eight Canadian Amateur Championships in 1898 at the Toronto Golf Club. The Canadian Golfer article referred to his win. “To bag a championship a little over a year and a half after taking up a new sport surely in itself must constitute a record. Even in those early days Mr. Lyon was noted for his long drives, fine iron shots and accurate putting. His old cricket experience, the keen eye, steady nerve and supple wrist stood him in good stead.”

Mr. Lyon would go on to win seven further Canadian Amateur Championships with his final win coming in 1914 at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club. A founding member of the Canadian Seniors’ Golf Association in 1918, George would dominate the Association Championship Tournaments with ten wins between 1918 and 1930.

Always willing to give back to his new-found sport, George was the first rules chairman in 1916 for the Royal Canadian Golf Association and also their President in 1923. He also served as the Captain of the Lambton Golf and Country Club for twenty-three years, a Club that he also helped to found in 1902.

George’s resume in competitive golf also includes a runner-up in the United States Amateur Championship in 1906, a semi-final finish in the 1908 British Amateur Championship, along with a runner-up finish in the 1910 Canadian Open as an amateur. He was also a three-time winner of the North American Seniors Championship in 1923, 1931 and 1932.

Gold Medal Performance

George Seymour Lyon is best known for his Gold Medal win in the singles division of the golf competition at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. George was a member of the Lambton Golf and Country Club in Toronto at the time and he was one of only three international golfers that ventured to the Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis to compete for the Olympic Gold Medal in golf against seventy-four Americans. He was accompanied by Mr. A. W. Austin, President of the Lambton Golf and Country Club along with his son, A. E. Austin.

The first and only gold medal presented in Olympic Golf singles competition was awarded to George S. Lyon for his victory after two medal qualifying and five match play rounds in heat, humidity and occasional downpours of rain. In the final round, the forty-six year old George Lyon played the twenty year old U.S. Amateur Champion, Mr. Chandler Egan. With his drives splitting the fairways and a steady hand on his approach shots and putts, Mr. Lyon finished the championship match on the thirty-fourth hole up 3 and 2.

As a testament to his fitness level, George walked on his hands across the dining room to accept his gold medal and championship trophy.

“I am not foolish enough to think that I am the best player in the world,” Lyon later told the Toronto Star, “but I am satisfied that I am not the worst.” This was a comment on the absence of European golfers at the Olympic competition.

As a further tribute to his longevity in his short time in golf, George S. Lyon was still shooting his age until shortly before he passed away on May 11, 1938.

George S. Lyon was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1971, the Goulbourn Sports Wall of Fame in 1996, the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Toronto Sports Hall of Honour on February 25th, 2016.

James A. Barkley in his book, “Golf in Canada, A History”, provides a tribute description of George S. Lyon:

“This merry, modest, much be-loved man was the inspirative figure in Canadian golf for over thirty years. Simple in his faith, in his songs, and in his long devotion to the royal and ancient game, he put Canadian golf forever in his debt.”

/ Profile by Joe McLean @FlagstickJoe , Editor, The Jigger, The Newsletter for the Golf Historical Society of Canada