Profile: Don Childs – Exploring Golf History

Don Childs in his Florida office (submitted)

by Joe McLean, Editorial Team, Flagstick.com

As a Member of the Flagstick Golf Magazine Team as a writer/researcher/reporter and photographer; a member of the Golf Historical Society of Canada and its former Newsletter Editor and the historian for the Ottawa Valley Golf Association and the PGA of Canada – Ottawa Zone, I have enjoyed years of research into golf history and written many golf articles on local golf tournaments and my destination visits throughout North America and the Caribbean.

My most enjoyable research articles have involved personal profiles on members of the local golf community as well as profiles on golf courses past and present in Eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley.

During this time, I have encountered a number of individuals and groups of people who genuinely enjoy researching and writing about and preserving golf history, specifically in the Ottawa area.

Chief among them are my friends Scott MacLeod and Paul Murray. Both are members of the Golf Historical Society of Canada. Scott is also my editor with Flagstick Golf Magazine and also on the Board with the Golf Journalists Association of Canada as well as being a PGA of Canada Golf Professional. Paul Murray is a retiree who loves to keep busy researching family and local golf history and once he gets involved in a subject he doesn’t scrimp on time and effort to dig out a story. 

The Camelot Golf & Country Club, Ottawa Hunt & Golf Club and Royal Ottawa Golf Club are three golf clubs in the Ottawa Valley that cherish their club history and they have numerous individuals at their clubs who serve on their clubs’ heritage committees.

But there is another individual who I have become acquainted with who is in a class by himself as far as the history of golf here in the Ottawa Valley and beyond is concerned. In a very short period of time Mr. Donald Childs has accumulated an extensive golf portfolio and Flagstick reached out to him to find out more about this interesting gentleman making inroads into preserving golf history.

Let us introduce you to Donald Childs.

Don Childs, Highland Preserve GC, Davenport, Florida (Submitted)

Don and his wife Janet have two adult daughters (Kathleen and Emma). He was born in Bowmanville, Ontario where he attended school and worked in various summer jobs until he went off to university in 1977. Hockey was an enduring passion for Don, and a sport he played from age 5 to 57. “I could stickhandle in a phone booth and in high school I also played soccer and football (quarterback)”, said Don. He was introduced to golf when he was 11 or 12.

Even before high school Don worked at the Bowmanville Golf and Country Club, beginning as a club-cleaner and then transferring to the greenkeeping crew, helping with the grunt work involved in building the club’s second nine holes in the mid-70s. For five years after that, he worked four months each summer and weekends year-round as a dispatcher for Hutton Transport in Bowmanville, receiving orders for St. Mary’s cement and sending 18-wheelers full of powdered cement to construction sites as far as away as Mississauga to the west, Ottawa-Hull to the east, and Kapuskasing to the north. Then, after completing an undergraduate degree, Don won a scholarship that paid tuition and living expenses for three years of doctoral studies in England, after which he returned to Canada to spend the next 32 years teaching and writing about literature.

Don has a PhD from the University of Hull and a BA from Queen’s University, and he taught at the University of Calgary, Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa. During his academic career, he published articles and books on writers such as T.S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Virginia Woolf.  He retired in his late 50’s and is now a Professor Emeritus of the University of Ottawa, but no longer participates in the work of the English Department.

Don’s research and writing activities are now focused on golf history, especially regarding the architectural theory and practice involved in the laying out of the earliest golf courses in Canada.

FGM – What appeals to you most about the game of golf?

DC – “Insanely competitive at other sports, willing to risk injury to score goals, but too old for that sort of thing now, I compete in golf not so much with another person, but rather with Old Man Par, and with myself. Golf also appeals to me because it involves both science and art. I enjoy the intellectual analysis required to understand the golf swing and to judge what shot needs to be played, and I also enjoy imagining the different shots that I might play and visualizing the shot that I choose to play. In playing a golf shot, I find that a balance of thinking and feeling is required in a way I have experienced in no other sport. Ideally, the golfer swings with a unified sensibility: simultaneously, the thought of the swing is felt, and the feeling of the swing is thought.”

FGM – When did you start playing the game?

DC – “When I was about 11, I chummed with a guy who was a junior member of the Bowmanville Golf & Country Club. One spring day, we took his golf clubs into the field between our homes where horses were occasionally pastured, and we bashed golf balls about. The snow hadn’t fully melted yet, but I loved it, and set up a couple of poles that we could aim at as we moved up and down the undulating field.”

FGM – Do you remember your first set of clubs, your first game and your score?

DC – “Later that spring, my friend’s father invited me to join them for a round at the Bowmanville Golf & Country Club. I dug out of the basement my father’s long-unused golf clubs from the 1950s, a mongrel set that included a good number of irons made by Wright & Ditson (one of the first companies to popularize golf in the U.S. in the 1890s, even publishing a book in 1895 on how to build a golf course, a book that I had occasion to study a little while ago in connection with a topic that I was researching). I remember that first round well: I shot 72 on the 9-hole course and my friend, who had played for several years, was quite upset that I had beaten his score.”

FGM – I believe that you are a member of the Champlain (formerly being the Glenlea) Golf Club.

DC – “I play a good deal of golf at Champlain, but I’ve actually been a member of Club EG for eleven years, and over that time I have played most of the courses available to Club EG members. This year, however, I have decided to become a Champlain member.”

FGM – Have you been a member at any other golf clubs?

DC – “I’ve been a member of the Bowmanville G&CC, the Newcastle G&CC, the Napanee G&CC, and Club EG. I have also held overseas memberships at Tain GC in Scotland, County Armagh GC in Northern Ireland, and Royal North Devon GC in England.”

FGM – What is your current handicap?

DC – “I don’t keep an official handicap, but when I enter my scores into online handicap calculators, my handicap works out to be low single digits. I’m not a long hitter, so I generally play tees at 6,000 to 6,200 yards. My average score in 2021, over the course of 225 rounds in Florida and Canada, was about 73.”

FGM – Do you have any personal accomplishments in golf that you wish to pass along to our readers?

(Lowest score, holes in one, championship wins, etc.)

DC – “I have not played competitive golf very often, but I can see that to play one’s best golf in such a context is an acquired skill, and I have not acquired it. I have had 3 holes-in-one (the first at Omaha Beach GC in France, the second at Sand Point, the third at Champlain) and I had an albatross on the par-5, sixth hole of the Premiere Course at Greensmere. When everything goes my way, I occasionally break 70, and in 2021 twice shot 66 at Champlain.

In Florida a couple of years ago, I shot my age, 61, on a golf course with a par of 65 and an official USGA rating of 62.6. Does that count?”

FGM – Have you any personal stories from your games of golf that you would like to pass along to our readers?

(Favourite golf courses, experiences, interesting people you have met or played with, etc.)

DC – “Recently, I have played golf with an Ontario cabinet minister, a Dallas Cowboy tight end, the dealer who sells Ian Poulter his Ferraris, a pair of golfers practising for the U.S. one-armed golf championship, a Regulatory Compliance Officer who sent a former Clinton cabinet member to prison, and a “Tunnel Rat” who survived search and destroy missions in Viet Cong tunnels during the Vietnam War, but for the past two years, I have played golf most days at sunrise with a man who is fluent in Korean and golf (he is 74 and often shoots 74 or less from the senior tees). He is not quite fluent in English or French, so we communicate slowly, but we play quickly, completing 18 holes on foot in 2.5 hours or less. He has taught me phrases in Korean, and I have taught him how to wear plus-4s, a flat-cap, and argyle socks.”

FGM – I have only known you for a short time and that is primarily through your interest in golf history. You have a comprehensive list of essays and books on local golf history and golf figures since you turned your attention to these subjects about three years ago.

What prompted you to turn your attention to local golf history and golf figures in September of 2018?

DC – “Three years ago, my brother Bob sent me a history of golf in Napanee by Art and Cathy Hunter that included a newspaper item about the man who in 1927 redesigned the Napanee golf course: Fred Rickwood. I decided to find out what I could about this unknown early Canadian golf professional and golf course architect. I wrote a 60,000-word biography of him in a four-volume study I call A Forgotten Life in Canadian Golf: Remembering Fred Rickwood and the Making of the Napanee Golf Course.

Doing that work, I discovered that the golfer who set the professional course record at Napanee before World War I was Karl Keffer. Looking into his story, I discovered that he was the Royal Ottawa head pro from 1911 to 1943 in the summer, and that in the winter from 1910 to 1942 he was the head pro of the Jekyll Island Club in Georgia, where the millionaire members owned 1/6 of the world’s wealth.

Keffer designed golf courses in Georgia, Ontario, and Quebec that no one knows about, so I have been writing up stuff in connection with his career – including the fact that his wife replaced him for two seasons at Royal Ottawa during World War I while he was in the trenches of France and Belgium, which made her Canada’s first woman golf professional (a fact that has not yet been acknowledged in the history books).

And so as one thing has led to another, I’ve come to write more than half a million words on local golf history over the last three years.”

FGM – Each time I have asked you a question about an interesting or obscure golf course, you have taken the time to research and, in many cases, produce a document on the subject which I do appreciate. What is your fascination or motivation in conducting research about local golf history and golf figures?

DC – “In my writing on forgotten golf architects and golf courses, I take pleasure in restoring these people and these places to a life in the hereafter of history.

Golf scholarship regarding the history of architectural theory and practice is both vibrant and sophisticated, but (with the notable exception of the work of Canada’s Stanley Thompson) the major questions in the field tend to be researched and explained in relation to architects and golf courses in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States. Yet I find that the conclusions reached about the major issues in this field by its major scholars are borne out by our local golf history, often with distinctive Ottawa Valley and Eastern Ontario inflexions.

But golf is like jazz: you get it, or you don’t. No one can talk you into liking either of them, and the same goes for their history.”

Don Childs, Tain Golf Club, County of Ross, Scotland

FGM – At one point you were in the process of writing a history of the Glenlea/Champlain Golf Club. How are you progressing with this document?

DC – “The Glenlea golf course was Karl Keffer’s only 18-hole layout. To explain his architectural decisions in laying out this course between 1928 and 1929, I tell the story of his association between 1906 and 1929 with leading architects: George Cumming, Donald Ross, Harry S. Colt, J.H. Taylor, Willie Park, Jr, and Walter J. Travis. These are major figures who contributed significantly to his understanding of what a golf hole should do.

And I also study the golf courses that he laid out before his final work at Glenlea: perhaps the 1907 Napanee course, the 9-hole course at Royal Ottawa (1911), a 9-hole course at Jekyll Island (1913-22), the temporary 9-hole course at the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club (with Davie Black in 1919), the Blue Sea Lake course (1921), Pembroke (1923), and Arnprior (1924).

Many chapters on the above material prelude study of the Glenlea course. I discuss the stages of construction that led from 9 temporary greens in May of 1929 to eighteen sophisticated push-up greens in 1933, including a famous punchbowl green. I discuss the first directors, the first greenkeepers, the chairmen of the greens committees who got the greens built, and of course William H. Stewart who owned the golf course.

After World War II, it was decided that 9 holes of Keffer’s 18-hole course would be allowed to return to nature, and Bobby Alston was hired to choose the best holes for a 9-hole course. Just three years later, however, Harry Mulligan, the head pro from 1929 to 1943, was re-hired to restore the course to an 18-hole configuration, which he did with co-designer William (Lyn) Stewart (the owner’s son), developing five holes in the area of today’s driving range and 2nd, 3rd, and 5th holes.

Today’s holes 6, 9, and 10 were laid out in the 1980s and 1990s by the companies that the NCC first hired to manage the golf course it acquired in 1975 and renamed Champlain. But the design renaissance at Champlain since the 1980s is largely attributable to Stan Brigham (great-great-great-grandson of Hull founder Philemon Wright, on whose old farms the Champlain, Royal Ottawa, and Chateau Cartier golf courses are laid out). Brigham, along with his “shaper” superintendent Mike Leslie (who has been at the course since 1986) are responsible for numerous greens: 1, 3, 4, 13, 17, as well as half of greens 2, 5, and 15. When your ball rolls off a Champlain green with a false front, curse Brigham and Leslie.

Glenlea was founded in February of 1929. The stock market crashed in October, ushering in the Great Depression. It is a minor miracle that Glenlea survived its first season. And it’s a bit of a miracle that it continues to exist today as Champlain.

I have completed the research for this book, but it is taking me longer to write up this stuff than I thought it would, since one thing always leads to another.

For instance, what I thought was going to be a simple chapter on Keffer’s work in 1913 with Harry S. Colt, who was voted by Links Magazine in 2013 as “the greatest architect of all time,” became a 130-page, 36,000-word essay on Colt’s unacknowledged work at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club.”

FGM – Your list of books and essays on golf history is quite comprehensive. You have graciously made these works available to me and a few other select interested enthusiasts. Do you plan to make this information available to the public in the future and if so, how?

DC – “One of my daughters has built me a website through which PDFs of my essays and books are downloadable for free. The website address is https://www.donaldjchilds.ca/.”

FGM – When I reached out to you about putting together a personal profile for Flagstick Golf Magazine / Flagstick.com, you responded that “it could prove useful: perhaps a reader or two will volunteer info about some of the golf courses or golfers I’ve written about.” How would you like interested readers with information to get hold of you?

DC – “Readers are invited to email information or questions to me at djchilds129@gmail.com.”

FGM – Each time you produce an essay or a book on local golf history and figures, you are adding to the historical body of work which has been lacking, especially in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec. How do you feel each time you add to the known history of golf in the area?

DC – “There are so few people interested in this kind of history that if the satisfaction of doing it were not almost entirely personal, the effort required to do the research and writing could not be sustained.

Until she passed away at the beginning of this year, my mother did jig-saw puzzles; my wife puzzles out cryptic crosswords; I puzzle out local golf history. These days, it’s what I do.

Joe, I’m retired. I play a round of golf each day, watch whatever golf is on TV (men’s and women’s golf, American, European, and Asian golf tours), and then use leftover time to research and write about golf. Eventually, it’s time for sleep, so that I can dream about golf.”

Don Childs has provided an up-to-date list of his books and essays below.

BOOKS AND ESSAYS ON GOLF HISTORY BY DONALD J. CHILDS (www.donaldjchilds.ca)  

EASTERN ONTARIO  
A Forgotten Life in Canadian Golf: Remembering Fred Rickwood and the Making of the Napanee Golf Course (in 4 volumes)                
Volume One – The Course of Fred Rickwood’s Life: From Ilkley to Orillia (2020)               
Volume Two – Napanee Golfers and Their Courses to 1906 (2020)               
Volume Three – The 1907 New Course and Four of Its Players (2020)               
Volume Four – Blending Penal and Strategic Design at Napanee (2020)  

The Almonte Golf Club: A Story of Common Cause (2021)
Early Golf in Picton: Of Presbyters & Proselytes, 1897 – 1907 (2021) 
Merrickville Golf Courses (2021)  

ROYAL OTTAWA
Evelyn Keffer, Too Long Unsung: Canada’s First Woman Golf Professional (2020)
Ottawa’s First Golf Course (2021)
Harry Colt’s Sand-Save at Royal Ottawa, Or How the Golf Course Got Its Bunkers (2021)  

THE OUTAOUAIS
Gatineau Valley Golf Courses 1903 – 1933 (2021)
The 1st Buckingham Golf Course (2021)  

JEKYLL ISLAND Forgotten Golf Courses of Jekyll Island (2020)    

MISCELLANEOUS Colt & Alison at Hamilton, 1920  

ESSAYS & BOOKS IN PROGRESS
The Caledonia Springs Golf Course, 1904-1915  
The Hillcrest Golf and Country Club, 1923-1924: Not Quite as Advertised    
The Golf King of the Ottawa Valley: Karl Keffer and the Makings of a Golf Course Architect  (Including the Napanee, Royal Ottawa, Hunt Club, Jekyll Island, Pembroke, Arnprior, McKellar & Champlain Courses)  The Chelsea Links of the Ottawa Golf Club, 1896-1904
The Four Courses of Norway Bay The Golf Courses of the Hotel Victoria in Aylmer, 1899-1914

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