by Joe McLean, Editorial Assistant – Flagstick.com
My first experience with golf took place in 1970 at the Don Booth Driving Range on Merivale Road in Nepean, Ontario in the vicinity of what is now Canadian Tire store at the Hunt Club Road intersection with Merivale Road.
The Ottawa Carleton Health Department was holding a golf tournament at the Gatineau Golf Club and I was encouraged to play by my fellow health inspectors. All well and good, but I had never held a golf club so that would be a challenge. I dropped into the Merivale Driving Range and asked about a lesson. A very nice gentleman took me to the grassy area of the range, gave me an overlapping golf grip and basic instruction on stance and how to strike a golf ball. I was immediately hooked on the game of golf.
That golf instructor, I now realize was none other than “Wee Bobby Alston”.
I found information on Bobby Alston recently while researching newspaper clippings to identify possible candidates for inclusion in the Ottawa Valley Golf Association Hall of Fame. I found more information on Bobby Alston in a profile story written for the Golf Historical Society of Canada newsletter in the March, 1994 edition by the late Lyn Stewart and an Eddie McCabe column in the Ottawa Journal on March 26, 1973 titled “Bobby Alston dies, artist of another time.”
Let me acquaint you with the late Bobby Alston.
Robert McKay (Bobby) Alston was born in the small settlement of Turnhouse, just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1908 and learned the game as a young boy. It didn’t hurt that his family lived beside a golf course. He enjoyed a taste of stardom when he won the Edinburgh Boys’ Championship in 1928 and he reached the semi-finals of the Scottish Amateur the following year. A teenage sensation, Bobby set scoring records and represented Scotland in junior team competitions against England.
Bobby emigrated from Scotland in 1931 and was hired as the golf professional at the Métis Golf Club in Boule Rock, Quebec. It is notable that in his first year in Canada he finished second by one-stroke to Willie Lamb in the Quebec Open held at the Summerlea Golf Club in Montreal.
The following year Bobby was hired as the assistant professional, under Jimmy Clay, at the Rivermead Golf Club in Aylmer, Quebec.
In the early 1930’s Bobby married and he and his wife Sarah had two children, Bobby Jr. and Joyce. Joyce would go on to be one of the top amateur female golfers in the Ottawa area.
Bobby moved over to the Chaudiere Golf Club in 1934 to assume the role of Head Professional, a position he held to the end of 1940.
Bobby was employed in 1941 with the Ottawa Car and Aircraft Ltd. During the summer he also gave lessons at the Bill Touhey’s Fairways Golf Range on the Aylmer Road. Apparently, Bobby did not renew his membership with the Canadian Professional Golfers’ Association (CPGA) and in 1942 he was not able to participate in the CPGA Championship at the Chaudiere Golf Club.
Records show that in 1946, Bobby resurfaced as the Head Professional at the Gatineau Golf Club and that same year he tied for second in the CPGA Championship. From 1947 through 1949, he was the Head Professional at the Glenlea Golf Club. In his first year at Glenlea he was tasked with taking the club’s 18-hole layout and reducing it to a 9-hole course.
Newspaper ads show Bobby as the professional at the Fairmount Golf Club in 1950 and 1951. It appears that Bobby held a government job for a few years and he then appears in a teaching capacity at various golf ranges including Dufferin Heights in Toronto (1957) and Westlake (19th Tee) (1958-59). In 1960 he was the teaching professional under Sam Dempster at the Rivermead Golf Club. For the remainder of his golf career he gave lessons at Russ Fawcett’s Driving Range (Prince of Wales) and Don Booth’s Driving Range (Merivale Road), until his death due to a stroke on March 24, 1973.
Although Bobby never achieved national titles in the Canadian Open or CPGA Championships, he was always a top contender lurking near the top of the leader boards for many years.
In 1935 Bobby was runner-up to Willie Lamb in the CPGA Championship held at the Elm Ridge Golf Club in Montreal, Quebec. 1936 was a good year for Bobby as he won the Province of Quebec Golf Association Spring Open at Islesmere and then the Quebec Open at the Laval-sur-le-Lac Golf Club. Bobbie repeated as the winner of the PQGA Spring Open in 1937 at the Country Club of Montreal and again in 1938 at the Whitlock Golf Club. Bobby Alston was the top Canadian and winner of the Rivermead Cup in 1937 at the Canadian Open held at the St. Andrews Golf Club in Toronto, Ontario. He had tied with Stan Horne from the Ottawa Hunt & Golf Club for this honour but was awarded the placement by the flip of a coin. In the 1946 CPGA Championship held at the Rivermead Golf Club, Bobby finished in a tie for 2nd place with Bob Gray (Scarboro GC) and Gordon Brydson (Mississauga GC). Although Bobby did not win the Quebec Open in 1954, he did win $200 as the low professional.
Bobby was also the winner in many of the Opens and Invitationals throughout Ontario and Quebec and also the Northern United States.
I reached out to PGA of Canada – Ottawa Zone golf professional Don Renaud for his memories of Bobby Alston.
“Yes, I knew Bobby Alston and his daughter Joyce very well. They were both great players. And, needless to say Bobby was a true character. He won a lot of tournaments over the years. He taught for Sam Dempster at Rivermead Golf Club. In his later years, he taught at Russ Fawcett’s Driving Range on the Prescott Highway.
Bob and I played a lot of golf over the years. Bob could also play left handed. He also enjoyed a good drink. He was always a gentleman. When the pros got together in those days, we would go from one club to another every week. I was one of the few guys to invite Bobby to play with us. At the end of the round we would have a few drinks in the clubhouse and then he would point to Stan Kolar and Sam Dempster, he would say to them, alright guys come on out for nine holes and I will play you, left handed.
Naturally, they would refuse him, but Marcel Desjardins, Frank Jenkins and I would take him on. This one day that we played him, he shot 34 at Rideau View on the front 9 and beat us all.
And his daughter Joyce was one of the better amateur golfers in the city.
These are a few memories that I remember.”
Lyn Stewart, one time owner of the Glenlea (now Champlain) and Kingsway Park Golf Clubs, in his 1994 article titled “Wee” BOBBY ALSTON for the Golf Historical Society of Canada’s newsletter gave some insights into his friend.
“Bobby was really an outstanding golf pro. As an amateur, he played left-handed and when he turned professional he switched to right-handed golf.
Bobby held the scoring records, in the low 60’s, at most of the local (Ottawa area) clubs. Had he been more accurate with his woods, he might have broken 60!
He was equally good as an instructor as he was a player. He had several golf shots that were unique for him, and I believe that these shots enabled him to become an outstanding player.”
In his Ottawa Journal column on Monday, March 26, 1973 Eddie MacCabe also remembered his friend.
“Bobby Alston, a golf professional in the Ottawa area for more than 40 years, died in hospital over the weekend. He was one of those artists of another time.
His game was finesse … working the ball. He was a master with the irons, but not overpowering with the woods. He could lay open a five iron and hit it like a seven, or close it down and hit it like a three. He never believed in pitching wedges. ‘Anything anyone can do with a wedge, a good player can do with a nine-iron,’ he used to say. ‘And a nine-iron is more reliable.’
He had no time for that business of pacing off golf courses, and hitting each iron precisely the same way. He believed you played the game by sight and judgement. He was brought up playing with only a handful of clubs, and even though many old time players carried a veritable arsenal of weapons, he never did. Even after 1936, when the rules limiting the number of clubs in a bag to 14 came into general use, Alston never carried the limit.
He said to me one day last summer. ‘Golf sure has grown since my day. Everything about it has changed … and not all for the better. Too many people playing the game today don’t know anything about it. They don’t understand the game. They have no respect for it.’
‘But,’ and he smiled here and lifted his straw hat to scratch his bald head, ‘I guess that’s progress.'”
So there you have it, a brief story of one of the more interesting golf professionals in the Ottawa area. Apart from my brief interaction with him in 1970, I never knew the man or his story. Hopefully I have connected you the reader with the late Bobby Alston, a golf professional whose story I hope you agree deserves to be told.
Joyce Alston, Bobby’s daughter, was one of the top female amateur golfers in the Ottawa area and her tournament record is noteworthy.
Apart from her many wins in field days and invitational golf tournaments, Joyce was the women’s champion at the Glenlea Golf Club and Kingsway Park Golf Clubs at various times during her golf career.
Joyce had the best year of her career in 1955 when she won the Quebec Junior Girls and Ladies Amateur championships as well as the Ottawa Women’s City & District Championship. She was named to the Quebec women’s team and traveled to British Columbia to play in the Canadian Women’s Championships where she finished in 5th place in the Junior Girls Championship. For her efforts Joyce was named the Golfer of the Year at the 1955 Associated Canadian Travelers (ACT) awards banquet.
Joyce would also take home the Ahearn Trophy for her Ottawa City & District Women’s Championship wins in 1957, 1958, 1964, 1972 and 1974.