During most of WWII, my parents worked in a Canadian munitions factory in the small town of Ajax Ontario. In the summer of 1957, when I was eleven years old, they took me and my sister for a drive “down memory lane” showing me where they had worked amid fear, danger, bravery, and cordite (a propellant) for six days every week. They drove past the tiny wartime wooden house where my sister was born. Then they parked beside an ice cream shop, right next door to a Salvation Army store that sold used clothes and lost memories. I still remember eating a single dip vanilla ice cream cone from the first store and then discovering an everlasting memory from the second one.
While my mom rummaged through clean but used clothing, I found a tiny section of used toys in the back corner of the Ajax “Sally Anne”. After my mom gave up her search for a bargain, I turned to my dad holding out mine. I’d found two antique hickory shafted golf clubs with leather grips and rusted clubheads. The salesman said I could have both of them for 50 cents. I didn’t really ask to buy them. I just gave Dad my best “oh-please-could-I-have-them look” in the hope he would agree. He gave me a silent nod of the head and his patent sure-why-not smile that every child dreams about. The cashier saw the looks exchanged between father and child, went straight back to the toy corner, came back in a moment, and handed me a half-dozen discoloured, scraped, and scratched golf balls—some of them came complete with a deep “smile” to prove their short life of combat. Later, while driving back home to Whitby, I sat in the back seat of the old black Chevy, fingering my future memories and knowing that one day soon I would become a real golfer.
Well now, if you have golf clubs then the next thing you need is a golf course. Not having such an entity, I quickly invented my own. At the local baseball park, named in honour of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth, I eyed the property and decided to play from one floodlight pole towards a big maple tree out in left-field, a good three hundred yards away. “Winning” meant hitting the base of the pole or the trunk of the tree, in the fewest number of strokes possible. Soon after, I decided to dig a small hole near each marker and to make it the logical conclusion to a golf hole.
Later still, a mutual friend (David Wright) saw me playing and asked if he could join in the fun. No problem. Except for the eventual boredom of just going back and forth in a straight line. To solve that issue, we went to David’s home. It was a small wartime house with a huge backyard. With his parent’s permission, I laid out a plan there for a three-hole “pitch & putt” mini-course and used tin cans (from Habitant pea soup) to create a “real” putting cup on my imaginary greens. The only true hazard was the fence that marked the property line of old man William’s house next door and ran parallel to our third hole. Any ball hit over that fence was not only out of bounds but a sure-fire invitation to harsh words from the homeowner whose nickname was a French swear word I’m still confused about.
Although I appreciated and even loved my two-club hickory set, I knew that eventually, I would need to have more than a deep-faced mashie and a dot-faced niblick in order to become a real golfer. The next obvious and much-needed upgrade would be what was then called a “half set” or a “Sunday set”. This usually consisted of two wooden-headed clubs and five metal-headed clubs. A good friend just down the street (Willie Doleweerd) possessed such a set and I decided to match him. My opportunity came during a community garage sale (“boot sale” in the U.K.) where I spied a possible set. The elderly lady in charge offered me a brief provenance of the clubs in question—five years old, bought from Canadian Tire, original price of $25.00, given to her son who soon hated the game, and refused to play with them. I could have the whole set, including the bag for $5.00. A done deal!
I raced home with my acquisition and then over to Willie’s place to display my wares and to compare them to my friend’s equally well-used set. Roughly comparable and ready for play. The question was – where could we play? Answer: The nearest course within striking or biking distance was a place called Duffin’s Creek Golf Club, located in the nearby village of Pickering. “Nearby” means a bike ride of just over an hour, one way. So, with bags strapped over our backs, a peanut butter & jam sandwich squashed in a pocket, and one dollar in various small coins in hand, we set off the next day to play our first round together. The green’s fee for children was 75 cents and that left us just enough for a soft drink and a chocolate bar after finishing 18 glorious holes. Our next time out, we learned that 75 cents actually bought you an “all-day ticket,” so this required a slight change in our future plans. In short, it meant a 70-minute bike ride from Whitby to Pickering, eighteen holes before a sandwich lunch, a second round of eighteen holes, followed by a 90-minute ride back home, and then dinner at 5:30 p.m. Sometimes, after completing this regime, we would then go to the baseball park for a 6:30 p.m. practice. How we ever managed such an adventure, I still cannot fathom. I only recall that we both slept very soundly on such nights and that our feet were sore. (Note: The Duffin’s Creek Golf Course later changed its name to Annandale Golf Club and now sits awaiting approval as a development site.)
Starting to play golf with seven “new” clubs proved considerably different from playing with two very old ones. However, that pleasant change also begged an age-old philosophical question—was my golf bag now half full or half empty? The issue arose because I saw so many other players with a much larger number of clubs. Fourteen to be precise. I avoided that question for a couple of years until I began to play at a different venue. At Whitby Golf Club, soon to be called Thunderbird Golf Club, few if any players restricted themselves to any kind of Sunday set and as an emerging teenager, I began to feel very self-conscious about my once precious half set. While playing with some of the young regulars, I learned that one of the more monied junior players was planning to buy a brand-new set of Ben Hogan clubs from the local pro and was willing to sell his now ageing set of clubs. A couple of weeks later I went back home with a lovely set of used Hogan golf clubs—four cherry-coloured woods and ten well-preserved irons. I’m not sure this transformed me into a better or a real golfer but it certainly boosted my confidence and lessened my anxiety.
Perhaps the biggest change was playing on a genuinely difficult golf course. One of the early par-five holes measured 600 yards and made the pin seem as if it were a country mile away from the tee box. Tough rough and deep bunkers only magnified the challenges and begged the question about one’s desire to take the game seriously. I accepted the challenge but it brought my ten-finger baseball grip into question and seriously tested my “homemade” flat quick swing. I looked a bit like a poor man’s Lee Trevino doppelganger. Still, I loved every minute of my time there. In a relatively short time, I seemed to have drifted a long way from my early hickory origins. My first two precious hickory clubs (later identified as a deep faced mashie and a dot-faced niblick) now lived as a lonely and neglected couple relegated to a distant corner of the basement in our Whitby home. However, a single incident late in one summer, reversed that singular trend.
Thunderbird slowly evolved into a track that was truly deserving of attention. In fact, it was to become a qualifying course for our Canadian Open Championship when it was held in the Toronto region. On one such occasion, a sign went up in the junior locker room: WANTED – CADDIES FOR MONDAY QUALIFYING ROUND FOR THE CANADIAN OPEN. SEE PRO SHOP FOR DETAILS. I jumped at the opportunity even though I had no “official” experience. On the day of the event, all the bigger more skilled boys were soon employed and I found myself alone on the caddy bench. I finally got up to go home when a golfer stuck his head in the door and asked if I was still “available”. You bet I was.
The fellow in question was in the last group and almost late for his tee time. He tossed me his big bag and together we raced towards the starter. My “man” Ben was in his early 20’s, with long hair and a quick smile. He walked up to the first tee, took a deep breath, and hit his drive so far and so straight I actually lost sight of his ball Not a good start for a rookie caddie in training! I was overwhelmed with his strength and accuracy but what really astounded me was his first putt on the first hole. His new Titleist clubs got him into a position for an opening birdie but it was his putter that sealed the deal. He sank a winding, left-to-right, downhill putt of at least forty feet. But he did this with what looked like an ancient, hickory shafted putter that had been cut down for a child to play with. He repeated that same magical stroke a number of times over 18 holes. He shot a four-under-par round and qualified for the Open. And he paid me twenty dollars! A fortune at that time.
At the end of the day, while back at his car, I told Ben about my two fine hickory clubs and asked about his putter. He told me it was the only putter he had ever used. The shortened length came about because earlier in the summer he accidentally drove over it while backing up his car! Instead of getting the putter re-shafted, he simply cut it down and added a different grip to the now shorter shaft. I left that day with more money than I had in a long time but I also left with the knowledge that a hickory shafted club could enrich a player in ways that were far more valuable than cash. Thanks, Ben. (Note – Much later I would remember and recognize his club as a James Braid “New Mills” aluminum Putter circa 1905).
The Ken Steeves Era:
In the summer of 1968, after completing my second year of undergraduate study at the University of Toronto, I accepted a job offer to work as a full-time “starter” at an exclusive golf club, Cherry Hill, in Ridgeway Ontario. The new Head Professional there (Ken Steeves) was already a consummate professional player, leader, and entrepreneur. More importantly, he was the first player to show me a set of century-old, hickory-shafted golf clubs, carefully restored to original condition. I never forgot that revelation and the conversation which followed. He became both a friend and mentor over the ensuing years and when I later graduated from U of T, he offered me a full-time position at a different club where he had recently accepted a new position as Head Professional. It was in a tiny place called Ancaster Ontario and the not-so-tiny facility was called Hamilton Golf & Country Club. It was then rated as one of the very best golf clubs in Canada.
After much inner debate, I declined the offer for training as an assistant golf professional, got married to a beautiful woman named Beverley Presswell, began study at a Presbyterian Seminary, graduated and left for Mission work with indigenous people in the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, and rarely saw any kind of golf clubs for the next decade or so. Still later, after returning from a three-year mission abroad, Bev and I re-integrated into Canadian society with our two lovely young children – Cynthia and Nathan. Two further reasons for having no ongoing relationship with either golf clubs or golf balls.
However, I did reconnect with Ken Steeves and his small family. This led to a renewed interest in golf in general, and historic golf clubs in particular. While living and ministering in Scarborough Ontario, I stopped one day at a garage sale across the road from our home and bought my very first hickory club. It was a beautiful, mint condition mashie niblick produced in St. Andrews, Scotland under the roof of Tom Stuart’s golf club factory. Then, as they say, “the rest is history”. I was infected with the golf historical virus and it was destined to stay with me forever. I’m glad there was neither a vaccine nor a cure!
My post-Ken Steeves era was marked by numerous summer exchange programs in various parts of Scotland, ranging from six to ten summer weeks. We lived in Edinburgh, East Kilbride and Bridge-of-Allen. In 2008, I decided to retire early and was soon offered the possibility of a teaching position with a very large parish in central Scotland. In 2009, I moved to the town of Motherwell in North Lanarkshire and Bev joined me shortly after winding down her work in Hamilton, Ontario. During our three years in Scotland, I joined the British Golf Collector’s Society, added to my golf collection, and began writing for three different golf journals. It was a marvellous portion of our lives, providing ample opportunity for golf, travel and exploration. Bev and I returned to Canada in 2011 and took up the threads of our earlier lives in southern Ontario—first in Ancaster and later in Dundas.
Now if you sense that there has been a “gap” or missing piece in my narrative so far, you are quite correct. That oversight refers to a major joy in my hickory career—the many tournaments or “fixtures” as they are called in Scotland. Whether large or small, these competitions were the glue that held my hickory life together. Each event brought together fellow golfers who loved both hickory play and golf history. These competitors became colleagues. Those comrades became friends. It was like being adopted into a very large and diverse international family. I soon became very proud to be a Canadian player on an international scene.
I also felt drawn to write about this entire movement and to share my experiences, especially with members of the Golf Historical Society of Canada. However, let there be no doubt that the primary joy was to be playing golf—hickory golf. That being spoken, I am compelled to note that it was this same GHSC that gave birth to my evolving identity as a player and a writer. Thus, I shall be forever grateful to this Society.
I was privileged to work under the leadership of six fine Presidents -Al Hughes, Norman Moreau, Paul Sorley, Doug Marshall, Ted Vanden Tillaart and David Burgess. The same can be said of the three fine editors of the Jigger – Bill MacDonald, Joe McLean, and Jeffrey Reed. At the same time, I also dedicated myself to the growth of “hickory golf” at Dundas Valley GCC where I have been a member for more than a quarter century. Now in latter days, I continue to play using clubs from the various eras of golfing history and dedicate time to finishing up a book of short stories/articles that I have written over those many years. The game of golf has been very good to me and I hope that I have reciprocated those moments to the game in general and to friends in particular.
Dr. Ronald C. Archer
My primary interest has been in collecting hickory clubs—both playable and collectable. At the height of the gathering period, I had amassed just over five hundred hickory clubs. When it came to the selling of clubs, almost all of my sales were complete, seven-club sets, along with a historic carry bag.
I am now in the downsizing phase of my hickory golf career and have roughly one hundred and fifty clubs of higher value. It’s all about space. Bev and I moved from a very large house to a moderate-sized condo where storage space is limited. If you are interested in buying, I am interested in selling.
These sets have become my late-in-life passion and I play with them as much (if not more) than my modern Titleist’s. They include a seven-club set of Mills clubs (Standard Golf Club Co.), two sets of pre-1900 clubs (smooth-faced irons & scared head woods), three sets of post-1900 tournament clubs, and a fourteen-club set of Stewart Irons/woods from Nicol Thompson (Hamilton GCC).
In addition, I have set aside five sets of early steel-shafted clubs that I use for exhibition events. They include—Bobby Jones (USA), Joe Kirkwood (Australia), Pat Fletcher (Canada), Gene Sarazen (USA) and MacDonald Smith (Scotland).
Groucho Marx once remarked: “I never met a cigar I didn’t like.” I choose to borrow his wisdom and proclaim “that I’ve never met a golf course I didn’t like.” However, I would add that my years spent in Scotland granted me a special appreciation of links courses and the unique challenges that they afford. I managed to play in many tournaments across Scotland, England and Wales during those years.
My finest victory was in the team event at Royal Liverpool where my Welsh partner and I won the silver salver and celebrated in the Championship Dining room surrounded by portraits of Open Championship winners.
Closer to home, I would have no trouble naming my emotional and historical favourite—Dundas Valley Golf and Curling Club. Having been a member there for over a quarter of a century, I feel that the two courses, together with their extraordinary landscapes, have adopted me and made me part of a precious Stanley Thompson family heritage. And with my collection of historic, classic and modern clubs, I can play from varying tee boxes and replicate conditions from different historic eras.
I am thrilled to have played as a member of the GHSC for almost its entire history and got to meet all of its founding members at various times and in various places. It was a pleasure to have been welcomed into their midst and treated with such respect.
In those early years, my greatest thrill was to play with fellow collectors and to learn the ethos of historic golf. A short while later I found myself elected to the Board of Directors and still later was named Secretary of the Society. I served in that capacity (on and off) over a twenty-five-year span and was the beneficiary of much learning and friendship from all of the Board members.
I have now returned to my original role as a mere member of the Society who loves to play with fellow golfers. I regard this status as a wonderful retirement reward.