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100 Years of Golf at Essex

by Jeff Mingay and Richard H. Carr

Left: Donald Ross: Golf ‘s first “superstar”
Right: Gordon MacGregor: “the best 18-hole golf course west of Toronto”

Today golf is one of the most popular sports in the world. But one hundred years ago, golf in Canada was in its infancy. Recognized golf clubs had been established in Victoria, British Columbia; in Brantford, Toronto, Kingston and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario; and Montreal and Quebec City. But there were few others. And those that did exist had a very difficult time recruiting members to sustain themselves.

Walkerville Country Club

As is the case with many seminal local historical events, this story begins in Walkerville.

On the porch at Walkerville Country Club, circa 1900

Legendary American businessman Hiram Walker developed a fine reputation for the quality of his whisky. From the remarkable success of Walker’s industry was born a prosperous little town bearing his name.

With success comes expendable time and monies that could be dedicated to recreation and leisure. In the late 1880s, Walker and his family established the Walkerville Country Club.

Although the game of golf was by no means a popular activity at the time, Walker laid out a rudimentary nine-hole course for members of his country club at some point prior to 1900 on the current site of Walkerville Collegiate High School and Willistead Crescent. This makes Walkerville Country Club one of the first golf courses in the Windsor-Detroit area.

For the record, the Country Club of Detroit, which is generally acknowledged as the oldest golf-related club in the area, was established with an 18-hole golf course in 1897. Two years later, Detroit Golf Club was incorporated.

Due to the absence of proper engineering, the Walkerville course drained very poorly and was unplayable for extended periods of time following rain. There was also an absence of ground contour, sand bunkers and other obstacles, which made golf in Walkerville rather bland.

George Mair and a number of other disgruntled Walkerville golfers soon decided that a more suitable course was not only desirable, but necessary.

By 1902, assisted principally by his wife and a “Mr. Greenhill,” Mair had successfully solicited support from an enthusiastic group of Walkerville and Windsor area golfers – enough support to warrant the establishment of a new club, which they called Oak Ridge Golf Club. Appropriately, Mair was elected the new club’s first president.

Men like Mair involved with the organization of North America’s first golf clubs could not have imagined that one hundred years later historians would want to know how and when the game took root in their city. As a result, historical documents, photographs and other information regarding the establishment of many golf clubs are scarce.

Oak Ridge Golf Club

Members of Oak Ridge Golf Club lounging on the front porch of the clubhouse on the Yawkey Farm in Sandwich, Ontario, circa 1909.

Fortunately, the establishment of Oak Ridge was chronicled, albeit briefly, in the January 1916 edition of The Canadian Golfer magazine.

“It was about fifteen years ago that Windsor and Walkerville had a joint club at Walkerville, but the course was not a very suitable one, becoming almost unplayable in wet weather. Through the kindness of Mr. Thos. Austin of Detroit, son-in-law of the late Mr. Yawkey, a multimillionaire, who owned a large tract of land in and adjoining Sandwich, Mr. Mair, the first President of the new club, and the members were most generously offered the use, free of charge, of a thirty-four-hundred-yard golf course on his farm.”

The club was successful from its inception, and subsequently 44 acres were rented adjoining Mr. Yawkey’s farm from a Mr. Freeman of Detroit. Largely through the efforts of the late Mrs. Mair, who secured subscriptions from members and friends, a small clubhouse was erected on this
property and the game of golf prospered apace.

For nearly a decade, Oak Ridge Golf Club enjoyed great success on the Yawkey and Freeman Farms in Sandwich. Enthusiasm for the game of golf and the general activities of the club had grown tremendously in just eight years.

Besides the fact Oak Ridge directors could no longer justify the exorbitant cost of leasing the Yawkey and Freeman lands, the golf course and clubhouse were quickly being rendered incapable of accommodating the increasing demands of a growing membership.

Plans to move the club were underway in 1909 when Oak Ridge directors exercised an option to purchase a 53-acre property, located at the intersection of Centre Road (today Prince Road) and the Essex Terminal Railway line in Sandwich from the heirs of the late Colonel John Prince.

Having essentially been evicted from the Yawkey and Freeman owned lands, Oak Ridge members were granted permission to play golf on the old, hapless Walkerville course while their new layout on the Prince Farm was under construction.

During their first season spent golfing at Walkerville Country Club in 1910, Oak Ridge members exhibited a ripe, infectious enthusiasm for their ambitious plans. Soon, a significant number of Walkerville golfers opted to join Oak Ridge. The end result was a genuine amalgamation between the two clubs that warranted the creation of an entirely new club.

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