The links at St. Charles

When a handful of Winnipeggers decided the time was ripe to take on the “royal and ancient game” in 1894, they couldn’t have foreseen that their humble beginning would result in the city turning into a golf mecca with more courses per capita than any other major North American centre. After all, none of them really knew what the game of golf was all about. In today’s vernacular, they would be know as a collection of “duffers.”
In the same context, the group of 23 prominent businessmen who organized the St. Charles Country Club in 1904 may have set out to establish the best course in the city, but they probably hadn’t foreseen that their course, built in the midst of the bald prairie, would eventually gain a national reputation as one of Canada’s finest. The fact of this well-earned reputation was underscored this week with St. Charles playing host to the CN Canadian Women’s Open, which ends on Sunday, August 29. But the open is just one of many national championships St. Charles has hosted since it officially opened in 1905.
“Bordering on the beautiful winding Assiniboine, five miles west of the city limits is the magnificent stretch of park-like grounds belonging to the St. Charles Country club, an institution that already compares favorably with other excellent organizations of its kind in Canada.” is how an unnamed writer used his vivid imagination to describe the course in a Manitoba Free Press article on October 7, 1905. The writer had to use his imagination, since photographs of the era show a rather barren landscape, mostly devoid of trees. Although a 1905 photo shows the club house as a magnificent edifice, a lone buggy and horse in front of the building are the only other objects to break the monotony of the otherwise bleak grounds. 
Since horse-and-buggy was the main means of transportation at a time when the automobile was a novelty, there was a stables located west of the club house capable of accommodating “a large number of horse so that members and their guests may drive from the city when they prefer, or may go in saddle, as a pleasant and healthy form of exercise.” 
Actually, St. Charles has a long association with horses and riders, having pioneered polo in the province as well as steeple-chasing. In the modern sense, a less politically-correct pursuit was when it played host to fox hunting, complete with baying hounds. 
In another photo, two golfers are shown playing on a flat expanse of rough ground that stretches to the horizon. The caption reads: “Country club golf links near club house.”
D.D. England, originally from the northern golfing region of the same nation he shared a name with, summed up the problem all Winnipeg course planners faced when he said the singular difficulty was the land was too flat. A good golf course should be hilly, similar to the terrain where the many courses between Somerset and Liverpool were found, he added.
Even the nine-hole Norwood course, the home of the city’s first golf club, was described by one old-timer as no more than a “cow pasture.”
Dating back to the province’s first golf course at the Stony Mountain pententiary, which was laid out by warden Lt.-Col Samuel Bedson and built using prisoner labour in 1889, newspaper accounts  give one of the major problems facing golfers as a plague of badger holes ready to swallow errant balls   One writer advised keeping a terrier on hand to battle the sharp-clawed denizens of the burrows to retrieve balls from badger holes in order to continue a round of golf. At the time, golf balls, then made of gutta-percha, were rare in Winnipeg, so this was sage advice.
The early golfing conditions in the city are described in a series of Heritage Highlights articles in this newspaper that began appearing on August 13 (part 3 is in this issue). 
“The grounds of the (St. Charles) club consist of 300 acres extending southward from Portage Avenue to the river,” continued the 1905 article, “a distance of more than a mile, and they are nearly a half mile in width. The club house is picturesquely stunted on the bank of th Assiniboine, just at the place where it makes a splendid sweeping curve and where the opposite bank is well wooded, affording an excellent view, both up and down the river.  No better location of such a building could be found. There are no farms near and nothing to denote the proximity of civilization; but even though almost within site of the busy city, the members are really ‘near to nature’s heart.’” The first club house was described as in a “quaint old English architectural design,” with no expense spared to “make it a model of convenience and comfort, though the furnishings are not elaborate.”
H.H. Pigott, an early member of the Winnipeg Golf Club, in an article on the history of golf in the city, published in the Free Press on July 16, 1920, said the club house had underwent numerous changes. primarily the result of having been  twice destroyed by fire.
“The course has unique natural features and it can undoubtedly be made into one of the finest in all Canada,” Pigott wrote. “Its success is assured, and as the premier club of the it has shown the way to other organizations.”
Pigott predicted that the course could be “made one of the finest in all Canada” was proved in later years. as it has hosted men and women championships at all levels, from junior to senior. But it took years before St. Charles became the “prestigious” course it is today.
In 1919, Donald Ross, a world-famous course architect, was hired to rebuild the original 18 holes — the Ross Nine and the Woods Nine. Another famous golf course architect noted for designing the links at the Royal Melbourne in Australia and Cypress Point in California, was Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who in 1929 laid out the MacKenzie Nine at St. Charles, which opened in 1931. Improvements to the course were later made by Canadian architects Stanley Thompson, Norman Woods and Bill Robinson.
The last time a major LPGA event was held at St. Charles was the 1992 Du Maurier Classic, won by Sherri Steinbauer. This year’s CN Canadian Women’s Open has attracted 48 of the top-50 women golfers from across the globe. The importance of the event is emphasized by the $10 million it will generate for the local economy and the media attention it will garner, providing world-wide exposure for our city and province that can’t be bought at any price.
The original 23 who started the country club may not have initially foreseen the impact the course would eventually have on the city, but it definitely has been a boon.