(Photo: George Cumming (L) Lou Cumming (R) / Golf Canada)
One might think that George Cumming had a thing for golf clubs that started with the letter S.
“Mr. Golf” to most Canadian golfers a century ago, was the revered head golf professional at The Toronto Golf Club for 50 years and sadly his name is often forgotten or overlooked in the history of early golf course development in Ontario.
While many of the courses that he initially laid out don’t bear his name today, Scarboro Golf and Country Club, Sarnia Golf and Curling Club and The Summit all owe him a debt of gratitude as do many others including Oshawa and Mississaugua.
Cumming was hailed as an accomplished golfer, a wonderful teacher of club professionals, caddies and members, a master club maker and a gentleman of the old school, displaying good manners with wit and kindness. In his book, “The Toronto Golf Club 1876-1976,” author Jack Batten notes that Cumming, Toronto’s head pro from 1900 to 1950, often wore a look that hinted at disapproval, and to people encountering him for the first time, he seemed a formidable person. He was actually the kindest of men.
Teaching was Cumming’s life work and it was his consuming passion. He was known to keep promising young men on the practice range till blood showed on their hands. On other occasions he would often slip a couple of new balls into a young golfer’s bag, balls that Cumming paid for himself, and he was just as free with advice about a golf swing. Batten says, often a sandwich and a drop of whiskey in his office did him for supper, enough fuel to keep him teaching until nightfall when he’d take the long walk to his house beyond the 13th hole. His day was finally done.
Cumming’s greatest legacy to Canadian golf may be the courses that he designed. As one of Canada’s earliest golf course architects, it appears he started the business on the side. One of Cumming’s first efforts was expanding Mississaugua G&CC from nine to 18 holes in 1909. By 1920, he partnered with Stanley and Nicol Thompson in the firm Thompson, Cumming & Thompson.
Architect Ian Andrew, who worked along with Gil Hanse on the recent renovations at Scarboro G&CC says, Cumming was likely selected initially to design courses because of his Scottish heritage and his place of prominence as the professional at Toronto Golf Club, but Cumming turned out to be an excellent architect in his own right designing gems like Scarboro, The Summit and Brantford.
Andrew notes that Cumming was the person The Toronto GC entrusted to select the new property for relocation of the club before Harry Colt made his trip to come design the course. “With Cumming’s experience and the close relationship he had with Stanley Thompson, it would be most likely that Cumming was the first to teach the young man (Stanley) how to route and build a golf course,” Andrew says. “Their routing styles are remarkably similar, with both using short holes for drama and long holes to traverse lesser land. Both sought elevated tees, raised green sites and natural plateaus. Their holes tended to run through or along valleys rather than playing directly across them. Neither designer minded a blind shot if the green site beyond was worth it.”
In 1911, Cumming added the second nine at Oshawa G&CC, which was later entirely remodeled by Stanley Thompson. In 1912, he recommended that the founders of The Summit purchase the property where the club is located today. According to The Summit’s history book written by Lorne Rubenstein, Cumming did the initial layout with the assistance of George S. Lyon in the summer of 1912. The course didn’t open for play until July 1919.
Cumming also designed a nine-hole course for the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club – Sarnia, Scarboro and The Summit; celebrate 100th anniversaries in 2012. He also designed the initial layout at The Club at North Halton, Couchiching GC, Rivermead GC, Windermere G&CC, Sault Ste. Marie GC, Highland G&CC and Oakville GC, as well as, Graydon Hall, Humber Valley and Glen Stewart that no longer exist. There are probably others we just don’t know about! Cumming’s best work with Thompson, Cumming, and Thompson would be Brantford G&CC.
As The Toronto GC looked for a new site to build a golf course, Cumming helped find several properties for the club to consider. Batten writes that in the summer of 1909, the Toronto club rejected the site that would become the home of Scarboro G&CC in 1912. In the end, The Toronto GC’s new course in Etobicoke would open to members in the spring of 1913 and Scarboro’s course and clubhouse formally opened a year later.
Batten details Cumming’s humble beginnings on a golf course in Scotland called the Ranfurly Castle GC in the late 19th century. Cumming started caddying at the age of 10. He was born in Bridge of Weir on May 20, 1879. In the summer of 1889, he went to work carrying the bag of Willie Campbell, the Ranfurly pro and probably the finest golfer of his time. When Cumming was 14, he left Campbell and Ranfurly to spend two years at the bench of the Forgan firm in Glasgow learning to make golf clubs. At 16, still employed by Forgan, he moved to the course at Dumfries where he began his career as golf professional.
Cumming arrived in Toronto on March 20, 1900 to start work at The Toronto GC. He met his wife Margaret and they had two children, Lou and Edna. Cumming won the Canadian Open in 1905, the second year it was played and was runner-up in 1906, 1907, 1909, and 1914. He pioneered the start of the Canadian PGA as Captain from 1911 to 1913, then went on to win the CPGA championship in 1914 and finishing second in 1912, 1919, and 1924.
He and George S. Lyon were an especially formidable team in the long series of matches they played against other pro-amateur teams over a period of several decades. During WWI, the two men took part in many games to raise money for the Red Cross and were successful in two departments, raising money - $2,500 at one match here at Scarboro - and winning games - they never lost a round!
A number of distinguished professionals apprenticed under Cumming including Scarboro’s first two head professionals: as well as Charlie and Albert Murray, Karl Keffer, Frank Freeman, Dick Borthwick, Willie Lamb, Gordon Brydson, Nicol Thompson and his son Lou Cumming.
Cumming died at home on March 26, 1950, 50 years and six days from the morning in 1900 when he first arrived at The Toronto GC. He was inducted into the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1971 and the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame in 2000.
Brent Long is a freelance writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Fairways Magazine as well as other golf publications and recently completed a book on the first 100 years of Mississaugua Golf & Country Club.
More articles by Brent Long