Jeff Mingay explores the legacy of Canada's greatest architect.
More than half a century has passed since his premature death in 1953, at age 59, and Stanley Thompson remains Canada's most accomplished and respected golf course architect.
Canadian golfers revere Thompson-designed courses as national landmarks. Especially his big five – Vancouver's Capilano, Jasper and Banff in Alberta, Toronto's St George's, and Cape Breton Highlands Links on the rugged, and remote northeast coast of Nova Scotia – which continue to rank amongst the great courses of the world.
A charter member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1947, Thompson designed or remodelled some 145 golf courses over a career that spanned four decades. He laid out several courses in South America and the Caribbean, and a few in the United States, but a majority of his work – definitely his best stuff – is found throughout Canada.
Born in Toronto in 1894, Thompson learned the game as a young caddie at Toronto Golf Club and developed into a fine player. One of five brothers dubbed The Amazing Thompsons as a result of their exploits on the links, Stanley won the qualifying medal at the 1919 and 1923 Canadian Amateur championships.
Following active service with the Canadian Armed Forces during the First World War, Stanley and his younger brother Frank – a two-time Canadian Amateur champ during the 1920s – visited many of the great courses of England and Scotland.
Although there is no record of their itinerary, Stanley Thompson had professed a fondness for Open champion and pioneer golf architect Willie Park Jr, who had laid out a few courses in Canada by that time. So, we must presume Park's Sunningdale and Huntercombe, in the heathlands southwest of London, were on Stanley and Frank's to-see list, along with Harry Colt's Swinley Forest.
Stanley Thompson became familiar with Colt and his methods while the great British architect was in Canada, first to design a new course for Toronto Golf Club in 1910, then two years later, to lay out 27 holes for nearby Hamilton Golf and Country Club, where his eldest brother, Nicol, was head professional.
Colt's revolutionary work at Toronto and Hamilton set a new standard for golf architecture in Canada, and had an undeniable influence on young Stanley Thompson.
Later in his career, for example, Thompson claimed to route golf courses by first identifying the ideal locations for the par-three holes – a method famously employed by Colt as well. As a result, one-shot holes at Thompson-designed courses are consistently outstanding. Each set of par threes runs the gamut, too, varying from short (150 yards or less), to mid-length (160-190 yards), to long (200-250 yards).
Several of Thompson's short holes have become world famous, including Banff 's Devil's Cauldron hole, which presents a 170-yard drop shot over a beautiful glacial lake, to an amphitheatre green surrounded by attractive bunkers placed beneath a soaring rock-face edge of Mount Rundle. It's a spectacular hole in an incomparable setting.
Shortly after his return to Canada following the Great War, Stanley Thompson joined forces with his eldest brother and Toronto Golf Club's Scottish professional George Cumming. They established a new firm – Thompson, Cumming and Thompson – dedicated exclusively to the design and construction of golf courses.
Within a year, the company was so busy the club pros had to step aside in favour of their day jobs. Stanley Thompson, on the other hand, was just getting started. He reorganised the firm as Stanley Thompson & Co Ltd, and soon after landed an important contract to design a new course at Canadian National Railway's Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta – a popular destination of the rich and famous at the time. The Jasper Park golf course opened in 1925 and brought Thompson international acclaim.
"In Jasper Park Lodge golf course, Canada has taken the lead in golf course architecture and has produced eighteen holes that within the scope of my experience and knowledge are not surpassed," wrote legendary golf architect Dr Alister MacKenzie, following a visit to Jasper in 1928. "Quite apart from its scenic features, which are glorious, and considering it purely from the golfing standpoint, I consider this course to be the best I have ever seen."
Thompson and MacKenzie shared a penchant for strategic design, steadfast in their belief that golf must be played with the mind as well as the body. They were also adamant that nature always be the architect's model. A golf course must blend harmoniously with its native surroundings, they insisted, and lines throughout a course should not be sharp or harsh, but easy and rolling. "Stan was an artist," says golf architect Geoffrey Cornish, who worked for Thompson during the 1930s, beginning at Capilano. "He would sometimes spend hours personally shaping a single bunker by hand."
Typically irregular in shape, featuring exaggerated capes and bays with sand flashed high on the interior face to ensure visibility and drama, a trademark Thompson bunker is the most visual demonstration of his artistic flair. Interesting, too, is Thompson's thoughtful placement of sand hazards. Often, by playing near or over a Thompson bunker, risk-takers are rewarded with a shorter path to the hole, and/or an advantageous angle of approach. Challenging his bunkers is optional though. Thompson always provides less skilled, and less daring golfers with a way around the sand, albeit on a longer route to the green.
"The most successful course is one that will test the skill of the most advanced player, without discouraging the 'duffer', while adding to the enjoyment of both," Thompson wrote in his 1923 design manifesto General Thoughts on Golf Course Design. "One should always keep in mind that more than 85 per cent of the golfers play 90 and over. These are the men that support the clubs and therefore the course should not be built for the men who play in the 70 class."
Always colourful and humorous, Thompson claimed to have spent more than C$80 million of his client's money on the realisation of his golf course designs. "It's easy to spend other people's money," he said, half-jokingly. "I naturally would have to watch my step if it were my own." But Thompson didn't watch his step. He's said to have made three fortunes and lost it all. A relatively short and rotund man, Thompson was in a sense, larger than life. Dressed finely in a three-piece suit, and always ready for fun, he enjoyed twelve cigars daily, 15-ounce steaks, and no small volume of Canadian rye whiskey during his most prosperous times. But, excessive drink never turned him into a villain. In fact, it may have actually fuelled his unparalleled skill as a salesman. "Stan could sell anything to anybody," says Cornish, with a chuckle. "He was undoubtedly the best salesman ever in our business."
Salesmanship was perhaps Thompson's most enduring lesson to his star pupil, Robert Trent Jones, who went on to revolutionise the business of golf course design worldwide.
In 1930, Jones was a young upstart, fresh out of college, hired to design a new course for Midvale Golf Club in Rochester, New York, under one condition: Stanley Thompson would supervise. Jones agreed. He and Thompson soon realised they shared many of the same ideas, and a partnership ensured. Thompson-Jones and Co was officially formed in 1932, with offices in Toronto, Rochester, and later New York City.
Although their partnership lasted into the 1940s, it was very loose. Thompson concentrated his efforts in Canada, Jones in the United States. Both men were strong personalities. According to Cornish, they argued frequently, but remained friends long after Thompson- Jones and Co had dissolved.
The last years of Thompson's life were spent at Guelph, Ontario, 60 kilometres south of Toronto. He and his brother Frank had purchased The Cutten Club there, reportedly on a hunch that its founder, Arthur Cutten, had hidden millions of dollars of negotiable securities in the walls of the clubhouse. Thompson is said to have knocked down those walls and torn up the floorboards in search of the treasure. But nothing was found.
Like most of his contemporaries, including Dr MacKenzie, Thompson died nearly broke. He left Canadian golf very wealthy though, with a string of world-class Stanley Thompson-designed courses from coast to coast.
Jeff Mingay works with fellow Canadian golf architect Rod Whitman. For more information visit www.mingaygolf.com.
This article first appeared in issue 4 of Golf Course Architecture, published in April 2006.