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George Lyon: Golf's forgotten Olympic champion

George Seymour Lyon was the last golfer to win Olympic gold, at the 1904 St. Louis Games. Bettman

George Seymour Lyon tipped up his 46-year-old body and, amid applause and laughter, walked on his hands to the podium to collect the vast Olympic golf trophy. Now, with golf restored to the Games after a 112-year absence, players such as Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth may be in line to succeed him, but will they ever be able to match the incredible, almost forgotten journey of one of the most colourful and indomitable of Olympians?

A middle-aged insurance salesman with a scythe-wielder's swing that made Jim Furyk's look the model of orthodoxy; a fun-loving, Scotch-swigging sporting all-rounder of extraordinary gifts; and beyond all that, a shining guardian of the Olympic spirit. Everyone seemed to love George Seymour Lyon.

One of the most unlikely winners in Olympic Games annals, Lyon's triumph in the golf tournament at the 1904 edition in St. Louis, winning on the Glen Echo Country Club course at the age of 46, and only eight years since he had taken up the game, became little more than an asterisk in the record books once golf was dropped from the programme.

Yet the reintroduction of the sport in Rio de Janeiro this summer should, Lyon's great-grandson Ross Wigle hopes, be the ideal moment to remind the world of George's wonderful story. As Michael G. Cochrane, the author of a new book about this charismatic Canadian sports champion, said: "Remember that before Tiger, there was a Lyon."

The 1904 event was another world, naturally, to the slickly-packaged event featuring some of the world's best professionals being planned for Rio's Reserva de Marapendi course in August. In only the third of the modern Olympics, the golf competitions also featured tournaments for team play, putting and long driving, but the centrepiece was a matchplay event which was as gruelling a test of stamina as it was an examination of skill.

No tournament for old men

Unlike this year's straightforward four-round strokeplay tournament in Brazil, the winner 112 years ago had to negotiate a 36-hole Monday qualifier followed by five days of 36-hole matchplay. This was no tournament for old men, it seemed.

Despite the golfing endurance test, Lyon still made an unlikely 750-mile pilgrimage with two colleagues from his Toronto home to St. Louis for the Olympic golf tournament; he had read in Sports Illustrated how the Games would be the centrepiece of the extraordinary World's Fair celebrations being staged there.

He was perceived to have no chance in a competition that effectively became Lyon versus the USA after his two colleagues, who had also made the trip, failed to make it through qualifying.

It came down to a matchplay marathon between Lyon, this unknown Canadian, and 71 of the USA's finest, most of whom were half his age. Yet as he made his way through each round, the 46-year-old's progress began to capture the imagination of the watching reporters.

"He is a veteran whose sinews are of iron, and with a temperament as phlegmatic as an Algonquin Indian," swooned George Westlake, the man from the Chicago Evening Post, before musing: "But can he last?"

Even though Lyon reached the final, he was still not given a chance against the young golden boy of American golf, Chandler Egan, a 21-year-old Harvard phenomenon who possessed a swing as lovely as George's was ugly.

"One newspaper said Lyon's swing looked as though it belonged to a coal heaver." Ian Chadband

Not that it was wise to get too snotty about Lyon's swing. When it was described by one newspaperman as if it belonged to a coal heaver and by another as if George was wielding a scythe, Lyon sent off an angry letter of complaint to the U.S. golf authorities.

Astonishingly, during a final played in wretchedly cold, rainy and blustery conditions, it was that labourer's heave that proved effective while Egan's classical swing fell apart.

In later life, Egan, who had just landed the U.S. Amateur title before the Olympics, related that he had tried to keep up with Lyon's huge, straight driving and that it had knocked him out of his stride.

So when it came to the key 15th hole in their afternoon round, with Lyon only one up, Egan hooked his ball into the lake while George belted one straight down the middle. Another wayward drive down the 16th then sealed the home favourite's fate.

What a triumph! When someone shouted out at the presentation that Lyon was the greatest golfer in the world, the modest champ just responded with a big smile: "I do not think for a moment that winning this medal and trophy means that I am the best golfer in the world -- but I do know that it means I am certainly not the worst!"

He brought home the huge trophy to Toronto and when his brother-in-law, who was among the hundreds there to greet the new sports hero, suggested he must be tired when he got off the train, George just smiled: "Yes, but I'm not too tired to dance!"

The natural

It may have shocked the golf establishment but the triumph of this little-known latecomer to the game did not surprise those in Canada who knew about Lyon's all-round sporting prowess. "He must have been a natural sportsman," said Wigle, adding with a laugh: "Better than he was at selling insurance!"

A robust all-rounder at cricket, 5 feet 8 inches tall and with a navvy's shoulders, Lyon played eight times for Canada. Once, he also clubbed an unbeaten 238 in a day for his local club Rosedale against Peterborough, the biggest innings seen in the country at the time and a record score that lasted for 40 years.

At just 19, Lyon also set a Canadian pole vault record and he was a star at curling, American Football, baseball, ice hockey and tennis.

Beyond that, in his action-packed youth -- and unknown even to Wigle until author Cochrane started researching the details of his life for his book, 'Olympic Lyon', Lyon had also demonstrated his courage in battle, serving with Canada's Queen's Own Rifles in 1885 during the Northwest Rebellion.

He only started playing golf at the age of 38, by which time he was married with five children and settled as an insurance salesman in Toronto. By 46, the same age as Jack Nicklaus when he famously won his final Major at Augusta, Lyon was ready to beat the world.

Rejected gold

Four years after he struck gold, Lyon, now 50 and probably not in the rudest of health as he was soon to suffer from diabetes, undertook a gruelling trip to Britain to defend his Olympic title in London.

However, he discovered that, after the withdrawal of British, Irish and American golfers from the field in a row over what constituted 'amateur' status, he was the only player left eligible to play.

"As the only one who filed all the proper papers and came over to play, the Olympic chiefs were going to award him the gold medal but he just said 'sport is a gentlemanly affair, and I will only accept an award having won it through proper competition'," claimed Wigle. "Has anyone ever turned down an Olympic gold before?"

Yes, as it happens, but Lyon was in the most elite of company. When Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest all-round athlete of the century, was stripped so unfairly of his pentathlon and decathlon golds from the 1912 Stockholm Games after an unintentional, minor violation of his amateur status was discovered, the two silver medalists, Ferdinand Bie and Hugo Wieslander, were noble enough not to accept the golden upgrade.

Gentleman George

"That refusal to accept gold tells you a lot about my great-grandfather," said Wigle, who claimed that De Coubertin's Olympic motto that "the important thing is not winning but taking part" neatly summarized Lyon's approach.

Once, in a Canadian championship, he related, George was beating a matchplay opponent who was so desperate to get back into the game that he deliberately aimed his long putt at Lyon's golf bag, which had been inadvertently left on the edge of the green by his caddie.

When the ball struck the bag, his opponent claimed the hole by default, at which point Lyon approached him and apparently said: "Sir, this is a gentlemen's sport and you're clearly not a gentleman. If you need to win that badly, I'll give you the match." Then he walked off the course.

"George was a gentleman -- he knew and did the right thing." Ross Wigle

"George was a gentleman, himself," said Wigle. "Not in a Downton Abbey-style stuffy aristocrat way but a gentleman in that he knew and did the right thing."

Cochrane related how he was also a rare character off the course. "There was an actual quote I found about him -- 'Wherever George Lyon sat was the head of the table'. Because wherever he was, he was the life of the party.

"Wherever there was a gathering, he was the one who led the singing, the last one to go home from the party. He was a man's man, the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with."

In his two decades as captain of Lambton golf course in Toronto, which he helped build, folklore has it that the signal for closing time in the bar would be when George walked on his hands around the dining room perimeter while singing 'My Wild Irish Rose'.

Where was the Irish connection? Well, as George would always tell anyone who asked: "I'm a wee bit of Irish ... and a good bit of Scotch!"

Medal mystery

Lyon continued a distinguished golf career as player and administrator even beyond the 1908 Games, winning eight Canadian titles in total, the last of which came at the age of 56. Between the ages of 64-78, he was still good enough to shoot his age over 18 holes, too.

Yet while there is a wealth of knowledge about his achievements, mystery still surrounds the whereabouts of the gold medal he received.

Lost in the mists of time, Wigle suspected. In his great grandfather's later years during the Great Depression, Wigle feared financial hard times may have forced him to have it melted down. Interviews compiled a few years ago for an uncompleted TV documentary, 'The Lyon Hunt', failed to unearth any clues.

After Lyon's death, his granddaughter Sue wrote to the International Olympic Committee to see if they would consider a replacement. A new medal was eventually struck, albeit in a different style to the original, which now can now be found on display at his first club, Rosedale.

Remembering the hero

George died in Toronto in 1938 at the age of 79, his resting place indicated only by a modest stone marker at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

"I've stood there in that cemetery, thought about his immense contribution to golf and to Canadian life and wondered 'have we done enough to remember this man?'" asked author Cochrane.

"Should his face be on a Canadian coin? A stamp? Should he be acknowledged in some way at the Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016? Yes, of course."

Wigle would love to present the gold medal to this year's winner or, even better, smack a ceremonial drive down the middle of the first fairway, a relative of the defending champion thus linking the 2016 renewal with the winner of the 1904 edition. His request, though, was turned down by the International Golf Federation.

Yet Lambton, Lyon's Canadian club, and Glen Echo, the club where he struck gold, these days play an occasional Ryder Cup-style competition to honour George, with Wigle feeling quite humbled to have been invited to play at the scene of his great-grandfather's triumph.

Wigle remembered standing at the unchanged 16th tee, the emotion flooding through him as he prepared to take on the very same lake which drowned Chandler Egan's dream.

"Do you know, I'm happy to say that I played it over four days and, even if I couldn't emulate his length off the tee, I never went into the water once," Wigle said.

"It was as if I was channelling George -- but, of course, it may have been because I was drinking Scotch!"

Wigle offered a fond smile and a raised glass. All golf, he insisted, should toast "a great man and a true Olympian" this summer, saluting the memory of the Lyon that roared.