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Golf club time machine: Travel back to 1904 for last Olympic tourney

For the first time since 1904, when mashies, stymies and niblicks were as familiar as birdies, backspins and the 19th hole, golf is set to return to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The absence of several top players in the men's tournament scheduled for Aug. 11-14 might keep adrenaline flow well below Ryder Cup levels. An untested Olympic course in a logistically challenged city might even make the experience downright uncomfortable.

But the man who endures to win gold within the Reserva de Marapendi in Barra da Tijuca will have perseverance in common with George S. Lyon, the reigning Olympic golf champion for the past 112 years.

Lyon had taken up golf just eight years before the 1904 Olympics. The 46-year-old Canadian survived a lengthy format, even longer odds and tumultuous weather conditions on the final day in St. Louis to defeat Chicago native H. Chandler Egan.

The grueling tournament consisted of 12 rounds in six days -- starting with 36 holes of stroke play that pared the field of more than 70 golfers (all but three of whom were Americans) to a 32-player bracket for match play. Lyon and Egan were the last men standing for the 36-hole finale on Sept. 24. With help from the next day's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, excerpted in italics, here's how that final day unfolded at Glen Echo Country Club:

A large crowd, including many of the most prominent golf players in the West, witnessed the match. The crowd followed the players in spite of the heavy rain which fell when the match opened in the morning and during part of the afternoon. ... When Lyon drove the ball from the first tee at 11:30 o'clock yesterday morning, rain was falling in torrents. A strong northwest wind was blowing, rendering long drives difficult.

Lyon was an all-around athlete growing up in the Toronto area, competing in baseball, rugby, football, lawn bowling, curling and track and field, even setting a national record in the pole vault at age 18. As he grew older, he turned his attention to cricket and set a national record in that sport.

Lyon was 38 years old and selling insurance for a living when a friend invited him to play golf for the first time. He was quickly hooked, and the next year he finished runner-up at the Canadian Amateur Championships, an event he would later win eight times.

Egan was 26 years younger than Lyon, but came to the Olympics as the more decorated golfer, having won the 1904 U.S. Amateur title.

Lyon, however, was more mentally prepared for the Olympics than Egan, and the Canadian's steady play allowed him to win four of the first five holes in the final match.

Egan didn't come through with a clutch shot until No. 6, pulling out his mashie, a club somewhat comparable to a midrange iron in today's bag.

Both had much difficulty in making the sixth hole. Lyon drove twenty-five yards into the rough, and, after considerable trouble getting it out, landed twenty feet short. Egan used his mashie to lift his third over pools of water and landed near the cup's edge.

On No. 7, Lyon was stymied by Egan, literally.

In those days, a golfer wasn't required to mark his ball if it blocked the path of another. The situation was called a stymie, which was finally eliminated from the sport in 1952. Egan didn't attempt to stymie Lyon, but when his approach nearly holed, the ball stopped directly in the path of Lyon's ball. Lyon was forced to putt around Egan's ball and lost the hole.

Egan continued to chip away at Lyon's lead, scratching back to within 1-down after No. 13, but he could never wrestle the lead from the Canadian and sat 1-down with four holes to play.

That's when Egan's driver let him down again.

What chance Egan had at the thirty-third, he threw away by pulling his drive into the pond and losing a stroke. He had a twenty-foot putt to make on the green for a half, but the ball rimmed the cup. Lyon won the hole and was then up two with three to go.

Lyon began to celebrate on the ensuing hole after Egan hooked his drive in the rough and then launched his second shot into a clump of trees. Lyon, meanwhile, was flawless on both shots, putting his second 3 feet from the cup. He eventually tapped in to win the hole and capture the match 3 and 2.

The newspaper report was hard on Egan, misspelling his name as "Eagen" in one sub-headline and shouting "American Champion's Nervousness and Adverse Weather Conditions Were Largely Responsible for the Result" in another.

Nervousness, causing weak driving and erratic putting, is responsible for Egan's defeat. Lyon, hardened by years of cricket before he took up golf, was more at ease, though his style was less polished than that of Egan.

Despite those observations, readers would get the scoop directly from Lyon and Egan, who each penned sidebars that ran alongside the main story. Lyon unabashedly claimed he simply wanted the victory more.

I was compelled to play my hardest to win. I attribute my success principally to my long drives. I outdrove Egan, and it was mainly through this that I won.

Egan, meanwhile, apologized for his bland effort and then explained he became burnt-out long before the grueling tournament.

Candidly speaking, I would have been surprised very much if I had won. I was stale from overplaying. It was even surprising to me that I captured the national championship, as at that time also I was "overgolfed."

Egan would re-energize his mind and body and win the U.S. Amateur again in 1905, but he mostly disappeared from the national scene after finishing runner-up at the same event in 1909. He re-emerged as a respected golf course designer, mostly in Oregon and Washington, before dying of pneumonia at age 51.

Lyon, meanwhile, lost in the finals of the 1906 U.S. Amateur before traveling to London to defend his title at the 1908 Olympic Games. The golf competition was scuttled at the last minute, as representatives from England and Scotland could not agree on the format.

Most of the medals handed out at the 1904 Olympics were lost over the years (there was also a team competition, with all three medals going to U.S. squads), but the silver belonging to Egan was located last fall in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Egan's only child, Eleanor E. Everett, had died there in 2012 at the age of 101, and one of her sons, Morris Everett Jr., discovered the silver medal, along with a team gold medal, in separate cases within a medal box at the bottom of a bookcase at her house.

Lyon's medal has never been found, but his legacy lives on in many forms. He was posthumously inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1955 and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in 1971.

He was known for shooting his age throughout his 70s. He died at 79 in 1938. Who would have guessed his reign as Olympic golf champion would last another 78 years?