Seniors Northwest Golf Association Celebrates 100 Years

Seniors Northwest Golf Association Celebrates 100 years in 2023

Capsule History of Senior Golf in North America

Golf is a game of a lifetime. Today players can compete at the tournament level from ten to eighty years old. In particular the senior golfer can compete locally, provincially, regionally, nationally, or internationally. Competing in the senior ranks a moderate ability player in their younger years can be very successful in the senior age groups.

This article begins with a brief history of senior golf in north America. . Then the article describes the history of the Seniors Northwest Golf Association – could be the fifth oldest seniors’ organization in North America and the second formed on the Pacific Coast. Further research is required.

US Senior Golf Association USSGA

Horace L. Hotchkiss conceived the idea of senior golf. After retirement as an investment banker in New York, he wanted to maintain his friendships. Rather than sit around chatting and accomplishing nothing, he thought a golf tournament restricted to fellow golfers his age would provide a sincere sense of accomplishment in his later years. After sending letters to his many friends in the business world asking for their input to his idea, he summed everyone to the Apawamis Golf Club in Rye New York for a 36 hole golf tournament. The initial event proved so successful that he limited membership to three hundred seniors. In 1917 the group formalized into the United States Senior Golf Association. The actual tournament dates to 1905. Ironically this senior tournament has been held consecutively since 1905 not canceling any events during the war years. (Note Our research to date showed the Vancouver City Amateur as the oldest continuous championship in North America. The City amateur is now at best the second oldest. )

In the November 1917 issue of the Canadian Golfer Magazine, the editor, Ralph Reville, described his unforgettable experience playing in the USSGA tournament. Reville encouraged the senior golfers of Canada to form a similar organization.  “If you form an association it would be a particularly nice thing to arrange a match, in Boston, or some other convenient place, between a team from the Canadian Association and the US Association.”

W.R. Baker, who attended the US Seniors tournament with Reville, undertook the challenge to form a similar seniors’ group in Canada. Baker immediately approached his home club with his idea. The Royal Montreal Board accepted the idea because it would be the first such group in Canada. Because Royal Montreal was the oldest golf club in North America, the members felt they should organize the first seniors tournament in Canada. In 1918 eighty-one senior golfers, primarily from the leading private clubs in Ontario and Quebec plus a large contingent from the USSGA, met for a 36 hole championship. Fittingly Canada’s greatest golfer of this period, George Lyon,  won. In fact he won ten of the first thirteen events.  Unlike the USSGA, the CSGA rotated their tournament amongst the oldest golf clubs in Ontario and Quebec.

Research revealed the Midwick CC in Los Angeles started the Pacific Coast Senior Golf Association in 1917. The club hosted an invitational tournament for players from private golf courses in California to participate in a 36 hole full handicap tournament. The March tournament consisted of 36 holes for players 55 years and older. The lowest net score regardless of age won the tile Grand Champion. Players in age groups 55 – 59 , 60 – 64, and 65 and older won trophies based upon their net score. Further research is required to determine how long this association existed and if the format changed during the lifetime  of the association.

Alexander Revell, a member of the Board of the USSGA, issued a call for all senior in the Chicago area golfers to meet at the Chicago Athletic Club in Chicago on May 17th, 1923. He canvassed the senior golf community to join him to form the Illinois Seniors Golf Association (ISGA). Upon formation the enterprising group invited President Warren Harding, a keen golfer, to be the association’s first honorary president. Harding responded: “To you and your associates my thanks and appreciation. I am delighted to accept the privileges of your Senior Association. Whenever the opportunity presents I shall be delighted to avail myself of the privileges to tender to me.” Unfortunately in August 1923 shortly after playing golf at Shaughnessy Heights in Vancouver, BC, Harding passed away. This organization still exists today.

Seniors Northwest Golf Association SNWGA

Senator Harry Barnard – Father of the Seniors Northwest Golf Association

Senator Harry Barnard, a Victoria lawyer and keen golfer, provided the impetus to form an organization strictly for the 55 and older age group. While serving in the Senate, he probably played in the CSGA competitions or at least knew about the Canadian organization for senior golfers. Captain C.H. Perks, the secretary for the Victoria GC, undertook the job to establish the organization, to promote the concept throughout the northwest, and to organize the first tournament for the new group at the Victoria GC. Perks served the group as their secretary until 1946. The leaders of golf in the northwest immediately began selling the new concept to their memberships. AS Kerry. the PNGA leader, lobbied for an international match between BC and the US. Senator Barnard donated the perpetual trophy for the low gross score for the 36 holes.  After two years the event changed to match play with an 18-hole qualifying round.  The Grand Champion received the Bernard Cup and a replica for himself.  Joshiah Collins, the father of golf in Seattle, donated the Lipton cup, for the lowest gross score in the 18-hole qualifying round. The Lieutenant Governor Nichols donated the Nichols Cup to be presented to the winning team in the International fifteen man team competition. The competition comprised a qualifying round with the low sixteen scores entering the Grand Championship. The remaining players were divided into age groups Class A: 65 years and older; Class B: 60 – 64 years; and Class C; 55 – 59 year.

Players in the inaugural championship

After four years operating the event, the members of the SNWGA voted to have the Victoria GC as the permanent home for the event. The event has been held in the middle of August for 100 years. The organization attracts members from organized golf clubs in the Pacific Northwest 55 years and older.

Commencing in 1931 senior golfers formed the Washington State Senior Golf Association (1931), the BC Senior Golf Association (1932), the Oregon Senior Golf Association (1934), and the Inland Seniors Golf Association (1936). It appears only the Oregon Senior Golf Association survives today. Researching the grand champions list for each group implies very few champions from each group won in the other associations. Most champions remained loyal to one organization.

A search of the champions list for the Grand Championship shows a select group of players have dominated the SNWGA title.  Sixteen players with two or more titles have won almost 60 percent of the championships in the first one hundred years.

In fact few players from one group participated in the other group’s championships. Multiple winners from the BC Seniors included Bernie Knickerbocker (4), Bill Pierce (5), Pete McIntyre (3), Dr. George Bigelow(4), Norm Wilkinson(4), and Tommy Hunter(4).  But only McIntyre (1955) and Bigelow (1966) won the Seniors NW. With regard to the WSSGA, multiple champions had little success in the SNWGA. HC Banner(3), RE Thatcher(2) George Butterfield (3), and Manley McKinley never won in Victoria. Ed Eisenhower (3), Roger Peck(2), Corydon Wagner(1), and Keith Welts(4) had single successes north of the border. Few Oregon players who participated in the OSGA travelled to Vancouver Island to test their game against their fellow northwest golfers. Bill Blakely and Dick Estay each won the northwest title 6 times. Harold Weston won twice(1975, 1976) in Victoria and once (1978) at home in Portland.

Left Ralph Whaley 8 times Grand Champion

Right Ed Eisenhower – Younger Brother of Dwight Eisenhower                                                                                President of the United State

Ralph Whaley won the championship eight times (1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, & 1953) more than any other competitor. Prior to his first win in 1944 Premier John Hart won three times (1935, 1936, & 1943) and Joe Wilson from the home club won twice (1928 1929). Whaley had little success in his younger days. As a senior golfer he dominated the Seniors northwest like no other senior golfer during the association’s 100 year history. From 1944 – 1954 he won eight times, was medalist six times, and finalist once. In 1946 he won his third consecutive title. When Senator Barnard donated the original trophy for the grand champion any player winning three times consecutively retained permanent possess of the Barnard Cup. In 1947 Ralph returned the trophy to the Association on the understanding no player could win permanent possession from that time on. As well as being an accomplished senior golfer, Ralph was a noted archer. He loved to hunt game with his bow and arrow. George MacManama broke Ralph’s  consecutive string of titles in 1946 when George won the medal and the title. Ed Eisenhower, winner of four  Washington senior titles, began his golfing career at age thirty-five. He needed a diversion from his strenuous Tacoma law practice so he took up golf as a retreat. Unlike his older brother, Dwight Eisenhower the US President, Ed had great success on the senior trail. He just could not overcome the superiority of Ralph in Victoria.  During Whaley’s dominating period, Ed was medalist twice (1946 and 1954) and finalist three times. In 1952 Ed defeated Ralph in the semi-finals but lost to fellow Tacoma C&GC member Roger Peck in the final. Finally in 1958, Ed won a seniors northwest title defeating, the successor to Ralph Whaley, Bill Blakely.

Left Doc O. Willing Right Pete McIntyre Trail BC

Dr. Oscar Willing, the highest ranking player to play in the Victoria seniors tournament won in 1954. For a decade in the 1920’s and 1930’s Doc willing from Waverley won Oregon (5), PNGA(2), Northwest Open and Oregon Open titles plus represented the US on the 1930 Walker Cup team. At Victoria he won in 1954 defeating Trail’s Pete McIntyre. The following year Pete turned the tables defeating the famous Dr. in the semifinals. Pete was the only left handed player to win the seniors title and the first BC resident to win since John Hart in 1943.

Bill Blakely

Bill Blakely became the successor to Whaley in 1956 winning the medal and losing in the final to Corydon Wagner the 1956 WSSGA champion. Over the next decade Bill won six titles although every players’ ambition was to duplicate or beat Ralph Whaley’s record eight.  Blakely won the OSGA title twice(1959, 1962) during his reign as the dominating player north of the border. Blakely became the top ranked senior player to play in Victoria when he finished runner-up in the1962 USGA National Seniors championship. He retained his 1962 Victoria seniors title plus medalist honours. Over the 100 years the senior golfers illustrated a strong loyalty to the northwest seniors event. Bill showed this strong attraction to the event in 1971 when he returned after a five year absence to win the championship.  He defeated the new rising star in the senior ranks Harry Givan. Bill  lost to the new multiple winner Bill Thompson in the 1972 final.

Left Harry Givan Right Dr. George Bigelow

Next to Doc Willing, Harry Givan, from the Seattle GC, ranked as the most successful amateur golfer to play in the Seniors northwest championship. The Seattle Bomber’s  amateur record included PNGA (5), Northwest Open, BC Men’s Amateur, Washington State Amateur(2), Washington State Open, and member of the 1936 Walker Cup team. ,  Dr George Bigelow,  Canadian National Senior Champion from the home club,  won the title in 1966. He lost in the final to Dr. Mel Aspray the flowing year. Dr. Bigelow could not overcome Givan’s superior driving prowess or his unreliable putter. Givan retained the title in 1969 against Dr Aspray. The senior ranks believed Givan could be on track to a long run for Whaley’s eight championships. Unfortunately Given never won again.

Left Erv Parent Right Bill Thompson

What Givan did not do, Bill Thompson, from the Victoria GC, dominated the championship during the 1970’s winning six times. In 1970 he defeated Givan in the final. Bill Blakely returned to Victoria to win one more championship in 1971. Harold Weston  prevented Thompson from duplicating Ralph Whaley’s feat of four consecutive championships in 1975. Weston one two consecutive titles and Erv Parent one before Thompson closed out the decade winning with two championships 1978 and 1979.

In the early years of the 1980’s Keith Welts dominated senior golf at the Seniors Northwest and the Washington State Seniors. Strangely he is the only player to accomplish this feat in 100 years. Keith won four consecutive WSSGA championships (1979 – 1982)  and two SNWGA titles 1980 1983).

George Holland

Dick Estay

During the decade from 1984 – 1994 only one player, Bob Ihlanfeldt, could defeat the duo of George Holland and Dick Estay for the Grand Championship. Dick had a fine junior career in Portland. Then family and business commitments placed his golfing career on hold. As a senior he travelled the world winning titles. In 1989 he won the Mexican Senior. In Britain he placed second twice in the British Senior Amateur.  Each year for a decade he loyally arrived in Victoria to meet his many friends on the seaside links. His fellow competitors felt he would tie Ralph Whaley’s 8 championship record. He fell two short during his distinguished career. While playing on the world’s best courses, Dick began to amass one of the world’s largest complete private golf collections of outstanding high class golf memorabilia in the world. To prevent Dick from winning all the championships George Holland battled Dick on four occasions to win the 1984 1985, 1889 and 1992 championships. George Holland represents the first senior golfer from the SNWGA who also won the Washington State Golf Association championship 1987, the PNGA Senior 1985 &1987 and the Northwest Seniors 1984, 1985, 1989 1992.

Robin Steffanick

The last multiple winner, Robin Stefffanick, began his golfing career in Red Deer Alberta. While playing in the 1967 Canadian Amateur Championship at Royal Colwood, Robin made the decision to move permanently to Victoria. He spent his career as a high school fine arts teacher. He played in all the local tournaments on the Island as a member of Gorge Vale. When he retired and joined the senior golfing ranks, he moved to the Victoria GC. From 2005 – 2011 Robin won the Seniors Grand Championship five times. Jerry Cundari, the most successful senior golfer to play at Victoria, defeated Robin in 2004, 2006, and 2007. Without Jerry in the field Robin had the possibility to duplicate Whaley’s eight championships.

The Seniors Northwest Golf Association championship at the Victoria GC has one distinguishing feature. The players remained loyal to the event during their senior golfing career. The friendships the players made each year attracted them to return year after year.

As the number of senior golfers grew throughout every region of North America the provincial, state, region, and national bodies introduced senior championships to their annual schedule.

The national, regional, state, and provincial golf associations added senior golf competitions to their calendars in the following years.

USGA Senior Men’s Amateur Championship (1955)

RCGA National Senior Championship (RCGA) (1962)

PNGA Senior Men’s Championship (1965)

BCGA Senior Men’s Championship (1970)

WSGA Senior Men’s Championship (1987)

OGA Senior Men’s Championship (1987)

Ironically the BC Golf Museum collection does not have a single artifact or program from the Seniors Northwest Golf Association. One would think we should have at least a trophy considering all the keeper trophies awarded at this event.

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