TORONTO (Reuters) - A 46-year-old golfer beating competitors more than half his age in a virtual monsoon to win an Olympic gold medal a mere eight years after taking up the sport sounds like something straight out of a fairytale.
But the almost forgotten story of little-known Canadian insurance salesman George Lyon, a Scotch-swigging multi-sport athlete, has been salvaged thanks to golf’s return to the Olympics in August after a 112-year absence.
Lyon, who died in 1938 at the age of 79, is the reigning Olympic champion after having defied the odds by navigating a 36-hole Monday qualifier followed by five consecutive days of 36-hole matchplay at the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis.
After pulling off a massive upset over Chandler Egan, who at the time was a 20-year-old reigning U.S. amateur champion, a playful Lyon turned himself upside-down and walked on his hands to receive his Olympic medal and trophy.
“It was something we always knew about and we knew that it wasn’t that highly publicized and he wasn’t really that well known,” Lyon’s great-grandson, Sandy Somers, told Reuters at Lyon’s former golf club in Toronto.
“We started talking about it again when it was announced that golf was returning to the Olympics and it just sunk in, he’s the defending champion. It’s a fabulous story.”
Lyon excelled at each sport he played - including baseball, rugby, football, hockey, track and field and especially cricket. At 18, he set a Canadian record in the pole vault and would go on to represent his country at cricket, scoring 238 not out for his club, which stood as a Canadian record for nearly 40 years.
He got his first taste of golf when a friend, who noticed Lyon’s cricket teammates were late for practice, invited him to put down his bat and play some golf on a neighboring course.
Lyon played nine holes that day, swinging the club like a cricket bat and outdriving his friend while struggling with his short game. That experience was enough to lure Lyon into the sport and the next day he asked to become a member of the club.
“He was certainly a natural athlete,” Michael Cochrane, author of Olympic Lyon: The Untold Story of the Last Gold Medal for Golf, told Reuters. “I don’t think you can compare it to anything that’s going on (in sports) today.”
Two years after taking up golf as a 38-year-old, Lyon remarkably won the first of his eight Canadian amateur titles despite an unorthodox swing that a New York columnist described as akin to “using a scythe to cut wheat”.
By the time he arrived at the Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis, where golf was on the Olympic program for a second time, Lyon was hardly striking fear in his younger opponents.
But the determined Canadian, who was the longest driver in the tournament, captured the imagination of many onlookers as he advanced through each gruelling round and into the final where he was thought to have no chance against sweet-swinging Egan.
With both players having to cope with driving rain on a cold and gloomy day, it was Lyon, his body hardened by years of athletic endeavor, who pulled through.
When Egan’s tee shot on the 16th hole landed in an adjacent pond, Lyon’s par was good enough to clinch a 3&2 victory, one that is commemorated to this day with a plaque on that tee box.
After being crowned Olympic champion, a humble Lyon told a Toronto newspaper: “I am not foolish enough to think that I am the best player in the world, but I am satisfied that I am not the worst.”
The Canadian headed to Britain to defend his title at the 1908 London Olympics but a dispute over player eligibility resulted in all the British entrants withdrawing from the golf competition. Lyon was told the gold medal was his by default but he refused to accept a medal not won fairly in competition.
Lyon’s great-grandson Ross Wigle would love to be involved in some capacity when golf makes its Olympic return at the Aug. 5-21 Rio Games but said he has not been able to get talks started with anyone at the International Olympic Committee.
Wigle expects to be watching his great grandfather’s Olympic reign come to an end from his home, with a glass of scotch in hand, but is happy that Lyon’s story is being told.
“One of the great advantages of golf coming back into the Olympics is that the majority of Canadians are now being introduced to one of their greatest athletes ever,” Wigle told Reuters before outpointing one of many differences between Lyon and today’s top golfers.
“Jordan Spieth has been playing golf since he was 3-years-old and was trained by the world’s greatest all the way through. Sports psychologists, this and that. George’s sports psychologist was probably a glass of scotch.”
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes