At 90, Canada’s oldest working golf pro will tee it up at Lambton today where his career began.
Dave Perkins, SPORTS COLUMNIST
Canada Day was known as Dominion Day when Gord De Laat seized the opportunity to begin a life – a wonderful life, it is – in golf.
The caddies at Lambton Golf and Country Club, that July 1, were off at a picnic celebrating this country’s 60th birthday and 10-year-old Gordie was the only kid hanging around the pro shop – but not too close, because caddies knew their place.
A member named A.B. Fisher needed a bag-toter and Lambton’s head pro, the legendary Willie Lamb, leaned around the corner and spotted only this little Dutch-born boy.
“I told Mr. Fisher all I could do is carry the bag and that’s what I did. He played nine holes and I don’t think I impressed him too much. But my career had started,” De Laat remembers.
The date was July 1, 1927. Eighty years ago. Today, age 90 but still swinging the golf club awfully well, Gord De Laat, Canada’s oldest working golf pro, returns to Lambton to tee it up. (“I’m pretty loose. I can still get the club back,” he said and can he ever.) He hopes to play a hole or two, reminisce with the old-time members and have a picture taken. Now, how good is that?
“It’s always meant so much to me, Canada Day, what we used to call Dominion Day,” De Laat recalled, chatting at the Mayfield Golf Club he designed, built and still owns up in Caledon. “Even when I was born, it was about Canada and Canadians, in a way.”
He was born in the Netherlands, April 11, 1917. The Battle of Vimy Ridge, in northern France, was in its third fierce day. Vimy represented a great victory for Canada, which emerged from the shadow Britain, but came at a terrible cost – more than 10,000 lives lost.
“The battle was on, people were fleeing from Belgium. My mother always told me the day we were born – I have a twin brother, he lives three blocks from Lambton – that day we were taking in refugees. Sharing what we had.”
(His father, by the way, lived to be 95. His father’s uncle, Gordie’s great-uncle, was born in 1800 and was conscripted into Napoleon’s army at one point, likely coerced by the point of a bayonet during one of the Little Colonel’s road trips.)
The family moved to Toronto when Gordie was 7. He got into golf that Dominion Day and, as he said, “I’ve enjoyed every single day of it since. Been a very lucky man.”
Those first wages?
“Mr. Fisher paid me 20 cents. I don’t remember what I did with it, but I know I put it to good use,” De Laat said.
He came back for more, becoming an A-list caddy. His brother did the same. From there, he did all the jobs around a golf club: Shagging balls for the pro, club cleaning, club-making – he still noodles away at it – and graduated to junior assistant professional.
“Which meant, as a junior assistant, you could go out on the golf course,” he said, eyes still twinkling.
De Laat became a good player, winning the Ontario junior championship in 1938 and eventually competing 10 times in the Canadian Open.
Despite topping out at 145 pounds, he played junior hockey, teammates with Punch Imlach at one point, and after working briefly in electronics, took a job as head pro at Pine Point Golf Club in 1945.
One day he came out to see engineers “driving stakes into the second fairway. It turned out they were laying out a highway,” De Laat said of the future 401. The golf course at Pine Point soon was no more, although you can still see the original clubhouse beside the highway, looking almost regal perched on a hill beside Pine Point Arena. From there he went to Weston, where he was head pro for almost 30 years. In the mid-1970s, he saw an ad in the paper for a piece of land in Caledon and by 1978, he had Mayfield up and running.
In his Weston years, he was host pro to the greats and the famous. A photo at Mayfield shows him playing with Bob Hope, a frequent visitor. When the Canadian Open came to Weston in 1955, De Laat, an infrequent tournament player with a B-level rating, beat four A-level pros to reach the final of the Miller Match Play at Islington and earn a spot in the Open field.
He was paired with Sam Snead in the first round. Snead shot 70 and De Laat shot 72 (then 72, 70 and 72 again for two-under par). When a young upstart named Arnold Palmer won his first tournament, he asked that a picture be taken with the club pro.
A picture of Palmer, De Laat and Gord’s son Chris, the other pro at Mayfield, hangs there. (Chris is one of nine children who led to 16 grandchildren.) Arnie owed De Laat a favour because he saved the hand-lettered scoreboard card displaying Palmer’s score and years later gifted it to Palmer.
“He made golf what it is today,” De Laat said of Palmer.
Today at Lambton, De Laat won’t see the long-gone clubhouse or pro shop where he began his career, but he said the layout, built in 1902, won’t surprise him and “will bring back good memories.” Coming full circle on Canada Day, 80 years later, Gordie De Laat will do exactly the same.