The R&A - Working for Golf

The medals that were never worn

The 1908 Olympic medals for golf are perhaps the loneliest to ever have been made.  Just days before the Games in London, the golf event was abandoned due to an apparent entry form gaffe.  In the background, however, there was controversy over the fact that Royal St George’s, and not The R&A, was organising the golfing competitions.

According to the British Olympic Association, a letter was sent to The R&A in July 1906, as well as to other leading bodies in the sport informing them that Great Britain had been asked to hold the games in 1908, after Rome, the original location, fell victim to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and with that came the need to divert funds.

It appeared that The R&A had failed to respond and, as a result, the honorary secretary of the Amateur Championship Committee and secretary of Royal St George’s was invited to manage the golf event.  The R&A stressed that no such letter had ever been received and questions were posed as to why no follow-up correspondence had been sent.

Athletes from the United Kingdom at the 1908 Olympic Games opening ceremony in London.
Athletes from the United Kingdom at the 1908 Olympic Games opening ceremony in London.

The debate surrounding the tournament continued to grow as the preparations continued.  The Times reported on 20 January that Canada, Belgium, France, Holland and Sweden had announced their hopes of being represented, while South Africa had applied for a copy of the regulations and the United States were also expected to compete.

Three days later, the assistant secretary of the British Olympic Association, Captain F. Whitworth Jones was described in The Times as “having said yesterday that the council would, without doubt, proceed with the competitions. He was sorry if they were not approved by the Royal and Ancient Club, but his council had heard nothing directly from that club… He could not understand why the first letter forwarded to the Royal and Ancient Club, if undelivered, had not been returned. The conditions for the competitions had been forwarded to the various countries applying for them, and the council had done everything possible to make the meeting a success.”

The tournament was scheduled to take place from 1-3 June and was to take the form of three days’ stroke play, 36 holes to be played each day successively over the courses at Royal St George’s, Cinque Ports and Princes.  But the decision to continue with the competition was now provoking a strong reaction from many of the leading British players, including John Ball, Robert Maxwell, John Laidlay and H.S. Colt.

The 1908 Olympic silver medal is on display at The British golf Museum in St Andrews.
The 1908 Olympic silver medal is on display at The British golf Museum in St Andrews.

And then the news broke.  Two days before the Olympic golf event was due to begin, an official announcement was made that it was to be cancelled.

The explanation given by the British Olympic Association, as reported in The Times, was that a number of British golfers had incorrectly filled in their entry forms.  The forms had been returned to the players but as the paperwork had not been received by the Association on time, the competition had to be cancelled.

Interestingly, the only apparent correct entry received was that of Canadian George Lyon – the 1904 Olympic champion, who defeated home-favourite H. Chandler Egan at the Glen Echo Country Club in St. Louis.

And so the Olympic golfing medals designed by Sir Bertram McKennal, a sculptor and medallist, were never presented at the 1908 Olympics.  One of the medals, which would have been presented to the runner-up, can be seen in a special Olympic golf display at The British Golf Museum.

The small silver medal, which is only 32 mm in diameter, depicts two female figures placing a laurel crown on the head of a victorious athlete, with St George slaying the dragon on the reverse.

Angela Howe, (Museum & Heritage Director) explains how the medal found its way to the north-east of Scotland, saying, “We bought the medal at a private sale in 2008.  It’s a wonderful piece and the star attraction in our Olympic exhibit. The fact that golf never made it in the end at the 1908 Olympics was a real shame and it is quite sad that this beautiful piece was never worn by an athlete. The story of golf in 1908 is a quirky part of Olympic history and one day the mystery of the lost letter may be solved.  It would certainly add a special dimension to our Olympic collection”.