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- Stanley Thompson
The Thompson family (James and Jeanie and their two children, along with Jeanie’s parents and other members of the McCron family) emigrated from Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland to Canada in 1882. Not long after they arrived in Toronto, the Grand Trunk Railway opened a new freight and repair yard on the east side of the city, offering employment to James. His family soon expanded, with Stanley becoming the seventh of nine surviving children.
The five brothers all caddied at nearby Toronto Golf Club and became above average golfers. Nicol served as the Hamilton professional for almost half a century, Bill and Frank won three Canadian Amateur titles between them, Stanley reached the semi-final of the Ontario Amateur and Matt contested the final of the Manitoba Amateur, eventually becoming a professional player late in life, aged 47.
Stanley studied at Malvern Collegiate Institute before attending Ontario Agricultural College in 1912. Unfortunately, the Great War intervened and he served in Europe with the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a signaller in the 4th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. Stanley never had much to say about his career as a soldier but he was mentioned “for gallant and distinguished services in the filed” in a written dispatch on 9th April 1917.
In many ways, becoming a golf course architect immediately after the First World War was the perfect time to enter the profession. Canada’s golf courses numbered around 130 in 1918 but seven years later this was to rise to more than 350 and by 1931 there were nearly 600 in play. Of the estimated 160 courses that Stanley Thompson laid out or remodelled during his lifetime, around 90 were completed during the 1920s.
Thompson’s introduction into the field of golf course design was announced in the February 1920 edition of The Canadian Golfer with the notice stating: “A Canadian golfing firm of outstanding ability has recently been formed, composed of Nicol Thompson, the popular Hamilton pro and golf architect, George Cumming, the celebrated Toronto pro and architect, and Mr. Stanley Thompson, the young amateur who last year returned from overseas.”
There were only four projects completed by the new company during its thirteen months of operation. One was a 9-hole course at Owen Sound (since expanded to an 18-hole layout and renamed Legacy Ridge). The second was Lakeview in Mississauga, which was redesigned by Herbert Strong and constructed by Thompson, Cumming and Thompson. Another 9-hole track was built at Windermere on Lake Rosseau (to which Stanley added another 3 holes in 1923 and 6 holes in 1926) and the final commission was adding another nine holes to the existing 9-hole layout at Brantford Golf & Country Club.
When TCT was dissolved in early 1921, the assets were sold to the New York firm of Lewis and Valentine, a prominent landscaping company in the northeast of the United States which specialized in transplanting fully grown trees. It’s an indication of Stanley Thompson’s salesman and self-promotional skills that the firm of Lewis & Thompson, Golf & Landscape Engineers, ever got off the ground at all but the partnership lasted for only a year, concluding with the redesign of Mississaugua Golf & Country Club.
The following year, Stanley founded his own company, along with his brother Frank and an old friend from the Ontario Agricultural College, Ken Welton. Over the next three years, the firm handled the incredible total of twenty-one projects before Ken left, to be replaced by Major John Inwood as the new general manager.
The architect also set up the Trans Canada Construction Company as a subsidiary, to build courses designed by Thompson and to bid on the construction of courses not designed by his architectural company. This firm was run initially by an old school chum, John Zieman, with Loyde Riley later taking over from 1936 to 1951.
In the book The Toronto Terror by James A. Barclay, the author has this to say about Thompson’s new company: “As early as 1921 Stanley set the pattern of his future reputation as a golf course architect who could lay out golf courses over the most unlikely and inhospitable terrain. All his great courses were to be carved out of rock or forest or both, on land that would have been considered unconquerable before the First World War.”
Barclay continues: “Aside from Thompson’s genius in being able to visualize the potential of a piece of land when others could not, the reason he succeeded had less to do with improvements in the machinery used for moving earth, rock, and trees, and more with the owners of those golf courses. About a third of Thompson’s new courses were commissioned by large enterprises such as railway companies, or hotels or real estate companies or civic authorities.”
The author argues that many of his greatest designs would not have been built had they not been commissioned by large companies like Canadian Pacific Railways, Canadian National Railways, Parks Canada and a host of local government municipalities. His contention is that the building of these courses didn’t have to rely on annual subscriptions and green fee income to finance their construction so their economic viability was never brought into question.
In 1929, Stanley hired another couple of Ontario Agricultural College graduates, Clinton E. “Robbie” Robinson and Howard Watson. The former worked for Thompson in two separate periods up until 1941, while the latter stayed a couple of years before returning in 1945 to work on several projects in Canada, the United States, Colombia and Jamaica. Both went on to establish their own highly successful design firms.
In 1930, Stanley teamed up with another young man who’d just left Cornell University, Robert Trent Jones, opening an office in New York. It was from here that Thompson’s American partner drew the routing plan for Capilano in Vancouver, as well as planning several South American layouts that Stanley’s brother-in-law had brokered during business trips to Brazil. Thompson’s association with Trent Jones ended just before the outbreak of World War II, when they went their separate ways.
Norman H. Woods, another OAC graduate, joined Stanley’s company in the early 1930s and worked for him for more than twenty years, helping with around fifty assignments. After Thompson’s death, Woods created his own design company and went on to work on approximately two hundred commissions, mainly in British Columbia.
Geoffrey Cornish also worked with Stanley Thompson in two spells, pre- and post-World War II, before he set up on his own in 1952. He would go on to design literally hundreds of courses, mainly in the New England states, and publish several books on golf course architecture, including the seminal classic The Golf Course, which he wrote with Ron Whitten.
Bob Moote, yet another product of the University of Guelph (formerly the OAC), graduated in 1947 then took up employment with Stanley’s company for five years until he left the profession for a while. After helping Robbie Robinson with a third nine at Oakdale, he became the club’s superintendent, a position he held for twenty years before he returned to the design business in 1976.
Stanley was one of a syndicate that purchased the Cutten Fields Golf Club in 1939 and his brother Frank was installed as club manager the following year. His widowed sister then replaced Frank in 1942. Stanley’s brother Frank retired as a professional and became his sister Isabel’s assistant so there was quite a Thompson presence at the Cutten Club.
An old farmhouse next to the 13th fairway was converted into a home and office (called the Dormie House) which Stanley’s family accessed by a road he named “Vardon Drive”.
Regrettably, Stanley didn’t manage his financial affairs as well as he might have and it’s said that he made at least three fortunes and lost all of them during his career. He died of a brain aneurysm, on his way from Toronto to a job in Bogota with his second wife Helen just after New Year in 1953, owing enormous sums in taxes to the federal government. Like both Alister MacKenzie and A. W. Tillinghast, he left behind one or two unpaid bills.
Stanley Thompson was a founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects in 1948, becoming its President the year after. Trent Jones (1950-1), Watson (1958-9), Robinson (1961-2 & 1971-2) and Cornish (1975-6) all served terms as presidents of the ASGCA so it can truly be said the Thompson school of architecture played its part in the development of the golf course design profession of North America.
In Stanley Thompson and Icons of Canada: A History and a Biography, author James M. Harris lists a total of 220 courses attributed to Stanley Thompson at the back of the book. Harris then removes 42 courses with duplicate names (or ones included by mistake, for one reason or another). A further 23 are omitted as they were designed by others, then 8 Robert Trent Jones layouts are excluded, along with 7 that were planned but never built. A further 19 courses are left off the final list as only minor work was carried out, leaving a total of 121 bona fide Stanley Thompson layouts in Canada (102), USA (13), Brazil (4), Colombia (1) and Jamaica (1). A total of 26 courses no longer exist.
The Golf Course by Geoff Cornish and Ron Whitten has this to say about the architect: “Thompson, nicknamed ‘The Toronto Terror,’ was one of the more colourful figures in golf design history. Many close to him felt him to be a genius and recognized depth beneath his flamboyance. He made and spent fortunes. But he was also conscientious in the training of a number of assistants who later made names for themselves in course architecture.”
In Keith Cutten’s book The Evolution of Golf Course Design, the author writes: “As a designer, Thompson was known to spend countless days examining a site before finalising a routing. He believed in producing strategic golf courses, and felt that golf holes should offer a variety of routes to the green. To assist his crews when working in the field, Stanley created intricate reference models.”
In the book The Golf Courses of Stanley Thompson: Celebrating Canada’s Historic Masterpieces (2007), author Mike Bell invites a number of Canadian writers to bring the courses and stories of Stanley Thompson to life.
Hal Quinn contributed with this edited extract entitled “Thompson’s Rudimentary Tools”:
“Stanley Thompson created some of the most enduring designs in all of golf. Astonishingly, he accomplished this remarkable feat, often on some of the most challenging terrain ranging from mountainsides to seashores, with what can only be described as rudimentary tools. Thompson transformed thickly forested and hard scrabble wildernesses with horse-drawn earth scoops and man-powered shovels.
Even more remarkable, without Blackberries, laptops, digital cameras, faxes, or the internet, Thompson managed to translate his vision – hard-earned from repeatedly walking the property – from his sketch pad to his construction crews. Always an innovator – if the not the first, he was one of the first to utilize aerial photography – Thompson devised an ingenious method to not only refine his designs but to graphically illustrate them.
Long before computer models and GPS systems, range finders and £-S imaging, Thompson fulfilled their functions by crafting models of the holes and green complexes. At his office, from the sketches he drew on site, Thompson made models out of plasticine, papier mach or plaster of paris. He would even hand paint some of the models and insert twigs to represent trees and bushes.
At Dormie House [on the Cutten Club in Guelph, Ontario] he worked in a larger scale on what became known as the Sand table, which was about the size of a ping pong table. On it he sculpted the topography of the site in order to route and design holes. Thompson and his associates would take models of holes or greens in smaller boxes, measuring about one foot square, right to the site to show the construction crew the desired effect.”
Robert Thompson posed the question “Who Influenced Thompson’s Designs?” and this is an edited extract of his article:
“There can be no doubting Stanley Thompson’s greatness. His legacy founded on courses like St. George’s, Highlands Links, Capilano, Banff and Jasper is a testament to his timeless and remarkable vision for golf in Canada. To date, no other designer has managed to create such an imaginative, complex, and stunning canon of golf courses in this country. How did he develop his unique skills that would be pressed into work on his finest courses?
We know that a lot of Thompson’s early work was clearly influenced by his initial design partners, his brother Nicol and longtime Toronto Golf Club pro George Cumming. Over time, Thompson’s courses have become defined, in large part, by their bold and deep bunkering. Thompson’s bunkers present a clarity of strategy and definition that is typically witnessed in the courses of the greatest golf architects.
While Thompson’s bunkers are well known for their sand-flashed faces, this was not always the case with the designer’s work. Photos from early Thompson creations like Burlington Golf and Country Club (1924) and especially Jasper Park Lodge (1926) show plain, flat bunkers that, while they still have a degree of interest, are neither as vibrant nor outstanding as those the designer would later create.
Geoffrey Cornish, who worked alongside Thompson in the 1930s and managed the construction of Highlands Links, thinks some explanation for Thompson’s epiphany may lie in his social nature. It id Cornish’s take that Thompson regularly entertained the leading architects from the U.S. and abroad when they visited Canada. That list surely included the likes of Herbert Strong, Charles Alison, and A. W. Tillinghast.
Of this list, perhaps the American Tillinghast is the most significant. Why? Largely because there is some indication that Tillinghast’s bold bunker style was an influence on the Canadian designer. It is quite possible that Thompson’s style of bunkering was developed by witnessing Tillinghast’s work first hand. Can we be certain that Tillinghast was the primary influence on Thomson’s shift in style? In truth, there is no way to be sure.”
From the James M. Harris book Stanley Thompson and Icons of Canada: A History and a Biography: “As Stanley’s career as a golf course architect evolved he increasingly crossed paths with the wealthy, the famous, the visionary, the eccentric, the influential, the regal, the powerful and the out-and-out oddballs of his time. In the process he began to assume a persona that was larger than life.
However, part of the mythic fascination with Stanley is also the result of some reminiscent interviews with reports done late in his career wherein he impishly dangled tidbits of what seemed to be outlandish tall tales. He also became well known for regaling friends and acquaintances with his stories.
When the aphorism of ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ is added to the mix, it is understandable how Stanley is sometimes portrayed in his late career as a boozy, clownish, cartoon of a character who delighted in contriving, concocting and fabricating fanciful but imaginary yarns from whole cloth.
The irony of it all is that the yarns Stanley spun are in fact true stories. Stanley was a gifted and colourful storyteller who had no need to confabulate because his real life was filled with events that are even more than fascinating enough in their telling and retelling. What is most unfortunate is that Stanley died suddenly and relatively young, leaving us wanting more of the true stories that he never got the chance to tell.
Stanley was always debonair, a lover of a finely cut new suit, a raconteur, witty, creative, and whimsical. He was a man who did not suffer fools gladly but more than anything he was a man who made ‘no little plans’. Geoffrey Cornish described him as a visionary. Despite their unusual and potentially testy partnership, Stanley and Robert Trent Jones remained firm friends over the many years.
Stanley was generous to a fault to those in need whenever he could be, but he also recognized that his work often catered to the wealthy in society. He was an artist with the landscape of Canada as a canvas. The works of many great artists who painted on a canvas are privately held and are not accessible to the public. Others are held by public institutions and open for anyone to view. Similarly with Stanley Thompson, while some of his courses are private, a large number of them (and some of his very best) are fully open to the public.
To help preserve the tradition and character of the golf courses designed by Stanley Thompson, admirers from across Canada formed The Stanley Thompson Society in 1998 (and) the society meets once a year at one of Stanley’s golf courses.”
About Golf Courses: Their Construction and Up-Keep by Stanley Thompson (1923)
The Toronto Terror by James A. Barclay (2000)
The Golf Courses of Stanley Thompson: Celebrating Canada’s Historic Masterpieces by Mike Bell (2007)
Stanley Thompson and Icons of Canada by Dr. Jamie Harris (2018)