“Fore!! Look out cows!” That was the beginning of golf in St. Marys around 1924. Avid golfers struggled with a primitive nine hole layout on pasture and farmland west of the cemetery which today is much of the town’s southeast ward. Struggling with unplayable lies and waiting for crops to come off, the diehards looked for other alternatives to be able to enjoy their game. The closest courses at the time were in Stratford and London, but popping over for a quick nine or eighteen holes in the late twenties was all but unheard of. Their attention turned to the scenic valley property at the very east end of town. After a failed attempt to organise in I927 due to cost, the dedicated group tried again in the fall of 1931 to start a St. Marys Club. This time there was enough interest among future members to raise $40,000 in shares needed to make the down payment on Ralph Ainslie’s land and take on the task of converting the pasture to a nine hole course. With the helpful advice of professionals Curly Marsh from the London Hunt Club, Scotty Innis of the Thames Valley Club and James Cook of the Stratford Country Club a nine hole layout was decided upon for the valley, which over eighty years later is almost identical to the back ‘Ainslie Nine’ of the existing course. Blessed with great weather that fall and the energy of seventeen men happy to be employed during the Great Depression, even at 30 cents an hour, work on tee blocks and greens progressed quickly. In early May of 32, the directors authorised the construction of a club house for $2100. Although primitive by today’s standards, it was essentially a cottage with a screened veranda on the west and north sides. A small caddy shack was attached to the east end. As you see in the adjacent picture it might not look like much, but it served the needs of the course for the next thirty years. In the 30’s it was often used for afternoon teas, bridge socials and club dances as well as the location of spring and summer weekly Rotary meetings. By Dominion Day, July 1, 1932 the St. Marys Golf Course was ready for its official opening.
The euphoria of having a local golf course would however begin to wane after several years. The most important reason was that the golf course venture had been undertaken at the height of the Depression, which dragged on longer than most expected. A $45 family membership seems like chump change to us but in 1935 it could be close to 10% of many families’ yearly income. In retrospect, the other misstep was the directors’ approach to a members’ only club. There was a green fee rate of 50 cents weekdays and 75 cents on Sunday for visitors to the club, but wishing to copy a “country club style” of courses like the London Hunt Club, the directors put in place a policy prohibiting St. Marys residents and anyone within an eight mile radius from being able to take advantage of the green fee play. However, unlike London, St. Marys did not have the population base to produce enough people with the income sufficient to afford the membership costs. Continuing to run into financial difficulty year after year, in 1939 they relaxed the policy finally opening the course to public play and its potential revenue. The final unforeseen event leading to financial disaster, however, was the outbreak of W.W. II. With a whole generation of young men headed off to war and parents left at home with worry, the outlook for a recreational activity like golf became bleak.
After the war, the course had all but reverted to pasture. The directors sublet the running of the club to private individuals with little success. Finally, in 1949, unable to pay the mortgage on the property, the shareholders turned in their valueless shares and the St. Marys Lions Club, seeing the value of a community golf course, took over the reins. A rental lease agreement was arranged with Ralph Ainslie, to whom the land ownership had reverted after the mortgage default. Using the Lions’ influence as a respected organization, a bank loan was obtained for start-up costs and much needed equipment. The St. Marys Golf Club was thus reborn as a public course and prospered for the next 15 years.
The need for a new clubhouse had been evident for many years and in 1963 the Lions proposed a new shares agreement to raise funds for a combined golf clubhouse and curling rink. Community support for the $1,000 shares was outstanding, the construction began and on Dec. 4, 1964 the existing clubhouse officially opened. Following the opening, the Lions Club turned over the building and running of the golf course to the directors of the new non-profit corporation of the St. Marys Golf & Curling Club for the sum of $1.00. During the 60’s and 70’s the course operated with few difficulties. However in the 80’s pressure grew to develop a full 18 holes. In 1987 an opportunity presented itself with the chance to buy the farm to the north of the existing first three holes of the course. This farm had been owned at one time by the Ainslie family ancestors. Of Scottish descent, in the 1800’s they had named the farm Gowanbrae, “hill of flowers”, and the term would remain today as the name of the front nine. The directors offered ‘special shares’ to swing the deal and once again the ardent golfers of the community came forward to attain the objective. Over the next four or five years the directors wrestled with the problem of financing the development of a new nine on the acquired land. Unfortunately the club was faced with a Catch 22 situation. As a nine hole course, St. Marys was losing money competing with an ever growing number of 18 hole courses in the area. But to undertake a staggering debt to buy the old nine land and develop a new nine, would also lead to financial ruin. In 1993, with bank foreclosure imminent, a local private group of individuals proposed an idea that would ultimately usher in a new era for St. Marys golfers.
In August of 1993, David Ainslie, the owner of the existing ‘old course’, was approached by local entrepreneurs Rob Staffen and Ted Courtnage about joining in a partnership to buy and expand the course to 18 holes, running it as a private venture. Just as his father had assisted with the course set up over 60 years before, David joined the new team to help assure that a course would survive. Rob’s father, Earl Staffen, would be another major investor. The ownership group would also include Rick and Sandy Fifield. Rick, with fifteen years of experience both at Mitchell and previously at St. Marys, would be the club’s general manager. Sandy, who had proven her outstanding talents at golf beautification with the Mitchell Club, would be the new greens superintendent. On August 19, Rob and Ted met with the shareholders of the existing club. In essence, their proposal to become the new owners of the club included assuming the debts of the existing club, repaying any special shares still outstanding and making the development of an 18 hole course the priority in the first year. The shareholder vote to ratify the sale was a resounding 457 to 2 in favour.
Just as in 1931, things happened quickly. Golf architect David Moote was retained to design the new nine and slightly modify the existing nine. The result would be a challenging, scenic 6,500 yard, par 72 course. Construction on the $1,000,000 project began in the fall of 1993 and on June 15, 1995 the new 18 hole, St. Marys Golf & Country Club opened to public play.
Under the new ownership the next 20 years brought many course improvements to meet the challenges of expanding to 18 holes and an increasingly competitive golf market. Cart paths were built to handle the club’s fleet of carts. In 1997 a major renovation of the club house was undertaken, including the construction of a banquet hall to accommodate the larger tournaments associated with an 18 hole course. Numerous greens and tee blocks on the old Ainslie Nine, dating back to 1931, were reconfigured or rebuilt. In 2006 the spectacular ‘Ted’s Pond’ garden, water fall and pond was officially opened as a tribute to Ted Courtnage who died unexpectedly in 2004.The water feature was a stunning addition to the area around #9 & #16 but more important, it was a continuous reminder of Ted, a driving force in the development of the 18 hole course. Visually, probably the most striking overall difference since the inception of the full 18 holes would be the over 600 trees transplanted on both the old and new nines. Twenty years of tree growth has transformed what was an open links style course into well defined fairways, adding to the beauty and challenge of the course.
Over eighty years has passed since those impassioned golfers started their dream in the depths of the Depression. The tribute to their vision and to the dedication of the many men and women who strived to maintain and improve the course in the intervening years still remains, under the stewardship of the present owners. Not only is the St. Marys G. & C.C. a tremendous community asset helping to attract tourism and industry, but it’s still the ideal setting for every enthusiast wanting great golf and camaraderie.
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