It’s three days after the Masters and everybody is talking about Bubba Watson, for good reasons. But I’d like to take a break from Bubba talk and Bubba golf and reflect on Gord de Laat, who was the head professional at the Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto for 30 years and who turns 95 today - April 11th.
The man is a legend. He was born in The Netherlands on April 11, 1917, three days into The Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France, where more than 10,000 Canadians lost their lives as they battled and defeated German forces for control of a key area of high ground. Seven years later, de Laat came across the Atlantic on the sister ship of the Titanic. This was 12 years after the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank.
“I remember leaving Holland and going by some land to our right,” de Laat told me today from his home in Caledon, across from the Mayfield Golf Club that he designed and that his family owns and runs. “I asked what that was, and was told it was Ireland. We were heading north. I saw these white things in the ocean. They were icebergs. From what I’ve been able to see (from watching shows on this 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking), we were in the middle of the ocean where the Titanic had gone down.”
The family landed in Halifax, and, eventually, de Laat got into golf. He started as a “B” caddy at Toronto’s Lambton club on July 1, 1928. That was the beginning of one of a life full of golf. He was working at an old club called Pine Point in Toronto when he got a call. Weston’s pro had died in the winter, and de Laat was offered the job.
“I accepted, of course, and one day I was looking out my window and I saw that they were driving stakes into the second fairway” he remembered. “That was the beginning of Highway 401.”
Soon the 1955 Canadian Open came to Weston. Arnold Palmer played, and won his first tournament as a professional. A storm arrived after the tournament. The scoreboard was still up, so de Laat wisely took down the hole-by-hole accounts of Palmer’s four rounds. He kept the scorecards in the Weston pro shop for more than 25 years.
Then de Laat was playing one day at the Royal Oak course in Titusville, Fla., which the Canadian PGA - as it was called until the recent name change - owned. In his group was a fellow from Pennsylvania. They got to talking about Palmer’s win at Weston, and de Laat told him he had the scores from the board. The fellow wrote Palmer saying that de Laat would be glad to give him the originals.
“A week later I got a letter from Palmer and sent him the original scores,” de Laat said. “He thanked me and said they were very important to him.”
That 1955 Canadian Open also played a part in de Laat’s finding the land for what would become the Mayfield club. He was busy during the Canadian Open, given that he both played and was the host pro. He took a couple of days off and saw an ad in the paper for land for sale in Caledon. He looked at the land, liked it, and bought it the day after.
“I let it sit until 1974,” he said. “Things were changing, and I thought it was time I did something with it. I drew up some holes, and went ahead with the course. We started with nine, then went to 18, and later bought another 50 acres. Now we have 27 holes. It’s the type of club I think people like to play, that the ordinary person likes to play, something they can afford to play.”
I could hear the pride in de Laat’s voice as he spoke about the course. His three sons knew how to operate a tractor, and they helped build the course. Today, on his 95th birthday, de Laat went across the street from his house to play a few holes. It should go without saying that de Laat watched Bubba Watson win the Masters.
“I sure did. Wasn’t he something?”
Gord de Laat is also something.
“Even at 95, he remains healthy, witty and full of wonderfully colourful stories," his son Christopher, a PGA of Canada pro and the director of golf and food services at Mayfield, wrote in an e-mail.
“Dad has both lived and witness a very large part of Canadian golf history. Even today, he shared a few stories with our patrons; snuck a muffin; stole a power cart and played golf! I do not believe that I am exaggerating when I tell you that he probably has more 6 holes remaining on the back nine of his life.”
A word, by the way, about the spelling of this gentleman’s last name. It’s often seen as “Delaat,” but he said the proper spelling is “de Laat,” or, “of the Laat family.” He pointed out the different way that Weyburn, Sask.’s Graham DeLaet, who plays the PGA Tour, spells his surname.
“Going back 600 years, my name was spelled the same way as his, but it got changed,” he said.
Spell it either way, but one thing is clear. Gord de Laat’s life, and his birthday, warrant celebrating. His family will do just that.
“Please forgive my bias,” Christopher wrote, “but I truly believe that he has lived an extraordinary life - both as a golf professional and as a parent. Today is certainly a very special day. Nearly our entire family, (most of the 9 children, spouses, 18 grandchildren, and 1 great grandchild) plan to have dinner in his honour, at The Royal Ambassador in Caledon.”
Happy 95th birthday, Gord de Laat.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein