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Professional Golf’s First ‘Entrepreneur' Willie Park Jnr

Ernie Els

With his struggles with the game well documented in recent years, you’d have forgiven Ernie Els for kicking back for just a little while to soak up the enormity of his achievement at Lytham, climbing the mountain again to record a fourth Major win and a second Open Championship ten years after his first.

Truth is, Els spent very little time enjoying the fruits of his la- bour. He travelled from the Lancashire coast to his home in London for a night of celebrations with his family and some close friends, then backed up admirably on a few hours’ sleep for media interviews the next morning before catch- ing a flight to Canada to honour a commitment to play in the RBC Canadian Open – one of the oldest national championships in world golf and sponsored by one of the myriad of companies also associated with Els.
During that week, I received the latest e-newsletter from ‘Ernie Els Inc’, which made modest reference to his 4th Major Championship victory but focussed more intently on the diverse business interests that form part of the ‘empire’ of the man known as ‘The Big Easy’. His interests include everything from his ‘Els for Autism’ and Fancourt charitable foundations, golf course design projects throughout the globe, even his own wine label. In fact, the similarities in his business interests and those of another blonde, globetrot- ting superstar and two-time Open Champion - Greg Norman - are uncanny.

These days however, every high ranking player who draws a club back is a businessman on some level. For the elite, the world has been their oyster for many generations and the expansion of the game as a business is often sourced back to the dual influences that the emergence of television and Arnold Palmer had from the late 1950s.
Prior to those times, the ‘PGA Tour’ professional had to sup- plement their meagre tournament winnings from a range of means. Many held down club professional jobs, gave lessons and played in exhibition matches to earn a living. Beginning from the Palmer era, the business of golf expanded enormously to provide today’s players with the opportunity to dabble in the traditional product endorsement model but also in real estate developments, golf course design, electronic goods, the various electronic mediums, turf grass and like Els and others, even the wine industry in more recent times. Long before steel shafted clubs and balata balls were even pipe dreams however, no less an entrepreneurial spirit existed in the game in the late 19th century.

Willie Park Junior

Willie Park Junior

Many champion players of the day used their profile to eke out a living while others saw a niche that needed filling as the game’s popularity started to take off and became what we could describe as the game’s first entrepreneurs. Long before steel shafted clubs and balata balls were even pipe dreams however, no less an entrepreneurial spirit existed in the game in the late 19th century.

One of the earliest British Open champions, Willie Park Jnr of Scotland, is one such example. He is arguably professional golf’s first global ‘entrepreneur’ and certainly one of its first true golf course architects, in a time before the ‘Golden Age’ of course design that spawned a revered group of names like Dr Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, A.W Tillinghast and Seth Raynor in the early 20th century.
Park Jnr’s father, Willie Park Snr, won the first Open Champi- onship at Prestwick in 1860 and went on to win three more times before starting a successful golf equipment company, supplying custom - made clubs and balls. Park Jnr would follow in his father’s footsteps (and also Uncle Mungo Park’s, winner of the 1874 Open) by also winning the Open Championship on two occasions in 1887 and 1889. Although he competed in many Opens, his business flair was evident at an early age as he took his father’s equipment business to another level by setting up offices across Britain and exporting their wares internationally. Park Jnr is also responsible for penning the world’s first book written by a professional golfer, 1896’s ‘The Art of Golf’ – reprints of which are still in circulation today – and immersing himself in a career that would consume him for most of the years until his death in 1925: golf course design.

Park’s Jnr’s name may not be a household name to many today but the names of some of his golf courses are well known the world over. The Old Course at Sunningdale Golf Club in London was one of his earliest designs and perhaps his most famous, along with Olympia Fields (site of four Majors including the 2003 U.S. Open won by Jim Furyk), the Maidstone Club on Long Island, NY, Royal Antwerp in Belgium and Weston Golf & Country Club in Toronto. Weston played host to the 1955 Canadian Open and has the honour in perpetuity as the site of Arnold Palmer’s first professional victory in that championship.

Golf Course

Interestingly, Park Jnr laid out his first golf course at age 22 at Innerleithen, south of Edinburgh, before he won the first of his Open Championships. Apparently he did not charge a fee for his services but instead franchised the provision of the family business’ clubs and balls to the members. The 9 hole course remains to this day much as Park Jnr designed it, in fact, many of his golf courses from these times have remained virtually untouched in a testament to the flair and skill of his designs.
The entrepreneurial streak that was in full flight at Inner- leithen at a young age would flourish in earnest following his second Open triumph in 1889. Park’s days as a player were quickly replaced by a huge demand for his design services and he was engaged in projects across the length and breadth of Great Britain. It would not take long before the temptation of the vast opportunities being presented in the United States and Canada became too much to resist and he moved to North America from the late 1890s.
By the time failing health ended his career in 1923, Park Jnr was credited with some 170 course designs in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America and a reputation as one of the first pioneers of modern golf course architecture. He passed away in Scotland from a long and debilitating illness in 1925 at age 61.
His high profile course designs live on and continue to host championship golf to this day, but many other brilliant courses including Le Club Laval-Sur-Le-Lac, Huntercombe, Mount Bruno, Kilspindie and Notts abound.

Golf Course

Eager golf enthusiasts have the luxury of being able to Google and learn more of these early golf courses and clas- sic ‘hidden gems’ laid out by Park Jnr over a century ago. The Internet is a fantastic resource for exploration and if you have the means, our modern jet travel can whisk you away to seek out these early creations to experience Park Jnr’s diverse works of art for yourself.
How Willie Park Jnr would have loved the idea of a global community, the Internet and what the amenity of a Lear Jet could have done for him with the business acumen he used to create a thriving business empire over 100 years ago.

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