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Lyon reigning Olympic champ as Rio inches closer

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Tiger Woods of the United States reacts during a practice round prior to the start of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 15, 2015 in University Place, Washington. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)  - 

NORMANDY, Mo. – Two years from now, when golf rejoins the Olympic Games for the first time since 1904, records will be broken. There have been some notable improvements in technology over that span of 112 years, so it goes without much wonder that on the still unfinished course 15 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro, the world’s best players will set new Olympic marks in such categories as driving distance, total putting and, of course, scoring average.

One record, though, no matter how long golf remains a part of the Games and thrives in this role, will likely live on for eternity: Most creative gold medal presentation.

When George S. Lyon, a 46-year-old Canadian who didn’t take up the game until his late-30s, defeated H. Chandler Egan on the 34th hole of the match play final at Glen Echo Country Club the last time golf was contested, he was called to the podium to receive his award. A record-holder in the pole vault who also played baseball, cricket and tennis, Lyon was also known as a lovable jokester. He promptly stood up, then turned himself upside-down and walked on his hands to receive the golden prize. 

It’s difficult to imagine Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy replicating that feat in Brazil.

It is similarly difficult to imagine such a momentous upset. Egan was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, an astonishingly long hitter by that generation’s standards who had also won the pre-tournament long-drive contest. Comparatively, Lyon was a rube. He’d been playing golf for less than a decade, owned a bad case of chronic hay fever and worked his days as an insurance salesman.

George S. LyonIn the final match, however, it was the sturdy Lyon (pictured right; photo courtesy Golf Canada Archives) who continually outdrove his younger competitor. When Egan hooked his tee shot on the challenging 16th hole into an adjacent pond, Lyon’s par was enough for a 3-and-2 victory, one that remains celebrated to this day with a plaque on that tee box.

It was the culmination of a busy week on Glen Echo’s grounds. The schedule included the aforementioned long drive competition, team events and even a contest on a lighted putting green. The main event, however, was the men’s tournament, despite some of the game’s top players failing to show.

“The entries for the Olympic championship were rather disappointing, particularly so in those from the East,” wrote Crafts W. Higgins shortly thereafter in The Golfers’ Magazine. “The known apathy of New Yorkers for any Western event should have been taken into consideration.”

The champion understood this sentiment and offered his usual humility. After accepting the gold medal upside-down, he would later tell the Toronto Star, “I am not foolish enough to think that I am the best player in the world, but I am satisfied that I am not the worst.”

Lyon’s extended run as the reigning Olympic golf champion will soon come to an end, but the memories endure at Glen Echo. The country’s oldest 18-hole golf course west of the Mississippi River features a flag with the Olympic rings flying just inside its front gates, a torch outside its clubhouse and various forms of memorabilia scattered throughout the property.

Founded in 1901 by Col. George McGrew and his son-in-law Albert Lambert, a pharmaceuticals magnate whose family business had developed Listerine, Glen Echo was designed and built by Scottish brothers Jim and Robert Foulis, each of whom had been mentored in the trade by Old Tom Morris. Prior to the 1904 Games, McGrew and Lambert were influential in lobbying President Theodore Roosevelt to move the festivities from Chicago to St. Louis – and with it, procuring the golf proceedings at their home club.

“They didn’t do it for any kind of financial gain,” says Rob Stewart, the club’s longtime general manager. “And they didn’t get any, because shortly afterward the club ran into financial difficulties.”

Since Lyon prevailed so long ago, there have been changes around Glen Echo. The nearby farmland has been replaced by a hardscrabble neighborhood of modest brick houses. The clubhouse has moved. The first three holes have been reshaped and rerouted. The total number on the scorecard has been lengthened by nearly 300 yards.

Mostly, though, the course that exists today on the northern outskirts of St. Louis is largely the one which played host the last time the Olympics included golf. Featuring narrow targets off the tee, rolling fairways and sloped greens, Glen Echo remains a nod to the past. Not quite a land lost in time, but one which certainly knows its place in it.

No less an authority than famed course designer Pete Dye is quoted on the club’s website boasting of its virtues. “I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I wanted to,” he once said. “They wouldn’t let me build a course like this today. It’s a classic.”

Over the past century, the club has hosted a trio of LPGA tournaments – including triumphs by World Golf Hall of Fame members Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls – plus a handful of elite amateur competitions and a slew of qualifiers for other prestigious events around the country.

Its crown jewel, though, remains the Olympics. Not only is it the world’s only golf course permitted to fly the five-rings flag on its property, it endures as the oldest Olympic venue in continuous daily use, its 300 members and their guests tallying about 13,000 rounds per year on the course.

“That’s a big deal for us,” Stewart explains. “There aren’t too many places where you can actually go and play on the facility where the Olympics were contested.”

Even if the Ghost of Olympics Past occasionally makes his presence felt. Located just a mile from the house which inspired the 1973 film “The Exorcist”, Glen Echo has been rumored as a host of the supernatural for years.

As for the truth, well, it just depends whom you believe.

“Everybody has said for years that it’s haunted around here,” Stewart says with a chuckle. “Twelve years ago, we brought in – whatever you call those people, the spiritual censors to check out any paranormal activity. Now, she could have done research, but she walked around in this building and said she got the most feeling of activity over by the tennis courts. That’s where the original clubhouse was.”

Adds head professional Barrett Martens: “One of our members was sleeping here one night and she looked down and saw the lights flickering down by the pro shop. Pretty crazy stuff.”

Suspend a little disbelief and it almost sounds like the sort of prank expected from the type of guy who’d claim a gold medal while walking on his hands.

When golf is contested in the Olympics in 2016, it will be both geographically and chronologically far from George Lyon’s victory, far from the historic upset, far from Glen Echo. The first golf tournament in the Games in 112 years will take place more than 5,000 miles from the course, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a little Glen Echo in Rio.

Gil Hanse, the course designer charged with the task of producing a challenging venue in time for the competition, is open to – and even excited about – the prospect of somehow recognizing the last course on his newest site.

“Golf is such a special game and a lot of us appreciate the traditions and the history,” he explains. “Anytime you can tie what was a significant event into what is again going to be a significant event, I love to do that stuff. I just think it’s cool.

“I don’t think the grass that they have is going to grow down there, but if we can figure out a way to sneak some bunker sand down there, that might be the way to go about it. We’ll figure something out. I’d really like to do that.”

And maybe, just maybe, the winner of the Olympic golf tournament will choose to honor its longtime reigning champion in the same way. Perhaps someone will prevail at the four-round stroke-play event, then turn upside-down, walking to the medal stand on his hands in a show of respect toward the last winner at Glen Echo.

Chances are, though, it won’t happen. George Lyon’s record, the one for most creative gold medal presentation, is likely one that will remain for a long, long time to come.