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Backspin: 120 Years of Golf in British Columbia

By Arv Olson

Review By Elizabeth Jewett

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 148-149

Arv Olson’s second edition of Backspin expands readers’ acquaintance “with accounts of some of the people, places, and events” that shaped the 120 year history of golf in British Columbia (11). A journalist and golf enthusiast, Olson writes for a popular audience that seeks detailed, anecdote-driven prose. The book’s chapters begin with brief, focused synopses and then turn quickly to chronologically and thematically arranged local tales about individual courses, players, and professionals from around the province.

The first chapters survey the geographical distribution and transformation of golf courses in British Columbia, beginning with the Victoria area and then moving to Vancouver and the Interior. In these regional stories, Olson highlights the unique “personalities” of certain golf courses. For example, early in the history of the Victoria Golf Club, the golf season had to fit around the grazing needs of sheep and cows (23). The expansion of the golf course at Port Alice eventually led to its encirclement of St. Paul’s Anglican Church (78). Throughout these individual histories, Olson traces common trends including golf course expansion, the financial ups and downs of individual golf clubs, the role of local environments, and the importance of local professional and amateur players in propelling the regional growth of golf.

Later chapters in Backspin focus on British Columbian golf personalities such as Stan Leonard and the Black family, and on golf tournaments that brought together golfers from around the world. A welcome addition to this edition is a brief chapter on caddies and on architects, including Arthur Vernon Macan, that introduces the reader to two important aspects of the sport that Olson argues have been overlooked (269). Broad themes include the establishment of a community of golfers and enthusiasts and the complex social, economic, political, and environmental realities of the British Columbia golf world, which are intimately connected to a wider narrative of Canadian transformation. However, these complexities are never discussed to their fullest extent. For example, his narrative often broaches the influential role of Scottish-Canadian heritage in the establishment and expansion of golf in the province, especially among golf professionals. Olson, at times, observes the hindrances and successes of non-Anglo-North American golfers throughout the province’s golfing history, including the career of Victoria Golf Club’s first Chinese golfer, Sung Wai; the ethnic discrimination witnessed by Ben Colk as head pro at Langara on the eve of World War Two; and the success of Eugene Wong, who was named as PAC-12 Men’s Golfer of the Year for 2012. Yet the reader is left to ponder the deeper meanings behind the racial barriers and social exclusion that existed within British Columbia’s golfing history. In a similar vein, Olson tells the stories of several white women, like Violet Pooley Sweeny, who helped bolster golf in the province, but issues of gender are never explicitly analyzed.

Throughout the text, Olson’s love of golf shines through. His narrative is supported by detailed research and his stories are brought to life with well-chosen images. Olson’s acknowledgements speak to his familiarity with the people and subjects detailed in the book. Scholars might desire to know more specifically where Olson collected this fascinating material, but the book’s emphasis is on the players and their compelling stories, and Backspin is a welcome addition to a growing number of Canadian regional golf histories. Olson brings a valuable local perspective which, when coupled with national narratives such as those by James Barclay, provides useful insights for the sport historian and golf buff alike into the complex and lively history of golf in both British Columbia and Canada.

Backspin: 120 Years of Golf in British Columbia 
By Arv Olson
Victoria: Heritage House, 2012. 432 pp, $28.95 paper
(First published in 1992 by Par Four Publishing as Backspin: 100 Years of Golf in British Columbia).

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.