By Gerry Dahms and Mike Rainone
For the News
The majestic Ponoka Community Golf Course is situated amongst the lush rolling hills of the once glacier-filled Battle River Valley just southeast of town. Over the past 72 years the now challenging 18-hole layout has been fashioned in the shadows of the Centennial Centre and is still surrounded by an abundance of wildlife as well as the natural beauty of grassy sand dunes and mature trees of all species and multi-colours around which it was originally carefully designed.
History tells us that the usually gentle game of golf was likely developed in Scotland about 1100 from a very early Roman game called Paganica. The first players used a bent stick to hit a leather ball filled with feathers, but as the sport really caught on in the late 1800s someone invented the gutta-percha, which was a little ball with a liquid filled centre. As the game became very popular all over the world, tournaments for professionals were paying out rich prize purses totaling $10,000, and now of course more people than any other sport play golf. The bent clubs still exist to this day, but those have usually come in contact with a tree or other immovable objects after a botched shot.
What many avid golfers still refer to as ‘the best kept secret in Central Alberta,’ the humble beginnings of the Ponoka Community Golf Course likely came somewhere during the beginning of the dirty ‘30s. After earlier planning sessions between Provincial Mental Hospital staff and town officials in 1930-31, volunteers worked hard to put together three holes on the hospital property just north of the hospital to try out the game. An application was eventually made by an interested local group of 13 on Aug. 23, 1935 for the proposed Ponoka Community Golf Club Society to establish, construct and operate a golf course. The first club was officially registered on March 7, 1936 and an executive was formed, led by initial president Dr. Randall R. MacLean, an ardent local sportsman and medical superintendent who would enthusiastically go on to serve in an active and honorary position until 1957.
A longstanding agreement was then drawn up between the Golf Club and the Provincial Mental Health Board to use the 90 plus acres of natural land just north of the hospital for a yearly fee of $1. The first Ponoka Community Golf Club began as an exclusive club, with new members only allowed to join and play by invitation. As a part of the agreement employees of the Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka were allowed to play on the course, and a very competitive but friendly rivalry was quickly kindled with the town golfers. Good etiquette was always practiced during play and scoring was of course an honesty policy, even though there were always a few friendly wagers.
Of course the initial manicuring of the new course was extremely slow, as there was very little equipment available and the members did most of the groundwork and planning with some help from the staff and patients of the busy hospital. In the early days the grass was kept in trim by a herd of organized sheep, then later a Ford tractor was purchased to pull a mower, with the cardinal rule being that the course was cut only when necessary. The first nine holes were completed in 1936 and while membership began to grow quickly, wages were very low in those days, expenses had to be kept to a minimum, and green fees were only 25 cents.
With many of the town and district men away during the war years the ladies got involved in the golf course in the 1940s, assisting with all facets of the operation, enjoying the keen play and eventually forming their own club. They also helped to decorate the first official clubhouse; a quaint little 12’ by 12’ building that was purchased and hauled into town in the 1940s. It was renovated and painted and stood as a friendly welcoming spot for many years on the hill between the ninth green and the first tee, adjacent to the hospital road, where the main entrance and parking lot was situated. It was replaced later by a new clubhouse, but still stands amongst the trees in the same area, and is used as a storage shed. The initial sand greens were used for many years on the course, were always kept well oiled, and had to be constantly leveled and raked as groups of players moved through. It was a supreme volunteer effort that kept the course running smoothly and in top shape in the early years, as the first official employee was not hired until 1954.
The growth and popularity of the Ponoka Community Golf Club has been tremendous over the past 70 plus years, starting out with a membership of around 60 in the 1940s to over 600 at the present time. With the ongoing support of the membership and community, the extreme dedication and planning of the board of directors and the outstanding efforts of the talented staff, many exciting and successful changes, additions and improvements have been made. Please watch for the next chapter of this historical story in a future issue of Reflections in your Ponoka News.