Obituary: George Wilson Small, greenkeeper/golf professional

George Small: One of the last people to have held the dual greenkeeper/golf professional roles
George Small: One of the last people to have held the dual greenkeeper/golf professional roles
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Born: 1 November, 1927, in Drumeldrie, Fife. Died: 11 September, 2015, in Galashiels, aged 87

George Small, who has died aged 87, was a well-known greenkeeper/golf professional and one of the last of that breed. Nowadays, the dual position is virtually unknown but George held it with distinction for 30 years at Ladhope golf course, Galashiels, between 1960 and 1990. For more than 50 years he was a member of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), making him one of their longest standing members.

His career path was almost set out for him from an early age as he was brought up at the Ladhope course where his father Robert was greenkeeper/professional between 1928 and 1960, when George succeeded him.

There was something of a family dynasty in this as George’s brother Elliot was a greenkeeper for 39 years, mostly at Tulliallan, while his son Craig, currently 19 years at Wentworth in that capacity, has completed 30 years at different clubs. So far, the family has contributed more than 140 years service to the sport .

Another family golfing distinction occurred in 1953 at Glenbervie when George won the scratch trophy at the annual Scottish Greenkeepers’ Association championship, while another brother Alex won the handicap event, a “double” that has never since been repeated. Further underlining the family’s affinity to golf, a sister Jessie was also an accomplished amateur player.

George was a gifted golfer when younger, playing off a 1 handicap before turning professional. Once he began his duties at Ladhope, he had less time to play, although he did compete regularly in the Scottish Professional championship as well as East of Scotland Alliance competitions.

He was born in the hamlet of Drumeldrie near Elie, when his father was a greenkeeper at Lundin Links. When aged 15, George left home to become a railway fireman based in Arbroath, working for LNER. This was a hard job carried out in cramped spaces, and he and his colleagues had to contend with extremes of temperature, often in a smoke-filled atmosphere.

In 1952, he decided it was time to swap the unpleasant confines of the steam train for the wide open spaces of the golf course and he started work as a greenkeeper. The year before, he had married Rosemary Halls from Galashiels, but the happy marriage was tragically cut short.

His first posting was to Buchanan Castle golf club at Drymen, where he was assistant to well known greenkeeper Willie Bradford. By coincidence, another former railway fireman was the tournament professional there – Eric Brown, one of Scotland’s best-known golfers.

In the mid-1950s he moved to Dunbar golf club, initially as assistant greenkeeper, before being promoted to head greenkeeper and club professional. Next he moved to Ladhope, where he would spend the next 30 years. His father then emigrated to Invercargill, New Zealand to work as a golf instructor and after his death there, his ashes were brought back to be buried at Ladhope.

Being greenkeeper/professional entailed much “multi-tasking” for George, with his wife’s assistance, as he had responsibility for course maintenance, clubhouse duties, running the professional’s shop, doing club repairs and giving lessons.

Living on-site at the course meant these duties were effectively 24/7. By 1965 he was elected to membership of the PGA and he and his wife were also busy bringing up a family. Sadly, in 1968, Rosemary suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. This was an enormous blow to the whole family and George was left with the responsibility of bringing up six children.

That he did so successfully while holding down a demanding job is testament to his worth and a lasting tribute to him. Andrew Wayness CA, the Ladhope treasurer, recalled: “George was very obliging and well respected. The course was always kept in very good condition and over the years he made a number of improvements. As a teacher, he had lots of patience.”

When he retired, the local council that owned the course granted George free use of it in perpetuity, stating in a letter that “in the event of any over-zealous official questioning his entitlement, all he had to do was produce the letter”.

The Galashiels golf club, based at Ladhope, awarded him life membership and in January 1990 he was made an honorary member of the PGA. This distinction was accorded him for “services developing golf in the local community” and was a “feather in his cap”, being an honour only rarely handed out.

PGA official Peter Lloyd visited George recently and commented: “I thought he was a well-mannered gentleman of his time and we had a great chin-wag. He told me about once having played a round in a competition at Lundin Links years ago with the great John Panton, which he was very proud of. He also showed me a photo of James Braid, the five times Open winner, who had designed the Ladhope course, playing in a competition there in the 1930s.”

In retirement, as well as supporting Gala rugby club, he played golf regularly in the company of lifelong friend Bert Hood. “Our fathers had served together in the first world war and we were childhood friends. We played each week and when the Ladhope became too hilly for us we played the nine-hole course at Lilliardsedge, Jedburgh, which suited us as it was flat.

“He was looked on as a kind of father figure there and was always generous with his advice, if asked, on green-keeping and golf swings. He truly loved his golf; on being told something at a medical consultation months before he died, his first question was, ‘Can I carry on playing golf?’”

He is survived by sons David, Neil and Keith, daughters Susan, Alison and Elaine, brother Elliot, sister Jessie, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.