The surname Servos is quite prominent in the history records of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Few, though, know of Launcelot Cressy Servos, golf professional, golf instructor, golf course designer, author and playwright.
Launcelot C. Servos was born in October 1879 in Buffalo, N.Y. He was the great-great grandson of Daniel Servos (1748), who served with Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War.
Servos’ parents, John Dase Servos and Hannah Catherine (Lowe) Servos, returned to Niagara when their only child was one year old.
In 1875, the Niagara Golf Club was founded and a nine-hole course was developed on the military reserve lands near Fort Mississauga. Then, in 1882, another nine-hole golf course was opened on the Fort George Commons.
At an early age, golf became a lure for Servos. There is no true accounting of when he started playing the game of golf, but it can be speculated that as a young boy he would have found summer employment as a caddy at both of the town’s golf courses. As caddies, they would have had the opportunity to play later in the day when golf members were finished.
In 1896, the Niagara Golf Club proposed an international golf tournament with players from Canada, England and the United States participating. However, there was a small problem because in 1888 the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Scotland determined that a tournament had to be played on 18 holes, not nine. So it was decided that the tournament in Niagara would have to be played on both golf courses.
There is a delightful story of why the Royal and Ancient Club decided 18 was the right number of holes to be played. It is said that after each hole, a player was to drink a shot of Scotch whisky. The entire bottle would be empty after 18 shots. I am not sure if any golfer could have continued playing golf if those bottles had been any bigger.
In January 1897 there is one report by the New York Times from Magnolia Springs Golf Club of a “long ball” driving contest; the best shot was 187 yards, with Servos coming in second with a drive of 186 yards.
Later, in September of 1897, during the International Tournament here in Niagara (now NOTL), the first event was an open handicap where Servos had a net score of 82, giving him an easy victory.
The Belleview Hotel in Tampa, Fla., decided to build a golf course in 1898 and Servos designed all 12 holes of the course. Historians in Florida have recorded that Servos was responsible for the very first golf course to be built in Florida.
On Jan. 29, 1899, the New York Times reported that Launcelot Cressy Servos was one of the few American-born professional golfers on the circuit. It went on to explain how Servos crafted his skills on the courses in Niagara.
Then, in January 1900, at the U.S. Open in Tampa, Servos made the longest drive in the contest. His 230-yard shot earned the prize purse of $10. In June of that year, as reported by the Boston Evening Transcript, Servos’ drive was beaten by Harry Varden with a distance of 250 yards. It must be noted that this was a time before golf balls had dimples on them (1905) and before American rubber manufacturers put a rubber core in the golf ball. Both of these changes to the ball increased the distance it could be driven.
The Guinness Book of Records validated the longest drive in golf history in 1974 at the Winterwood Golf Course in Las Vegas, Nev., when Mike Austin drove a ball 516 yards. To this day, his record has not been beaten.
By 1901, Servos was classified as a golf instructor and gave lessons at courses throughout New England in the summer and Florida in the winter. He was also sponsored by Noyes Brothers golf club manufacturers, which gave him opportunities to travel to even more golf courses throughout the United States. Although he travelled extensively, Servos still maintained a residence on Gate Street with his mother in Niagara.
In 1904, at the Mountain Golf Club in Florida, Servos set a record for a single round of 18 holes with a score of 75. Later that year, he lowered his own record when he shot a 69.
In 1905, Servos turned his talents to writing with “Practical Instruction in Golf.” The book was published and sold for $2 and continued to be sold into the 1930s. There were many chapters, such as the stance, the grip, the swing and an unusual one titled “Fat Man’s Swing.”
Then, in the 1920s, Servos turned his talents to playwriting. He produced small operettas for radio shows and for theatre. His first was “Builders of an Empire,” which told the story of the United Empire Loyalist in Niagara.
In 1923, Servos wrote his second golf book titled “The Professional Golfer.” Then in 1924 he wrote two more operettas, “Laura Secord” and “The Golden Dog,” which had a very different story line from William Kirby’s book “Le Chien d’or.” In 1927, Servos’ book “Frontenac and the Maid of the Mist” was published. It is a whimsical love story about the wife of a captain during the War of 1812 and her fascination with Niagara Falls. Servos went on to write several more stories and operettas in his lifetime.
Launcelot C. Servos has been lauded as one of the most successful golfers in the early days of the game. In 1938, the October edition of Golfdom Magazine stated: “When a man has given more than 75,000 golf lessons in the past 40 years, he is likely to give a pretty definite idea of how to teach the game. This is very definitely true of L.C. Servos, who laid out Miami’s first golf course in 1898 and who has been active in the teaching and promotion of the game ever since.”
In 1940, columnist Allen Anderson quoted Tom Meany (a sports writer with the New York World Telegram): “Launcelot C. Servos, veteran Canadian professional golfer has lowered records of no fewer than 316 courses.”
On May 11, 1969, Launcelot Cressy Servos died at the Pine Tree Nursing Home in Toronto. He is buried in St. Mark’s Cemetery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, beside his mother.
Unfortunately Servos does not appear in any of the records of the Canadian PGA because he had joined the U.S. PGA. However, we do have a Canadian sports hero in our midst and Launcelot C. Servos should be recognized for his accomplishments.
I wish to thank Doug Phibbs for providing the research on Launcelot Cressy Servos.
More Niagara’s History Unveiled articles about the past of Niagara-on-the-Lake are available at: www.niagaranow.com