Stepping inside the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, one can’t help but notice the shiny brass nameplates honouring the club champions through the years.
In amongst the Derbyshires, Galways, Cruikshanks and Garretts sits the name of one golfer who has made a career in the sport for almost 40 years. Over four decades, Michael Millthorpe has rubbed shoulders with the top golfers and most recognizable celebrities around the world.
In the early 1970s, Millthorpe was a typical Canadian teenage sports-nut, playing hockey in the winter and participating in football and track and field at Grantham High School. A chance invitation to a round of golf from his Glencairn Drive, St. Catharines neighbour led him to pick up clubs for the first time. He immediately fell in love with the sport, and began playing at various courses around Niagara, including St. Davids and Queenston.
Then he was hired at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club. For only $50, he was able to play as a junior member. He would ride his bike from his north St. Catharines home to get to work, and stay to play a round of golf whenever he could.
Millthorpe quickly became a good enough golfer to start competing in local junior tournaments against some of the best young golfers in Niagara. In 1975, he decided to enter a contest for the junior boys championship at his home club.
His memory of that championship is a bit fuzzy, but the fact that Mark Derbyshire, who had won the previous two years, was now 18 years old and thus ineligible as a junior, left the field a bit more open. According to Millthorpe, a kid with the last name of Fuller was the favourite. Millthorpe put together a round of 75 to edge Fuller by two and beat the other five golfers in the junior field.
He later left the job at the NOTL Club, and began playing out of Sawmill, while continuing to compete in other junior tournaments. During this time, he discovered that local golfers Rod Spittle and Sandy Billyard, among others, had earned golf scholarships to major U.S. colleges. In those pre-internet days, Millthorpe had to work hard to find out more about those opportunities.
“I remember going one day to Brock, to the library, and going through universities and colleges that offered golf scholarships,” explains Millthorpe. “I wrote probably 30 letters to coaches asking for an opportunity. You’d give them your record, how you did in junior tournaments. Mine wasn’t the flashiest, but out of those 30 I heard from five schools, one being the University of Southern Mississippi.”
Before Grade 13 at Grantham, Millthorpe visited Southern Miss. They offered to pay for his out-of-state tuition, and if he earned a place on the golf team, they would also pay for his room and board. That sealed the deal, and in August, 1977, he flew to Hattiesburg to compete for one of 10 spots on the team.
Millthorpe’s four rounds were good enough to earn him that full-ride scholarship, and he played collegiate golf for three of his four years at Southern Miss. In his senior year, though, his involvement in fraternity life led him to lose interest in the golf team. He opted not to play that year.
During his studies at Southern Miss, a fellow fraternity member, Jack Warfield, convinced Millthorpe to volunteer with him at the Magnolia Classic, an “alternate” PGA event that at the time was played at the Hattiesburg Country Club on the same weekend as the Masters. The two worked the tournament for four years, watching some of the young stars of the PGA hone their games.
After graduating from Southern Miss in 1981, Millthorpe returned to Canada, sold his clubs and had no interest in playing the game. He later enrolled in teacher’s college at Queen’s University, graduating in 1984. He began supply-teaching locally while Warfield, in the meantime, had taken a job with the LPGA. Millthorpe received a call from his friend that May offering him a position with the LPGA as a rules official.
Millthorpe took him up on that offer, and hasn’t looked back. He continued in that position until 1990, when he was brought in as a rules official at the first American Century Celebrity Championship at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in Nevada. The field of 56 golfers that year included singers Kenny Rogers and Frankie Avalon, hall of fame quarterbacks Joe Namath and John Elway, Harlem Globetrotter Curly Neal and basketball players Danny Ainge and Michael Jordan. After two years in charge of rules, he became director of that tournament, a position he still holds today.
The following year he was hired by Jordan’s team to run the NBA legend’s own Ronald McDonald Celebrity Tournament. His career has also included stints helming the LPGA Sprint Titleholders Championship, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, and the NBC Golf Skills Championship, which in 2000 featured Jack Nicklaus squaring off against Arnold Palmer. He also was instrumental in bringing a version of the Skills Challenge to Europe, which he directed for five years.
Many of the tournaments with which Millthorpe has been involved include a celebrity element. He keeps their fame and fortune in perspective when he’s at the golf course. “They’re just regular guys who like to play golf,” he says. “They just happen to do something very well for a living.” Perhaps that attitude is one of the things that makes him so good at what he does.
Two years ago, Millthorpe was brought in to run the LPGA’s new Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The January event pairs LPGA tournament winners with celebrities, with different pots of prize money up for grabs for each field.
That tournament is convenient for Millthorpe, who has called Ormond Beach, Florida, home since 1999. Of course, he considers South Lake Tahoe, where he spends nearly two months of the year preparing for the American Century Tournament, as his second home.
The father of two girls reflects happily on a life in golf that really happened by chance and connection. He admits that if he had been hired permanently by the school board back in 1984 before Warfield called, he might not have taken the offer.
And it is a life, not just a career, in the sport. Millthorpe met his wife of 34 years, Kathy, who has been the Chief Financial Officer of the LPGA for 10 years, at a golf tournament in Houston. And daughters Hannah and Chloe have travelled around the country meeting some of their favourite celebrities, including reigning Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes and singer/actor Justin Timberlake.
Millthorpe doesn’t get back up to Canada too often, though he was planning a trip this year before the pandemic. He recently lost his 92-year-old father, who passed away this April at a long-term care home in Mississauga. The closure of the border meant he couldn’t come to be with his extended family.
At 62 years old now, he’s hoping to stay on as director of both the American Century and Diamond Resorts tournaments for five or six more years. “I don’t consider it a job,” says Millthorpe, “it’s more of a passion. But at that point, I’ll let someone else take over and they can run with it.”
The 1975 NOTL junior champion still plays a good round of golf, too. Though a knee replacement last year has slowed him down, he usually plays every Saturday and Sunday. He also competed in the Florida State Golf Association’s senior division from 2015 to 2018, finishing fourth in 2016.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed my time in golf since 1974. No one would have ever predicted it would take me where I am today.”