History of Golf – Part 1

PRE 1400: THE ORIGINS OF THE GAME

Throughout recorded history, every civilisation has played a game with a club and a ball. Pangea for example, as described by Roman scribes, would appear to be the father both of modern hockey and the Celtic games of Shinty and Hurling.

In one form or another, the variant games of present day golf were clearly enjoyed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The game persisted over the centuries and the form that it took and rules that were applied varied as widely as the terrain the game was played over. In short, the game consisted of knocking a ball from one pre-designated place to another where the ball was to be struck off a predetermined object in the least number of blows. Games often extended from village to village.

That this game was ousted from the towns and onto the commons land beyond is one possible solution to the question of how it all began. Whatever the exact origins, it is known that by the 15th century, “kolf” as it was known in the Netherlands and “goff” as it was referred to in England, was a pastime enjoyed by Kings and Commoners alike. It’s kinship to the Great Game however, remains entirely questionable.

So widespread was the game of “Gowf”, as it was known in Scotland, that an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent the playing of the game on Sundays and thus preserve the skills of Archery. The citizens of Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Leith on Scotland’s East Coast were the principal “gowfing” miscreants and it was no coincidence that rolling sandy links land was commonplace here. On this very terrain, a game that started with a cleek and a ball took on a form that started an evolutionary process that continues to this day.

The question of how it all began may be of pressing concern to some but to the Scot, it is sufficient to know that the game was born on the links land of eastern Scotland. Here, the game has been nurtured for over five hundred years and from here, it has been raised to the great game played and loved by millions throughout the world.

1750 – 1850 : THE ROBERTSONS OF ST ANDREWS

This was the period when golf as we know it today came to be. It was in this time that many of today’s great golf clubs were founded and the leading players of the era started to gain renown. The great club-makers and ball-makers of the era began to emerge and the clubs produced by these skilled craftsmen were coveted to the extent that forgeries became commonplace.

Top players began to regularly gather for ‘meetings’ when medal and match-play rounds were organised, with distinctions made for the first time between amateur and professional players. Allan Robertson, of the famous ball-making family in St Andrews, is widely credited as being the first golf professional. But before Allan, his Grandfather Peter was described as a professional golfer and although history knows little of this man, his reputation survived him and his prowess was widely acknowledged. One epic contest in 1843 was between Allan Robertson and Willie Dunn, two of the best players of that time. The challenge was held over 20 rounds (2 rounds per day over 10 days) and it was Robertson who triumphed – two rounds up with one to play.

The Robertson dynasty in itself reflects the emergence of the great game. The family can be traced back to one Thomas Buddo, a ball-maker in St Andrews in 1610. His daughter married a Robertson and from this pair was bred the stock that led to Allan himself and along the line produced generations of ball-makers. At least four separate Robertson families employing over 25 hands were engaged in making balls in St Andrews during the mid 18th Century. Allan by the way, who died in 1859, became the first man to break 80 on what is now the Old Course in 1853.

1850 – 1890 : THE MORRIS AND PARK ERA

If golf as we know it had its birth in the dim and distant past of the 17th century and its upbringing under the Robertson family on the links of St Andrews, then its adolescence occurred abruptly between 1848 and 1852. Three highly significant events occurred in St Andrews that were to turn the game from the parochial into the global. The first of these events was the discovery of the “gutta percha” based ball, known as the “gutty” by James Patterson in 1848. More importantly, the durability of this new ball in turn encouraged the development of iron-faced clubs and so continued the process of evolution.

Then in 1852 the railway came to St Andrews and with it the progenitors of the millions who have made the pilgrimage since. Now the links was played by all and sundry throughout the year and not simply restricted to the busy spring and autumn meetings. The R&A erected it’s now famous clubhouse in consequence of the railway, scores of ex-pat colonialists retired to the town and families took up residence so that their sons could attend the University, which was gradually assuming a stature comparable with Oxford and Cambridge. If the ‘gutty’ transformed the game, the railway certainly transformed the town of St Andrews.

The third event of this period, which comes in two parts, is surely one of the most important events in the long history of the game. Every individual who has made a living out of hitting a golf ball should hold April 20th 1851 as the nativity for that was the birth date of Young Tom Morris, one of the game’s greatest early exponents. Similarly, every green-keeper, designer or administrator should express some word of gratitude on the 1st of July for it was on that day in 1851 that Old Tom Morris left for Prestwick to create the first purpose built golf course on the links of Monkton parish.

It was in 1860 that the first Open Championship was held at Prestwick and was contested by eight leading professionals. The first winner was Willie Park for which he received a red Morocco leather belt with silver clasps as the first prize. The Open continued to be held at Prestwick for 11 years and the Morris’s dominated the early events. Old Tom had won the event four times by 1867 and Young Tom subsequently completed a quartet of wins, after which he was allowed to keep the Belt.

Young Tom Morris was raised on the links of Prestwick Golf Club and it was there that he honed a game that was as revolutionary as the new iron clubs that he had purpose made by Stewart in St Andrews. Irons that were previously resorted to for a bad lie were now used for driving, lofting, jiggering and putting.

Young Tom Morris also knew his worth and he demanded and obtained a good living from the flair that he brought to the game. In this sense he was the first true modern professional golfer. There may well have been greater players since Young Tom but if there has been, few have left a greater legacy to the game.

The Morris’s accrued an incredible record, with Old Tom winning the Open in 1861, ’62, ’64 and ’67, while Young Tom won in 1868, ’69, ’70 and 72. Across the Firth of Forth in Musselburgh another family came close to matching them when Willie Park Sr. and Jr. won the Open six times between them. Willie Sr. won the first Open in 1860 and again in ’63, ’66, ’67 and ’75. His brother Mungo Park won in 1874, while Willie Jr. won in ’87 and ’89. Old Tom and Willie Sr. won all but one Open (1865) prior to the emergence of Young Tom. Both were much-loved figures and were responsible for the standards of sportsmanship with which the game is synonymous today.

1890 – 1914: THE GREAT TRIUMVIRATE

This era will always be remembered for the mark left on the game of golf by John Henry Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid. Known as the great triumvirate, they collected sixteen Open Championships between them and have left an indelible impression on the game of golf.

Harry Vardon hailed from the Channel Island of Jersey and Henry Taylor from Devon in England. The emergence of Vardon and Taylor before the end of the 19th century attests to the rapid spread and widespread play of the game. Both had already established themselves as Open Champions before they were joined by James Braid. The three between them collected 16 Open titles and 13 second-place finishes and almost completely excluded a host of great Scots players from the records of the game during that particular period of time.

John Henry Taylor won the first of his five Open titles in 1894 at St George’s in England, now Royal St George’s, while Harry Vardon pipped Taylor in a play off in 1896 to land the first of a record six titles. James Braid won his first of five Open Championships in 1901 to join Vardon and Taylor as the dominant forces of the day. Though also winning the French Open, unlike Vardon and Taylor, Braid never made the transatlantic crossing to enjoy the spoils of the newly emerged golfing scene in the USA.

While Vardon won the US Open of 1900 during a tour of America where he played in approximately 80 matches and winning 70 of them, Braid’s decision to remain at home was well rewarded as an exhibition match player. Braid also established himself in course design, building Gleneagles and Nairn to name but two of his many jewels.

What started as a trickle of Scots golfers to the US, became commonplace by the turn of the century when anyone who could swing a club on a Scots links was able to find a lucrative niche as a professional in the US. The early US Open Champions were all Scots born players who, as teachers and mentors produced players that would come to further transform the game. One notable such player was Willie Anderson from North Berwick in Scotland, who won the US Open four times including a present day record of three in a row from 1903 to 1905.

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