Golf is a global game. In 2021 The Masters at Augusta National had its first ever Japanese winner. Participation figures are up, club memberships are trending in the right direction and golf equipment sales are higher than ever as players look to technology to gain that extra 10%. But golf’s roots are traced back to some very humble beginnings in Scotland hundreds of years ago. Why is Scotland referred to as The Home of Golf? Let us examine how Scotland shaped the game we know and love today.
In Scotland in the 1600's, a ball and stick game was becoming more popular among the ordinary townspeople. The sport developed and was being played on The Links at sites including Leith Links, Bruntsfield Links, St Andrews and Dornoch. There was no standard club design, rules were unclear and early courses all had different numbers of holes. The Old Course in St Andrews was made up of 22 holes until 1764, when golfers came to the unanimous decision to combine the first 4 short holes into 2. Thus, creating what we know as the standard 18-hole course template copied throughout the world.
Forget your top-of-the-range Taylor Made clubs with titanium club heads and graphite shafts. Back in the 1700s golfers would have a set of three or four wooden clubs made of ash or hazel bound with a leather strap and one iron or bunker club. In 1893, Scottish blacksmith and founding member of Baberton Golf Course in Edinburgh, Thomas Horsburgh, made the first steel shaft. His revolutionary concept led to the development of hollow steel shafts as well as the modern swing technique we know so well.
The featherie is the most famous of all golf balls made by the likes of John Gourlay in 18th century Edinburgh. It was made from mostly wet goose feathers wrapped and stitched in 3 pieces of leather and painted white. From the mid-19th century the featherie was finally replaced by The Guttie, created by Scottish divinity student Robert Adam Paterson using gutta percha, a dried gum resin moulded into a ball. The Guttie was much cheaper to make than featheries and helped widen golf to the masses.
The first set of 13 Rules of Golf were drawn up in 1744 in Edinburgh for the world's first 'open' golf competition at Leith Links by the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh. This club went on to become The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who are now based at Muirfield. In 1754 St Andrews golfers adopted the Leith Rules and thereafter The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews became the sport’s governing body, before The R&A in modern times.
Breaks in the ground formed on The Links usually started by cattle, sheep or rabbits and were widened by weather. Golfer’s balls were magically attracted to these scarred areas and repeated play deepened them into a circular pot shaped hazard. These pot bunkers are now a classic design feature on our most traditional links courses including St Andrews, Gullane, Royal Aberdeen and Montrose but have been copied wherever golf has spread throughout the world.
Old Tom Morris
Old Tom Morris was the founding father of golf being a highly skilled player, equipment maker, instructor, greenkeeper and course designer. A St Andrews man with a stint in Prestwick, Old Tom was “The Great Keeper of the Links” and was paid a part time salary to make the holes, look after the flags, tidy bunkers and mend the turf by top dressing greens with sand to fill out rabbit scrapes and damaged areas.
Old Tom Morris was truly the first of the great golf course designers and built or redesigned courses that are synonymous with Scottish golf to this day, including: The Old Course, Prestwick, Crail, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch, Carnoustie and Cruden Bay. In June 2021 Old Tom Morris would be celebrating his 200th Birthday. There are a host of celebrations being put on by St Andrews Links Trust and the brand-new Tom Morris Bar & Grill in the Links Clubhouse celebrates the life and influence of the Grand Old Man of Golf.
Teeing up The Ball
Originally golfers made tees with a mound of sand by scooping out the mixture from a box with their hands. This was messy and towels and water were provided to wash the golfers' hands as they are today to wash golf balls. Some old courses had boxes to replenish the sand removed from holes and you can still see these historic sand boxes at Elie Golf Club also known as Earlsferry Links. The world’s first patented golf tee was invented by two Scots in 1889: William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas. They were both members of the Tantallon Golf Club in North Berwick. This was a small rubber slab resting on the ground with three vertical rubber prongs.
Pint in the 19TH Hole
Golfhall overlooking the historic Bruntsfield Links is the world’s first golf clubhouse dating back to 1717. The building was later known as The Golf Tavern. It was in these Inns that golfers held meetings, placed bets, drank and sang. The publicans sold balls and hired out clubs. Today The Golf Tavern is still in operation as a pub and rents out golf clubs for one of Scotland’s very few free public golf courses on the 36 Hole short hole course at Bruntsfield Links.
The Open Championship
Old Tom Morris and a group of 7 other golfers competed for the first Open Championship with 3 rounds on the 12 Hole Course at Prestwick Golf Club, Ayrshire on 17 October 1860. Willie Park of Musselburgh triumphed with a score of 174 and took home the prize of a red morocco leather belt with silver clasps. The 150th staging of The Open will take place in July 2022 at The Old Course St Andrews. Modern day golfers compete for The Claret Jug which was introduced in 1872 and replaced The Belt after Young Tom Morris won the Open three consecutive times from 1868-1870 and took ownership of The Belt.
Scottish Golf History, Neil Laird 2021. www.scottishgolfhistory.org
Golf Scotland’s Game, David Hamilton, The Patrick Press 1998.
Prestwick Golf Club www.prestwickgc.co.uk