Latest Articles

Archives

 

 

Articles

Excerpted from Golf in the Upstate - Since 1895, Thomas Finley, 1999, Olde Sport Publishing, Greenville, SC

 

THE EARLY HISTORY OF GOLF

Chole, Kolven, Kolf, Golfe, Goff, Golve are some of the names by which this game played with a stick and a small ball have been called. By the Nineteenth Century it had evolved into the four letter word, the one we have come to know and love as golf. Historians have scrambled around the western world for centuries attempting to discover the origin, the birthplace of this great sport. There is a smattering of controversy as to where the game was first played with evidence pointing to The Netherlands, Belgium and, of course, Scotland. There is evidence that the ancient Romans of Caesar's time also played a similar game using a feather stuffed, leather ball and sticks. Some contend this was the embryo of the game. Most historical or should I say hysterical observers believe that the first "golfer" was a Celtic shepherd, probably in Scotland, who whiled away the hours hitting stones with his staff and eventually seeking to hit the stone into a rabbit hole. Soon other shepherds would join our first golfer and try their skill at "holing out" a stone. We can imagine that over the years these shepherds would become so engrossed in their new past-time that they would overlook the fact that their sheep were now grazing in the next county.

Regardless of the true beginnings we do know that the Scottish developed the game to a point where participants used an assortment of clubs to hit a small leather ball stuffed with feathers advancing it towards the ultimate objective, a hole in the ground.. Early recorded history shows that golf was being played in Scotland because the Scottish parliament voted in 1457 to ban the game as too many soldiers were committing their time to golf rather than practicing at archery. There were additional bans in years to come including one decreed by the Church which forbade the playing of golf on the Sabbath. It seems these early Scots had gone nuts over this game they called golve. There was something really special about those "kilted kindred" from across the sea. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that golf was permitted openly as James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, took to golfing as an avid participant. He over turned the previous edicts against its play. Other Royals also adopted the game including Mary Queen of Scots, the first woman in recorded history to play the game. The House of Stuart thus endorsed the game of golf giving it a "royal" designation. The sport became the game of royalty and we can surmise that is the reason so many of the old courses in Great Britain are "Royal, Whatever the Name, Links" as in Royal Troon or Royal Dornoch.

It is without any doubt that the first true golf course was in St. Andrews, Scotland on a piece of mostly barren land adjacent to the bay by the same name. There is written evidence that golf was played on these links as early as 1552. The course was literally sculpted from the land over time by nature and with grazing sheep digging down and creating the natural bunkers as a place to avoid the cold and howling winds off the bay. It was 200 years before golf was formalized at St. Andrews when the Royal and Ancient Golf Club was founded in 1754. It was over 100 years later, in 1861, when the Royal and Ancient organized the first major competition in golf. The first "Open" was conducted at Prestwick and clubmaker, Old Tom Morris, of St. Andrews became the first Open champion and albeit, a popular one at that.

The first golf played in North America that is documented was in Charleston, South Carolina. A Charleston newspaper, the "Gazette", made mention of scheduled events of the South Carolina Golf Club and referenced its first year as 1786. We can assume that golf was played for several years prior to that date. Being a major east coast port city many of its merchants were Scottish who obviously had access to clubs and balls shipped back to Charleston from abroad. One such Scot, David Deas, who ran a store on East Bay Street received a shipment in 1743 from the Port of Leith, Scotland which included 96 golf clubs and 432 balls. The written accounts of this golf association portray the organization as primarily social which certainly seems appropriate for this gay, port city. The group would meet periodically at Harleston's Green, in the area between what is now Calhoun and Bull streets, east of Rutledge. They would dig a few holes and hit the little ball around. These gatherings were mostly an opportunity for the ladies and gentlemen to join together in fellowship, to spin yarns and enjoy good food and drink. Their "club house" was William's Coffee House where they held their meetings. There is no evidence that a regular, permanent site course designated for golf existed at this period of time in Charleston. A similar fraternity of golfers was formed a few years later in neighboring Savannah. We can therefore assume with some certainty that the first golfers in America were South Carolinians, many of Scottish descent, playing the game only 12 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence or perhaps, sooner. We can imagine these early golf outings would resemble chipping and putting contests.

The Apple Tree Gang (Courtesy USGA)

The first permanent site golf club in North America was north of the border in Canada at Royal Montreal Golf Club established in 1873. The first golf club and course in America was in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The Oakhurst Club was founded in 1884 but within a couple of years the locals grew tired of the game and the course was closed and the land was allowed to return to its natural state. It is said that the first hole at the posh Homestead resort is left over from Oakhurst and is the oldest surviving golf hole in America. Since Oakhurst did not endure it is not recognized as the oldest golf club in our country. That designation belongs to the St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, New York.

The so-called "father of golf in America" was an immigrant from Scotland by the name of John Reid. Reid had enjoyed success as an executive with an iron works in Mott Haven, New York and was seeking a way to spend his leisure time. Being a Scot he obviously knew of golf so he asked a good friend, Robert Lockhart, another well-to-do Scot living in New York to do him a favor. Lockhart was about to embark on a trip back to Great Britain so Reid asked if he would make a purchase for him of golf clubs and balls. Well, Lockhart did his job well as he traveled to St. Andrews in Scotland and went to the golf shop of Old Tom Morris, the then famous clubmaker, golfer and champion of the first Open. Lockhart asked Morris to ship two dozen gutta-percha balls (molded from the sap of a tree); three wooden clubs; a driver, brassie and spoon; plus three iron clubs, a cleek, sand iron and putter. The package arrived in February, 1888.

John Reid in his red golfing jacket and club colors (Courtesy USGA)

On a very warm Washington's Birthday that month, Reid laid out a crude, three hole course in his cow pasture digging the holes with the cleek. He invited several of his friends to witness an exhibition on the playing of golf that afternoon and those in attendance were fascinated by the promise of the game and felt it to be an activity they would like to pursue. Several placed orders for their own golfing equipment.

When warm weather returned in March, Reid and his chums returned to play the three hole pasture course. By April they had moved on to another property on Broadway in Yonkers which gave them room for six holes. After a full summer of golfing Reid invited four of his closest friends to dinner at his home in November of 1888 with the purpose of discussing their future plans for golf. It was decided that they formalize their endeavor and formed the St.

Andrews Golf Club. Reid was elected president. This is now considered the first permanent site golf club in America that endured. They continued at the Broadway site until April of 1892 when it was learned that a public road was to be built through their course property. This time they laid out another six hole course in a nearby apple orchard. A large apple tree with spreading limbs next to the last hole became their resting place where they enjoyed their picnic lunch and beverage. They would hang their jackets from the limbs of the tree on a warm day. By now this group had developed quite a reputation around the area and they became known as the "Apple Tree Gang".

The club moved two other times each time seeking to increase the amount of acreage and to make St. Andrews a more comfortable place for its members. At Grey Oaks, their next venue, they were able to build a nine hole course and to convert a farmhouse on the property into a clubhouse and locker room. The last move was in 1897 when they built an eighteen hole layout at Mt. Hope, in the same general area, where the club has survived quite well over the years and is still flourishing as one of America's great, old clubs

The game of golf blossomed and the building of club courses was spreading rapidly in the upper east and in the Chicago area with the advent of the 1890's. Another course was built in New York at Tuxedo Park and the nine hole Newport Golf Club was founded in 1890 in Rhode Island. Shinnecock Hills on Long Island at Southampton was the first course designed and built by a golf course architect. In 1891 it took Willie Dunn from Scotland three months and the help of a whole bunch of local Native Americans (Shinnecock tribe) and horse drawn road scrapers to complete work on his natural gem of a course. It was the first really fine golf course that could rival the links courses in Scotland. The founders hired well known architect Stanford White to design a clubhouse and his stately, white, clapboard edifice on the high ground at Shinnecock Hills is still as regal today. Shinnecock was the forerunner of many great clubs to follow.

Some of the earlier courses were built at existing private clubs that were primarily hunt or dining clubs. Such is the case at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts and at the Chicago Club. Other early and significant golf clubs included Baltusrol, Philadelphia Golf Club, Baltimore, Chevy Chase, Essex County in Massachusetts, Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey, Apawamis among many others.

An interesting little piece of golf history in America during the 1890's pertains to wardrobe. The style of the day for members of Newport, Shinnecock, St. Andrews of Yonkers and other fine clubs to follow included a red jacket with brass buttons, a tie, winged collar, knickers, vest, stockings and a cap. The vest and knickers were usually made from matching fabric such as a gray plaid adopted by St. Andrews.

Thomas Finley

1999

Back to Top


Click here to contact us!