As some of you know, I occasionally lace on the trainers, sneakers, spikes or cleats as the resident Wench Jock. And as June and July roll around, I can’t help but get the urge to talk sports . . . teamed up with history of course!
In Great Britain, this is the high season for a host of traditional sporting events with a rich heritage and pageantry—Royal Ascot, the Henley Regatta, Wimbledon, and—teeing this week—the British Open golf championship. This year’s rota (the tournament currently rotates among nine courses) brings the Open to the venerable Old Course at St. Andrews, which is hallowed ground for golfers.
So, seeing as I’ve waxed poetic on tennis, it seems like the perfect time to take a whack at giving you a brief overview of the game.
Okay—ready to roll?
Let me begin with a bit of heresy—at least to the Scots. Some people claim that the game originated in Holland, where the Dutch played a game called “kolven.” Old tile paintings do show figures with curved sticks that look very much like golf clubs, and apparently they played in winter, using the frozen canals as fairways. (There were even traveling beer carts that served as the nineteenth hole—an essential part of golf!)
But for the most part, the Scots get credit for inventing the game as we know it. It probably started with some shepherd using his crook to whack a stone at a distant rabbit hole . . . whatever the inspiration, we do know that by 1457, the game was popular enough that James II had to pass a decree banning golf because it was interfering with the populace’s practice of archery. (Needless to say, that edict probably ruffled a few feathers!)
The first golf club—The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—was formed in 1744 and established the first “official” rules of the game. There were 13 in all . . . for those of you who are wondering, today’s list fills a rather thick book. Some of the more amusing modern rules deal with things like whether it is a stroke penalty if you hit a fish out of the water while playing your ball from a hazard and then put it back. (It all depends on whether the fish is dead or alive—I kid you not.)
The Society of St. Andrews Golfers was formed several years later. In 1834, in honor of King George IV becoming its patron, it changed its name to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Those of you who watch the tournament on television will notice an elegant honey-colored stone building overlooking the ocean and strand by the first tee. That is the R&A clubhouse, which is probably one of the most recognizable buildings in all of sport.
The first golf clubs were made of beech, holly, dogwood, pear or apple, with shafts crafted of hickory, ash or hazel to add extra whip. They had wonderfully evocative names—cleeks, mashies, spoons, niblicks, to list just a few. All were designed to hit a certain type of shot, and as the game evolved, people came up with some pretty unusual-looking implements. (Today, titanium, steel, polymers and graphite are the main components.)
The first clubmaker on record was William Mayne, who in 1603 was appointed to craft clubs for King James I of England. A few other notable Scottish craftsmen from the 17th century are Andrew Dickson of Leith and Henry Mill of St. Andrews. In Regency times, Hugh Philpp, also of St. Andrews, was considered the Stradivarius of his field. (I actually wrote a Regency golf romance under my Andrea Pickens pen name,entitled A Diamond In The Rough, in which he makes a cameo appearance.)
Golf balls were originally made of tightly stitched leather stuffed with feathers. These “featheries” were used until 1848 when another St. Andrews resident experimented with gutta percha, a substance from India (the dried sap of the Sapodilla tree) which could be heated and formed into a hard round ball. At first, the “guttys” weren’t popular because their flight was erratic. Players noticed that they played better as they became nicked, and it was soon discovered that adding a pattern with a saddler’s hammer vastly improved the performance. (and thus we have the forerunner of modern dimples.) In 1903, the Haskell ball, which features a rubber core and a gutta percha cover, flattened the competition. Nowadays . . . oh, don’t ask.
Club design and ball design are regulated by the game’s international governing bodies (head size, grooves, number of dimples, trampoline effect, etc.) And players may only carry 14 clubs in their bag . . .yes, it’s another penalty if you have more. Golf, as you see, plays strictly by the rules.
There are many different styles of course design—mountain, desert, parkland, heathland—but for most purists, links golf is the heart and spirit of the game. The name “links” traditionally meant the land, usually scrubby, windswept sandy soil, that “linked” farmland to the sea. It’s now loosely used, but true links courses run along the ocean, where wind is a big factor in how shots are played. If you watch even a little of the tournament at St. Andrews you will see what I mean. Sandy dunes and the tall fescue grasses also come into play, as do bunkers, or sand traps, which originated because sheep tend to hollow out a protective shelter in a hill or a dune to shelter from the winds.
Old Tom Morris, a legendary champion player who helped create the first British Championship in 1860, was also a noted course designer. Considered the father of modern greenskeeping, he made alterations to the Old Course at St. Andrews, as well as created his own designs throughout Great Britain. If you want to impress a golfer friend, here are some other notable golf architects. Classic designers from the early 20th century include Charles Blair Macdonald, Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross and A. W. Tillinghast. Today’s stars include Robert Trent Jones (Sr. and Jr.), Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak.
So why, you might ask, do people spend a few hours trudging around in rain and sleet hitting a little ball into a hole? (Mark Twain is famous for calling it “a good walk spoiled.) Well, as someone who came to the game only recently, I wondered that myself. Growing up, I always played “action” sports like or tennis. (John McEnroe once remarked that golf wasn’t really a sport because one didn’t sweat . . . he has since become an avid golfer and admits that he made a bad call.) However, I’ve really come to love the game.
As you walk a course, you have to really look at the land, and see the subtle contours as you plan where you want to hit a shot. You have to be aware of the wind and the humidity in the air. In other words, you really pay attention to nature and feel connected to the surroundings. In this day and age that’s something special. Also, it’s competitive in that for the most part you are playing the course, not an opponent. So as you walk with friends, you chat, you laugh . . . and you occasionally pause to hit your ball. I find that there is a very relaxing camaraderie among golfers, and when traveling, it makes a wonderful bond when you get to play with interesting people who share your love of the game. (This is a picture of me playing with the Duke of Roxburghe at the course he built on his lands in Scotland, which as you can imagine was quite a thrill)
Who will hoist the Claret Jug this year? (Another way to impress your golfing friends is to ask that question—the British Open trophy is one of the most distinctive trophies in sport. For the first years of competition, the prize was a belt made of silver and red morocco leather, but in 1873, after Young Tom Morris had won four times in a row and got to keep the belt, a new trophy was made, modeled on the wine carafe of the 19th century.) It’s anyone’s guess, but if you watch any of the tournament, keep an eye on the landscape and the weather as well as the players to truly appreciate the nuances of the game.
Now we’ve come to the end of the round, and I hope you have enjoyed a brief—and highly selective—stroll through the game’s history. Now it’s your turn. Do you have a favorite sport, especially in summer? And what makes it special for you? Or are you one of those people who find games just aren’t your cup of tea.