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The History of Golf in Great Britain, Sporting Britain

The origins of golf are disputed. However, a popular story is that Scottish shepherds knocked stones down rabbit holes to ease their boredom as far back as the 12th century! It must have got pretty tedious out with the sheep day after day so it’s no surprise they came up with something original to pass the time. Another version of events has ancient Chinese and Egyptians playing something that may have been akin to golf, so there’s definitely room for disputing golf’s most ancient origins.

Whatever the ancient history of the distant relatives of modern golf might be, there’s no disputing that golf as we know it today evolved first in Scotland. The site of those early golf-like games played by the shepherds is thought to be the very same place that now hosts the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A), Fife. Scotland can proudly lay claim to a long list of golf firsts. The first permanent golf courses were in Scotland. The first set of official rules for playing the game were laid down in Scotland. 18 hole courses and golf club membership also originated there. Scotland was also responsible the first formalised tournaments as contests were arranged between Scottish cities.

Golf has been played at The Musselburgh Old Links Golf Course since at least 1672, although some suggest Mary, Queen of Scots played there as early as 1567. Another royal on the links is recorded in 1646 when King Charles of England was being held prisoner in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by the Scots. Accounts suggest he passed the time by playing golf at Shieldfield.

The Musselburgh Old Link’s website lays claim to the title of ‘Oldest Playing Golf Course in The World’. However, the East Lothian based course may have to argue the point with the venerable Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews who utilise the ancient course at St Andrews Links. History suggests golf has been played on the ‘Old Course’ at St Andrews since the 15th century. Whichever venue actually hosted the first ‘proper’ game of golf, one thing is not in dispute, Scotland is the accepted home of modern golf.

The practice of using stretches of sand dune that linked the beaches to the inland areas lead to the adoption of the name ‘links’ for golf courses. Many courses are actually owned by local authorities and merely leased or rented to clubs. This is the case with St Andrews Links. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club may appear to own it, with their magnificent clubhouse looking proudly over the venerable course. But St Andrews is in fact the property of the local authorities and is operated by St Andrews Links Trust, a charitable organisation.

In 1744 the city fathers of Edinburgh were persuaded to stump up for a silver trophy for a golf tournament. A golf club, known as The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, was formed and they wrote down a list of 13 rules for a five hole tournament. The club is now credited with being the world’s first formally established golf club. The venerable R&A club at St Andrew came ten years later! The Edinburgh club weren’t alone in trying to set rules, six other clubs did so between 1754 and 1786. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club formed a Rules of Golf Committee in 1897 and became the source of the unified rules for golf in the UK and later the world, working in co-operation with the United States Gold Association (USGA). The first club to establish south of the Scottish border was the Royal Blackheath club, which opened in 1766.

The games were originally played over five long holes, the 18 hole match we know today came later. The golf ball developed during this age, going from it’s earliest origins as a pebble, first to wood and then to an expensive leather cased, feather stuffed ball called a ‘feathery’. The ‘gutty’, a ball made from the sap of a tree from Southeast Asia came next. The Rubber Core ball was patented in 1898 has now been replaced by the modern two-piece or even three-piece golf ball. Around 850 million golf balls are made annually. Clubs were evolving along with balls, usually in response to the demands of a new ball material. The move from stones to wood allowed finer clubs. But harder, weightier balls then started to require something better to hit them with, and metal started to creep into golf clubs.

As the 1800s ended, golf enjoyed a massive boost in popularity. This process was aided in some part by the gradual lowering of the cost of the once prohibitively expensive equipment. Golf remained very fashionable in the upper classes, helping to boost it’s international appeal and soon tournaments got larger and more ambitious. The first British Open Championship was staged in 1860 at the Prestwick Golf Club, which itself had only been previously formed nine years earlier in 1851. Willie Park was the competition’s first ever winner. But soon, Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom Morris, dominated the tournament for most of its early years. Morris senior took the title in 1862, 1864 and then again in 1867. However, his son went further by winning the event or four years running from his debut victory in 1869. The famous Claret Jug trophy associated with the British Open was first presented to the winner of the 1873 match. The rain soaked match in 1873 was the first Open to be played at St Andrews and was won by local player Tom Kidd. Another local, James Braid, also enjoyed success in the early years of the British Open, with five wins up until his final victory at the 1910 British Open, once again held at St Andrews.

Golf was still principally amateur at this stage. Golfers made some of their money from the few sponsored events such as the British Open. But most were betting against their opponents in competitions, or earning some income by giving private tuition. Some professionals even mixed in some ball and club making for extra profit! In 1892 a tournament held at Cambridge and used a share of the gate receipt to pay the competitors.

Golf was progressing outside of Scotland by this era and in 1893 the world’s first international golf tournament, the ‘Amateur Golf Championship of India and the East’, took place. Over in America golf was moving forward fast and the first monthly magazine ‘Golf’ published their debut issue in 1897. The USA was also the place where professionalism bloomed fastest, aided by a growing number of commercially sponsored competitions. In 1900 the game established itself firmly as a recognised and respected international sport and was accepted as an Olympic sport. The Professional Golf Association of America was formed in the USA in 1916.

Further British succes in the Open came at the hands of Henry Cotton, who won three times to take home the Claret Jug trophy in 1934; 1937 and 1948. Without the intervention of the Second World War he may even have taken a larger tally of Open titles. Fred Daly from Northern Ireland was the winner in 1947’s championship. The flamboyant Englishman Max Faulkner took the title in 1951 at Portrush. The home countries then subsequently failed to produce another champion for nearly two decades. The British Open title finally came back to England in 1969 when Tony Jacklin took victory from Bob Charles of New Zealand at Lytham and St Annes.

Tony Jacklin put the spark back into golf in Britain. His success revived interest in the game which, until then, was being largely ignored by the younger generations. Future champions were to come from these very youngsters who took up golf after being inspired by Jacklin’s win. One of those players was Nick Faldo, without doubt the nation’s most successful golf player ever.

Although Jacklin enjoyed considerable success in professional golf, his 1969 win was to be his only British Open victory. England had to endure another considerable passage of time before the championship was again won by a home player. Once again it was almost two decades before Nick Faldo brought the Claret Jug trophy home with his breakthrough in 1987 at Muirfield. Faldo battled the world’s best golfers during four days of atrocious weather that even included 40 mile-an-hour winds. Faldo put on an great display and held his nerve on a misty and wet final day to beat American Paul Azinger by a single stroke. A Scottish home win had come two years earlier at Sandwich in Kent when Scotsman Sandy Lyle won the 1985 British Open. Lyle had been an 11 year-old youngster in the grandstand by the 18th green when Jacklin took his win there in 1969. Just 16 years later Lyle became the first Scot to win the title since George Duncan’s victory at the Royal Cinque Ports, Deal in 1920.

Faldo’s British Open victory of 1987 marked the moment when the British golfer joined the ranks of the major winners. It also marked the start of an incredible career that spanned the next 20 years. Faldo took the british Open twice more, in 1990 and 1992. But it is his performance in the 1990 Open, held at St Andrews, that is particularly historic. Faldo’s display at that competition was exemplary. His score was a record 270, 18 under par. He won the championship with a crushing five-shot victory over second placed man Azinger. Faldo was subsequently inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1997.

Once again, as Faldo’s dominance began to fade, Britain found herself without a man capable of beating the world’s best at the annual British Open. But victory came back to Scotland in 1999 when Paul Lawrie enjoyed a very popular victory at his local course at Carnoustie, in Scotland. Maybe Lawrie got lucky with Tiger Woods suffering badly from hay fever and other top competitors struggling with the notoriously difficult course. As Lawrie came in from the final round with a score of 290, six over par, he had no idea that his contest was not yet over. To his surprise he found his score was joint highest and a three-way playoff with Jean Van De Velde and Justin Leonard beckoned. It was Lawrie who kept his nerve in difficult conditions at the course with its famously narrow fairways and deep rough. At the end of the extra 18 holes he lead the Frenchman and American and was crowned as the 1999 British Open Champion.

The Faldo era has helped to keep golf’s profile relatively high among Britain's young right up to the present day. The game continues to grow in popularity and has gone a long way to shake off the old notion that golf is just for stuffy businessmen taking time out from the office. If you visit a golf course in Britain now, especially on the weekends, you’ll see not only youngsters but of course also many women.

The rules of the game haven’t changed too much over the last one hundred years but the kit certainly has. The use high tech processes have brought clubs on a long way from when they looked suspiciously like hurling sticks. Nowadays many golf equipment manufacturers have busy research and development departments trying to perfect what is often called ‘driver technology’. Golf is big business and there are many British companies involved. Ping, the famous golf equipment maker from the USA, have their European office in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire.

Golf is now several hundred years old. The institutions that are part of the game have matured and some have become national treasures, even becoming part of our British heritage. The course at St Andrews and the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews are while the course is not actually hallowed ground, and the clubhouse no cathedral, the place is indeed the historical and spiritual home of golf. Playing there is like a religious experience to a keen golfer, so one can only imagine what winning the British Open at St Andrews must feel like!

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Bolton Massacre - 1644, First indoor swimming pool opens - 1742, First Isle of Man TT Race - 1907
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