The Rise of Golf and some famous players of the Hickory Era
Nobody truly knows when and where golf was first played, but what is irrefutable is that the first written evidence dates from 1457 when the King of Scotland, James II, famously banned it because it was interfering with his soldiers archery practise. By this time it is safe to assume that golf was already a common pastime in Scotland. Thankfully by 1502, peace had been made with England and everybody, including the King, could play golf with a clear conscience. When James VI succeeded to the English throne as James I in 1603, he took his court to London and he and his courtiers played golf within the grounds of the Royal Palaces and at Blackheath Common. However, it would take almost another three hundred years before the game was established as an activity for the general population.
Simply put, to play golf requires three things: clubs, balls and an open expanse of land with short grass.
In the age of the Tudor and Stuart Kings there were plenty of bowmakers who knew how to fashion pieces of wood together to successfully harness their elastic properties. Equally, there were plenty of blacksmiths and armourers used to making a variety of metal objects. Aristocratic gentlemen with time and money sought more ways to “sport” their skills, and naturally the task of propelling a small ball hundreds of yards through the air into a very small hole, with difficult to use instruments appealed. The oldest clubs in existance are believed to date from the late 1600s. The “irons” have crude and heavy heads with little loft and are thought to have been used only in difficult lies. The “woods” have long thin carved heads, with lead weighting inside them. On the leading edge of the sole they have pieces of animal horn inserted to protect the wood. The shafts of the irons are about the diameter of your average broomhandle, whilst the woods tend to have longer and more whippy shafts. The design of the clubs reinforce the notion that woods were used for any distance shot whilst irons were only used for short escape shots.
The design of wooden clubs changed little from the ancient times until the mid 1800s. From about 1880 to 1900 the heads grew progressively shorter and more bulbous. They changed from what is termed “long-nose” to “transitional” to “bulger” as shown in this picture.
In the latter half on the nineteenth century, the heads of irons grew more refined and lighter. Irons for approach play became more common as the balls became more durable and backspin on the ball became more achievable.
Additionally, as golfers became used to putting with iron headed clubs wooden headed putters became less popular.
Up until 1920 a normal playing set consisted of six or seven clubs. See a typical playing set. In the late 1920’s it became technologically possible to produce high quality metal shafts and manufacturers saw a golden opportunity. Through clever marketing they convinced golfers that metal shafts performed in a far superior manner to hickory shafts ( not strictly true!) . However, they also stated that as metal shafts were more standardised in terms of flex, then it was less possible to play half and three-quater type shots. Of course the manufacturer’s could offer a helpful solution.....increase the number of differently lofted clubs in your bag! The result was that the average number of clubs in a set increased from 6 to 12 in as little as five years and the manufacturers made more money. In the 1930’s some golfers were carrying as many as twenty clubs in their bag and the governing bodies realised action had to be taken. The ruling committees decided that 14 clubs should be the maximum allowed, and this figure was chosen as it was the median in the range of that proposed , namely between 7 and 21 clubs.
It is thought that the earliest golf balls were simple wooden spheres which didn’t fly at all well. By the 1500’s “featheries” were being used. These consisted of a sewn leather three-piece shell stuffed with wet feathers. When the feathers dried the ball would become quite hard and solid with an elastic consistency much like a modern tennis ball. These balls had good aerodynamic qualities and flew much farther than the older wooden balls. Their drawback was that a skilled man could only make three per day and so they were very expensive to buy ( roughly the equivalent of £50 each by today’s standards). Hence, golf became a pastime for the wealthy, and this certainly contributed to it being a sport played by only a select few. In 1850 things changed when a clergyman in St.Andrews received a statue from India packed in lumps of a natural tree rubber called gutta-percha. This material is soft and pliable when dipped in boiling water, but hard and resistant at room temperature. The clergyman, a man named Paterson, saw the potential for making cheaper golf balls, and by 1860 moulded “Gutta Percha” balls had made the feathery obsolete. The next great leap forward came in 1902 when an American engineer, Coburn Haskell, developed a ball with a solid core, wrapped in elastic bands, with a thin gutta-percha cover. This 3-piece type of ball flew even farther than the solid “gutties” and by 1905 solid gutties had been consigned to history. Three-piece balls dominated throughout most of the twentieth century, and it is only relatively recently that manufacturers have been able to make high quality two-piece, and ironically, single-piece balls.
Up until the latter years of the 19th century, there was no mechanised grass cutting equipment, and golfing was fairly limited to areas of land that had naturally short grass. These areas were prevalent on the sandy strips of land that linked the inland fields to the sea. Hence, the terms links became synonymous with areas of land where golf was played, and the term green applied to the whole of the golf course, and not just to the area around the hole. It was only in 1875 that players began to tee-off from dedicated areas; previously the rules had stipulated that players must tee-off from within two club lengths of the last hole. In the early years of golf the main form of competition was match-play. However, some golfers undoubtedly engaged in wagers regarding how many stokes it would take to complete the course by oneself, and this led to the development of stroke-play. Incidentally, there was no standard number of holes on a course, and it was only when the Old Course at St.Andrews reduced its twenty-two holes to eighteen in 1764 that this number became the norm for a round of the links.
The explosion in popularity of the Game
Developments in golf equipment and grass-cutting technology happened during the latter two decades of the Victorian era. However, the singularly most important factor in the rise of golf was the social changes occurring at the same time. The working and middle classes had more money from gainful employment, and more free time to spend it! In 1880 there were 60 golf clubs or societies in the UK, and by 1890 there were 387. This rose to 2330 by 1900, and almost doubled again to an unbelievable 4135 by 1910. Golf as an enjoyable pastime was here to stay.
Some great players of the past
Prize competitions had been instigated by the earliest golf clubs as far back as the mid-1750’s, however, these were only local affairs open to the amateur gentlemen members. It took until 1860 for the first competition to be held for men who earned their living in a manner connected with the game.
These “professionals” were looked down upon as employees or servants of the club, and their social status was low. The first competition for Professionals only was held at Prestwick Golf Club contested by only eight players. Willie Park Snr beat Old Tom Morris to win by two strokes.
Willie Park Snr
Old and Young Tom Morris
It was widely recognised that these professional men played the game to a much higher standard than most of the amateur members. In 1861 the competition was made Open to all-comers including amateurs to find the undisputed best player. The professional Tom Morris Snr won in 1861-62-64-67. His son Tom Morris Jnr won in 1868-69-70 and by winning three straight years in a row he claimed the prize belt for his own property. The competition did not run in 1871 as Prestwick Golf Club had no trophy to award and the Champion Golfer had anyway been found! Thankfully, by 1872, several clubs had bandied together and commissioned a new trophy ..The Claret Jug.
Tom Morris Jnr promptly won the competition again just to prove beyond all doubt he truly was the best. Sadly, he died at only 24 years of age. The Morris and Park families continued to dominate the game, until new breeds of professionals arrived in the 1890’s.
Between 1893 and 1914 three men called The Great Triumphirate dominated the Open. James Braid and John Henry ( J.H.) Taylor won the championship five times each, whilst Harry Vardon won it six times. These men were of the working classes and did much to improve the social status of the professional golfer.
Braid ( bottom left ), Vardon ( bottom right), Taylor, (Top right ), Sandy Herd 1902 Champion ( Top left )
The 1920’s saw great players such as George Duncan, Jock Hutchinson, Walter Hagen and Arthur Havers win The Open. It is fitting perhaps that Bobby Jones, won his third and final Open, as part of the “impregnable quadrilateral” of all four Major Championships ( namely The Open, The US Open, The British Amateur and The American Amateur ) in 1930 with hickory shafted clubs, bringing the curtain down on the five hundred year reign of the wooden shaft.
Robert.T. ( Bobby ) Jones