Some Golf in 1888


New Club, Prince’s St, Edinburgh

By 1888 the Victorian golf boom had established its impetus and direction with the English upper middle classes taking an interest and creating new courses, while in Scotland the game was moving to the next stage with the working classes being encouraged to form clubs and expand the game to become a truly national pastime.

The ingenuity of the Scots was noted by FineGolf in its review of ‘Open Fever’ where the Scottish game had established an economic structure with professionals, club- and ball-makers and keepers of green not only servicing courses in GB&I but also going out and giving leadership in taking the game to the colonies.

Another important aspect to the development of the game was the written word communicating widely the history and traditions of the game. JSF Murdoch’s library of Golf catalogues in 1968 only twenty-eight golf books published during the period 1566-1888.

I am indebted to Don Wilson, III for sending me copies of two books recently published by his company Grant Books Ltd, founded in 1971, of Pershore, Worcestershire, containing essays and poems from 1888 through the early 1920s, interlaced with the most eerily beautiful land and sea-scapes, usually in watercolour but some in oils.

Both books are beautifully printed and bound and seem to me to epitomise the pace of life at that era outside of the industrial metropolis. Some Golf in 1888 is published in a limited edition of 275 copies and Machrihanish, Machaire Shanais, Golf 1880 – 1920s in 200 copies.

Leith Links in 1888

Some Golf in 1888 contains an erudite essay on ‘The Psychology of Golf’ by Dr John Highet, the honorary secretary of Troon Golf Club who may have been the first to suggest: “where can the character be better read than on the links?” and “The primary duty of every novice who desires to ascend the ladder of golf is self-command”.

The book’s heart is a narrative recording a group of four gentlemen travelling by train and horse drawn cart from Newcastle and playing over a twenty day period the following courses:

Dunbar, in East Lothian (not to be mixed up with Nairn Dunbar on the Moray coast), where the narrowness at the fourth hole between the deer park’s wall and the sea was remarked upon and the grass being longer than is desirable.

North Berwick, from which the Bass Rock, used as imprisonment for Covenanters, is visible, along with nearby Tantallon Castle, immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his poem Marmion. This course supplied a singles match a.m. and a foursomes p.m. during which, like so many since, one drove into the houses from the eighteenth tee. A thoroughly sporting green!

Gullane they considered one of the finest golf courses in Scotland. The up and down character of the ground is very attractive to the player, who is rewarded at the top of the hill of a magnificent view of portions of fourteen different counties of Scotland – so it is said. Nothing can excel the putting greens which are of a great size and literally as true as a billiard table.

Musselburgh Links 1859

Luffness, (before it became Luffness New) where the ‘good’ clubhouse is mentioned, being built in a rather fancy style. The course, a long one, viz four miles, is decidedly difficult.

Willie Park jnr. advertising his new lofter club. Click to enlarge.

At Musselburgh, in Edinburgh, they found Willie Park Jnr’s shop into which they bolted to escape from the dozens of caddies fighting over possession of their clubs. They had heard that the nine holes were very much worn out from over play but they were surprised to find the greens true and their putting here was exceptional.

St Andrews, where the large clubhouse with an extensive addition carried out in 1881 and containing paintings of Sir Hugh Playfair and Mr Whyte-Melville, impressed them. The sandy soil and the ’blind’ bunkers, all with names, are mentioned as is the ‘Ginger Beer’ hole. The weather was not good so the reader is taken around the town ruins and beguiled by the history of John Knox and the many murdered in St Andrews.

Carnoustie and the Dalhousie club feature next, where over eighteen holes the shortest is 210 yards and the longest 390 yards. Excellent turf and hazards with burns numerous and formidable were to be encountered here. They found the golf balls (gutties) made by Jack Simpson to be excellent for flying and keeping their shape.

Leven, along Largo Bay, consists of the mystic eighteen holes. Burns, dykes, roads and railway all supply plenty of hazards while many a good score has been wrecked by Scoonie’s burn. The professional here was one of the brothers Patrick from which the new design for driving-club heads is called the ‘bulger’, created to counteract the effect of a toed or heeled ball.

At Troon, they saw it as a great advantage that here one never crosses the line of players going in the opposite direction and the drive bunker on the tenth hole is one big enough to bury several houses in. Willie Fernie is the resident professional and Mr Highet the honorary secretary who looked after them well.

We finish at Prestwick which is described as a private club, where they praise the secretary for the requisite permission to play over the celebrated course without being inundated by the many new golfers taking up the game. Charlie Hunter was the professional and Willie Campbell an assistant. The fine clubhouse gave every convenience which a club of its strength and importance might be expected to have.

They took the train that evening for Glasgow arriving at St Enoch station at 8.30; crossing over to Queen St station, at 9 they took the south express via Edinburgh and Berwick, arriving in Newcastle at 1:10 a.m. (In 133 years we have managed to trim this journey down by about an hour).

Mr Wilson includes an exact facsimile re-production of the ‘Rules of Golf”, a statement of the twenty-two rules in 1888 issued by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.  The detachable booklet is inserted at the inside rear cover.

The third element is an essay ‘Golf’ that Grant Books’ research recently discovered within ‘Outdoor Sports in Scotland’, composed by the pseudonymous “Ellangowan” of which a few quotes are given below:

“All over the world, especially in those places where two or three Scotsmen are to be found (and in what part of the world will not two or three Scotsmen be found?) golf has become a much loved pastime.”

“All good golfers must have intellectual power, judgement of distances, a fine hand, and possess powers of calculation.”

“Eating and dining together in the name of good fellowship used, perhaps, to be more a feature of golfing some thirty or forty years ago than it is today.”

St Andrews by Ada Walker Hill

“It forms no part of my plan to notice the different golf clubs of Scotland, but the exception may be made in the case of ‘the Honourable the Edinburgh Company of Golfers‘ which may presumably be looked upon as the chief institution of golfers in Scotland.”

“St Andrews, indeed, may be described as the golfing capital of Scotland. There are many people, who have little else to do, ‘talk golf’ from early morning till bedtime. All classes are more or less interested in the game at St Andrews.”

“Beginners should study to get well entered, and not fly into a rage or turn sour when the urchin who is attending them exclaims, “That’s no’ the way!” A good beginning is essential, and learners, however venerable, must not be thin-skinned.”

A review of the Machrahanish book will follow in due course.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2021.

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