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History Of Golf


St Andrews - 18th Hole

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries widespread industrialisation in England led to an idealisation of all things rural. This was not a recreation of rural England as it had been, but as an artificial ideal. Capability Brown was crafting landscaped parks, which appeared natural but which were, in reality, carefully constructed. Golf courses with their manicured greens and areas of rough were in themselves a version of a Capability Brown park. Another good analogy would be with the old royal hunting parks. In the age of William the Conqueror deer hunting required huge areas of countryside set aside for the game. The same is true of golf courses today where modern squires go hunting for their eagles and birdies. John Lowerson, writing in the late 1980s, estimated that the total area of England given over to golf courses is equal in size to the Isle of Wight.



Golf claims an ancient history, with its ancestry often being traced back to a medieval Dutch game called kolve, which was played on ice. This was a kind of individual ice hockey. Then there was a medieval game played in Scotland on sandy eastern shorelines. Golf in one form or another has probably been played in Scotland since the fifteenth century. The title of oldest golf club in the world is usually awarded to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, dating to 1744. In 1754 the St Andrews Club was established, and remains the governing body of golfing standards and rules. Some authors, Norman Davies in The Isles for example, claim that golf came to England when James I of Scotland came south in 1603 to take the throne as joint ruler of England and Scotland. Certainly the foundation of England's oldest club, the Royal Blackheath, supports this view. This club was founded in 1608, to cater for Scots who came to England along with James I. Golf historian John Lowerson, however, sees the crucial move south primarily occurring later, around 1818 when Scots who had moved to Manchester introduced their game there (see Sport In Britain, a Social History ed Tony Mason). It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution that golf really began to become fitted to the prevailing nostalgia for an idealised lost rural landscape. It was during this period that golf really took off. The rise of the game coincided with the Victorian craze for the seaside holiday. In 1864 the North Devon Club was founded at Westwood Ho! Soon after that came the Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake. Then inland courses started to be built, golf's initial rise taking place during a period of agricultural depression, which allowed the renting and purchasing of large tracts of land at cheap rates. As well as fitting with a general trend for romantic rural nostalgia, golf had other advantages going for it. Just as in the age of the deer park, this was a sport designed to make men feel good about themselves. It could be played by people of almost any age, and tended to be the preserve of older men. In William the Conqueror's day even poor hunters were made to feel competent by beaters helpfully driving wildlife towards them. In golf a handicapping system developed to allow players of varying ability to play together. Golf also developed a social exclusivity, once again just like hunting in the old deer parks. Some golf courses were even built on deer parks. The Royal Ashdown Forest course was built on part of William the Conqueror's ancient hunting park at Ashdown Forest in the late nineteenth century.


British Golf Museum, St Andrews

So golf was a major manifestation of a idealised nostalgia for rural living. The way it operated socially was also the result of unease about the coming of modern life. In the nineteenth century the old aristocratic demarcations of society were coming under threat. Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, and suggested that all life had a common origin, rather than being created by God in its various levels of divinely created hierarchy. It is interesting that sport, and society in general seemed to react against such ideas by hardening its ideas of social class. Golf did not have quite the social exclusivity seen in a sport such as rowing, in that golf did allow play by professionals. But golf's acceptance of demarcations built on merit was limited. The professionals were almost certainly the best players, but they were something of a servant class to the gentlemen amateurs. Professionals taught amateurs, and played against them, but the two groups did not mix. And of course the handicapping system meant that average amateurs could continue to play competitive games against professionals. Golf was also slow to accept women, and is still played much more by men than women. Figures for 2002 show 21% of men playing golf some time during the year compared with 14% of women (see General Household Survey for Sport and Recreation 2002).


Inevitably after 1900 the world was not going to wait for British gentlemen wallowing in their clubbable rural nostalgia. America moved ahead much more quickly with professional golf, and this caused tensions between players from the two countries. When American Walter Hagan was runner up in the 1923 British Open he refused to attend the award ceremony in the amateur-only clubhouse. Hagan had the last laugh since Americans came to dominate the British Open, and world golf generally. Commercial golf developed fully after World War Two, and was given a great boost from the late 1960s by televising of events. Golf is particularly suited to television with its beautiful settings. The idealised rural dream of golf still has great power, just as it had for the town and city dwellers of Victorian England; and this is only amplified by television. Today as a televisual game which can be played by all ages and ability, Golf is in a strong position. According to the General Household Survey of 2002, golf is in sixth place in the top ten favourite British men's pastimes, behind walking, snooker/pool/billiards, cycling, swimming and football. Certainly golf has a fortunate connection with the number one pastime of walking, since in the words of John Lowerson golf has developed into "a mixture of game and convivial walk in a romanticised countryside" (British Sport, a Social History P193).