Golf is as integral a part of Scotland today as it was as far back as the 15th century when, the game of ‘gowf’, as it was known in those days, was banned by Parliament under King James II as a distraction from military training. Fortunately the ban was lifted when the Treaty of Glasgow came into effect in 1502 and the game has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Development of the modern game
Between 1750 and 1850, golf developed into the game as we know it today with the establishment of some of the world’s most prominent golf clubs. On 7 March 1744, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the world’s oldest golf club, which now resides at Muirfield, officially came into being at Leith Links. In the same year they drafted the first 13 rules of golf to compete for a silver golf club, presented by the City of Edinburgh, over Leith Links.
Origins of the 'Royal and Ancient'
This set a precedent for future golf competitions and on 14 May 1754, 22 ‘Noblemen and Gentlemen’ formed the Society of St Andrews Golfers and contributed to a silver club to be played for annually over the Links of St Andrews. St Andrews golfers adopted the rules of their counterparts in Leith and 20 years later changed their name to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The R&A is now the rulemaking body for golf throughout the world, apart from the USA and Mexico.
Over the next century a number of events took place in St Andrews which encouraged the evolution of the game. In 1764, the Links, which later became known as the Old Course, was reduced from 22 holes to 18 and that gradually became accepted as the standard format for golf courses. The “gutta percha” ball was developed in the town by Robert Paterson and its durability encouraged the development of iron-faced clubs and so continued the process of evolution.
Evolution of the game
A key figure in developing the game in St Andrews and Scotland was Old Tom Morris. To this day, he holds the British Open record for oldest champion at the age of 46 in 1867 and greatest margin of victory, 13 shots, in 1862. But he is equally well remembered for his pioneering work in course architecture. Credited with inventing the dogleg (or sharp angles on the course) his contribution in Scotland included many of the world’s best-known courses such as the Old and New Courses in St Andrews, Carnoustie, Nairn and Royal Dornoch.
Scotland’s next true giant to emerge in course design was James Braid. Born in Earlsferry, Fife, in 1870, Braid became a professional golfer in 1896. He pioneered the use of aluminium-headed putters and became one of the ‘Great Triumvirate’ (alongside Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor) who would dominate British golf in the early years of the 20th century. Braid followed in the footsteps of Old Tom Morris to become a legend in course design. He was responsible for more than 250 courses throughout the British Isles including the world-famous King’s and Queen’s Courses at Gleneagles.
The first Open in 1860
The evolution of golf progressed quickly in Scotland and in 1860 the first Open Championship was held at Prestwick, contested by eight leading professionals. The first winner was Willie Park for which he received a red Morocco leather belt with silver clasps as the first prize. The Open continued to be held at Prestwick for 11 years.