Stories in Golf – Volume 1

Golf is a pursuit full of a rich history of storytelling – courses, personalities, tournaments and glamour. For each volume in this series of blogs, I will pick three such tales and explore them in some detail.

And so we begin…….

Golf on the Old Bruntsfield Links

Bruntsfield Links is an area of open parkland in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle stretching to around 35 acres.

Amazingly, it is thought that golf has been played on this site since the 15th Century, with the Golf Tavern, sitting on the West Side of the Links and forming perhaps the earliest 19th hole drinking spot in existence, thought to have been established in 1456.

Links – Open sandy ground usually covered in turf, bent grass or gorse, normally near the sea-shore.

The Concise Scots Dictionary (1985)

By the mid 18th Century, tales of golf at Bruntsfield become more reliable.

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Golfers on Old Bruntsfield Links (watercolour) by Paul Sandby c.1746

We notice a couple of things from the painting above. Firstly the huge waste like sandy bunker from which the player is trying to extricate himself from was the remains of quarrying work which had been taking place on the Links since 1508.

Records state that ‘the intervals between quarry holes became utilised by the citizens in the pursuit of the popular game of golf ‘ (The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1918). It is interesting that similar scrape like waste areas have recently become popular with modern courses and also revamps of older designs such as St Andrews (New) and Woodhall Spa (Hotchkin).

Secondly, it appears that the golfer on the right is trying to shoo away some cattle from the playing line. Modern day golfers will be familiar with this practice today on courses such as Westward Ho!, Minchinhampton Common and Bramshaw (Forest Course).

Originally a 5 hole course, golf is still played on the Links at Bruntsfield in the form of a 36 hole short course.

Tom Morris of St. Andrews

Thomas Mitchell Morris, latterly known as ‘Old Tom’ was born on North Street, St Andrews on 16th June 1821 and during his 86 years of life would become quite the golfing figure.

Old Tom won the greatest prize in golf, the Open Championship four times, most notably by a margin of 14 strokes over the field over 3 rounds of 12 holes at Prestwick in 1862 to retain his title in just the third playing of the Championship. He would triumph again in 1864 and 1867.

This was an era when lucrative exhibition ‘money matches’ were commonplace and Old Tom formed a formidable foursomes partnership with his son to take on all-comers. Sadly his pairing with Young Tom was broken in 1875 following the younger Morris’s death – seemingly of a broken heart shortly after the passing of his wife and child in childbirth.

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Young and Old Tom Morris (1875)

But Tom Morris was not just a Champion golfer – he also worked as a greenkeeper, clubmaker, ballmaker, golf instructor and course designer.

Many consider him to be the father of modern greenkeeping. He introduced many novel ideas on turf and course management including the use of yardage markers and the concept of top-dressing greens.

It is in the area of course design, however, that Old Tom is perhaps most underrated. This is perhaps inevitable given that over the last 150 years or so, many of his designs have been altered or disappeared.

Consider his list of designs that includes – St Andrews (New & Jubilee), Royal County Down, Lahinch, Machrihanish, Muirfield, Prestwick, Royal North Devon and Castletown.

The records also show that he had the major role in the design of the original 18 hole course at Royal Cromer in 1895. The minute book from this period still exists and contains a summary of the original report from Old Tom on the design. Among the gems of wisdom was the assertion that ‘the gap between furze (gorse) should be at least 80 yards wide’. Morris had employed a similar strategy at St Andrews, partly to lessen turf wear from the increasing amount of play.

Morris introduced the idea of strategic hazard placement. Previously hazards had been placed for forced carry or to catch a wayward shot. With wide fairways and sparing use of strategically placed hazards, the principles of Old Tom Morris are evident in the best contemporary designs.

Old Tom died in 1908 shortly before his 87th birthday after falling down the stairs of the clubhouse in St Andrews. His grave in the towns Church attracts many golfers each year to pay their thanks to one of the games great visionaries.

A Dream Course

After Bobby Jones retired from competitive golf in 1930, he turned his attention to building his ideal course.

In the Spring of 1931, he drove down the long lane of magnolias that led to the antebellum manor house of the old Fruitlands Nursery in Augusta, Georgia, and knew as soon as he gazed out to the pine covered slopes leading down to Rae’s Creek that he had found the perfect site.

The land had been previously been purchased in 1857 by a Belgian baron Louis Mathieu Edouard Berkmans, who together with his son had established the foremost commercial nursery in the Southern United States, popularizing azaleas across the country. The family sold their interest in 1910 and by the time Jones and his group of wealthy New York bankers acquired the property, the nursery had been abandoned. The heritage remains, however, with each hole named after a tree or shrub from the nursery including Tea Olive (1st), Chinese Fir (14th) and Holly (18th).

Jones had a clear vision of the course that he wished to create, inspired by the wide fairways, rolling terrain, run-offs around the green and ground game of St Andrews in Scotland. He selected Alistair Mackenzie, the renowned architect whose work at Cypress Point he much admired, to collaborate with him on the design.

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Bobby Jones testing shots whilst the course was under construction in 1932 (8th hole pictured). Alistair Mackenzie (Plus Fours) looks on.

Together they created a spectacular winter playground for an exclusive group of members (the course is closed for the summer period) and, of course, the annual Masters tournament.

With Mackenzie dying shortly after the courses opening, and Jones absent for the war and a crippling illness, many of the original design principles and particularly the heavy reliance on the ‘ground game’ were quite quickly lost following the courses opening as a host of other architects had their say. For UK based Mackenzie fans, check out Cavendish Golf Club in Derbyshire, designed by Mackenzie prior to Augusta National, but retaining more of his core features.

 

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