St Andrews The “Home of Golf” - People Who Contributed to its Fame


Originally I thought that St Andrews position as the ‘Home of Golf’ essentially came from when they became responsible worldwide for the rules. However reviewing the 600 years history of St Andrews and the links it appears to have roots centuries earlier. In 1123 the Burgh of St Andrews was granted the area of the links by King David. Golf was not mentioned but doubtless the links provided food from rabbits and turf for roofs and other pursuits.  A charter in 1552 confirmed that the townsfolk had rights to play golf on part of the links.

The nobles and landowners of Fife set up the Society of St Andrews Golfers in 1754. They had wealth and power as their members included nobles, many landowners, members of parliament and the leader of the Town Council. The people of the town were generally poor and had no vote for parliament or their local council. The town was in decline and depended upon the weaving trade. At times the town council were financially embarrassed. The local golfers could not respond when the Society claimed primacy on the golf links. They were expected to Caddy but only play when the Society had finished.

The cultural gulf was vast and over time the aims of the Society and Town were different. The only thing they had in common was an interest in golf on the links and gambling which was endemic throughout society. As workers conditions slowly improved there was the prospect of conflict. In the mid eighteenth century the links were in poor condition as was the town. Golf was not a major sport and there were few players across Scotland.

How then did golfers worldwide come to accept that a small town in rural Scotland and its links were so important? One definition of home is “a place where something is invented, founded or developed”. There is no real evidence that golf was invented or founded in St Andrews but it did have a strong hand in the games development. It was the people of the St Andrews area whose actions and decisions aided this development which sometimes foundered. They came from all parts of society and included nobles, gentlemen, weavers, ball makers, a divinity student, a local landowning family, the town’s artisan golf society members and one energetic Provost. There did not ever seem to be a plan to become the ‘Home of Golf’. There was however an early attitude that the links were something special. Our review will concentrate on people rather that chronology, or Charters and Acts of Parliament of which there were many. First some background of the early days.

The Decline of St Andrews

We often refer to 600 years of golf at St Andrews but there is actually very little known about the first 300 years. St Andrews, with its great cathedral built in 1160, was the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. Pilgrims flocked to the town and St Andrew became the patron Saint of Scotland. The port flourished and the town was prosperous. Later, in 1560 the Scottish Reformation rejected papal jurisdiction. Subsequently the town’s importance and prosperity declined until the 19th century. In the early 16th century the population reached 14,000 but in 1793 it was down to 2,854. Golf would eventually play a major part in the town’s revival.

The Links - St Andrews golf is played on a peninsula of ancient links land, with gorse covered dunes. Some of the links evolved gradually by deposits from the sea. More land was reclaimed using grasses to bind the sand and stabilise the dunes. This was followed later by reclamation projects. The Old Course evolved over several hundred years with no specific early design. Little is recorded about the layout of the links between 1400 and 1744. The greens and fairways essentially followed the natural lay of the land. The fairways were narrow, passing through thickets of scrubland: gorse, nettles, brambles, etc. The greens were poor relying on sheep and rabbits to shorten the grass. On this cold windy linksland sheep took refuge in shallow sheltered areas. This made it difficult for grass to grow there. Golfers chose to make sand filled bunkers from the hollows. Players competed with sheep for space on the links and townsfolk used the space for drying fishing nets, grazing cows and goats and various domestic and other activities. There was no proper upkeep.

King David, although he did not know it, was the first person to make a contribution.  His 12th century charter granted to St Andrews Burgh the rights to use the links land. This set a precedent and was carried forward through time. Eventually the rights of the people of the town to play golf on the links were officially confirmed. This is a significant factor in the story that follows: the first link in the chain.

To Follow

Next we discuss when and how St Andrews became the ‘Home of Golf. Then the story will continue from 1744 when the first golf club was founded at St Andrews. Documentary evidence then becomes available providing a more accurate and a very unusual and interesting story. We will explore the social history particularly the people who helped to make St Andrews such a unique and special golf location.

Series Contents to follow:

Part 2

How did St Andrews become the ‘The Home of Golf’?

Part 3

The Founders of the Society of St Andrews Golfers. (We explore the background of many of the founders).

Part 4

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (with powers that no other club has ever had)

Part 5

The Robertson Family (ball makers and a champion golfer)

Part 6

Robert Adams Patterson (Inventor of the low cost  ball which allowed for growth in popularity of the game)

Part 7

The Cheape Family and Sir Hugh Playfair – (Landowners who save the links. A Provost who cleans up the town whilst developing the links)

Part 8

Tom Morris – A modest man of great influence and ability in Golf

Part 9

Tommy Morris (the outstanding golfer of his time, ahead of his peers like Tiger Woods, until tragedy strikes)

Part 10

The St Andrews Golf Club (In the 19th century the town set up their own golf club).

Part 11

Summary and Conclusions





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