The World's Oldest Golf Clubs
Ascertaining the best criteria with reliability and validity requires a little imagination and a lot of documented record; who are we to say the sport in one form or another was not played thousands or even millions of years ago? Obviously, it is not the same as it is today: fancy hummer golf carts, titanium equipment and a saturated market always leading to new innovations.
Perhaps Stonehenge was constructed or abandoned as holes, tees, tee boxes, or anything in-between--perhaps an extraterrestrial playground? But, let’s look at what we know, as humans, and perhaps it is no coincidence that we turn to Scotland.
A Sport of Royalty
Golf originated in Scotland in 1421. It was played mostly by Queens and Kings. They played with a “primitive club” resembling a stick and hit pebbles on a natural terrain of sand dunes. King James II banned golf in 1457 because he thought people were becoming complacent and distracted from their preparations for an English invasion. This ban was lifted in 1502, when the popularity of the game spread like wildfire via endorsement of the monarchs. The rules for the Leith course were drafted in 1744 by Duncan Forbes, near Edinburgh.
The Queen of Scots and Musselburgh
Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart (1542-1587) was accused of playing golf at Musselburgh in 1567 by the Earl of Moray, only a few days after Lord Darnley’s (her husband’s) death--when she was accused of golfing at Seton House. Claims were made before the ‘Articles’ Westminster Commissioners in 1568.
Famous tradition is that Queen Mary Stuart had once been defeated by Mary Seton in a match, and the latter was rewarded with a necklace. Mary Seton was one of three ‘ladies-in-waiting’; each of whom was named Mary. (This might make an awkward foursome when addressing whose shot it is.)
The first female golf tournament in recorded history occurred in 1811 at the (Royal) Musselburgh Golf Club. Originally seven holes, the old links added an eighth in 1832 and the ninth in 1870. This ninth was named the ‘Sea Hole’ and now makes up the fifth. Musselburgh today prides itself in being the oldest layout on the face of the earth; and most golf historians agree with this meretricious and worthy boast.
Mary’s son, James VI is believed to have played at Musselburgh before embarking on his expedition south to become James I, King of England and Ireland, in 1603.
Evidence also suggests that Sir John Foulis of Ravelston, an Edinburgh lawyer played Musselburgh in 1672. Like many attorneys, Sir John maintained meticulous records; with his focused on Leith Links golf.
How to Define a Golf Club
Golf societies are based on three criteria: dated evidence, organization, and continuity of existence. Thus, there must be dated reference or artifact of exact dates; the group must meet at regular intervals or formality for the purpose of golf-related matters; there must be a continuation of this society--even if the name no longer remains. So now let’s look at the ten oldest (known) golf societies:
- Royal Burgess Golf Society (1735)
- Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (1744)
- Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (1754)
- Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society (1761)
- Royal Blackheath Golf Club (1766)
- Royal Musselburgh Golf Club (1774)
- Royal Aberdeen Golf Club (1780)
- Crail Golfing Society (1786)
- Glasgow Golf Club (1787)
- Burntisland Golf Club (1791)
Given the aforementioned three criteria, a rigid analysis of these societies leaving no room for flexibility might easily eliminate them from being “golf clubs,” yet they still remain the oldest documented golf societies. Though their origins vary, each group began with the purpose of golfers getting together for a social meeting prior to the establishment of clubs and societies. Organizing an annual golf competition was the goal of some of these groups. Contrastingly, others formed because years earlier their “club” tournament had been inaugurated.
The First Golf Wager?
Gambling in the form of golf, or an ancestor root of the sport, is almost certain to have existed; perhaps before written word--yet individual matches played for money are recorded as early as 1503 when King James IV was apparently defeated in Edinburgh by the Earl of Bothwell (perhaps best recognized by his association with Mary, Queen of Scots). Therefore, if holding a competition is the primary measure for the oldest known golfers, this monarch and Lord High Admiral were the first members of a golf club and have gone down in history as the first named golfers. Not a terrible legacy to leave; certainly better than decapitation.