#OnlyInScotland

A brief history of golf in Scotland

St Andrews Old Course

It is estimated that as many as 60 million people in 230 countries around the world play golf.

From Algeria to Australia, from Bolivia to Bahrain, there are golf courses in just about every part of the globe.

And to think it all started right here in Scotland, hundreds of years ago.

A number of other countries have attempted to lay claim to being the birthplace of the game but none of them have what Scotland has: tangible evidence in the form of historical documents.

The first written record of golf goes back to March 6, 1457, when King James II banned the sport.

The monarch wrote: “It is ordained and decreed that football and golf be utterly condemned and not practised.” It appears that he had grown weary of the game distracting his loyal subjects from military training – archery practice, specifically – and so, by royal command, it was outlawed.

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Things stayed that way for almost half a century before the ban was finally lifted when the Treaty of Glasgow – also known as the Treaty of Perpetual Peace – came into effect in 1502. A significant moment in the history of Britain, not just golf, it put an end to the warfare that Scotland and England had waged against one another for the previous 200 years and, whilst not completely successful, it did pave the way for the Union of the Crowns just over a century later. This, in turn, led to the formation of Great Britain as we now know it. 

For golf, the signing of the Treaty of Glasgow was ta watershed moment. With a reduced need for military training, the people of Scotland could once again take to the links, which, in turn, laid the foundations for the game to become the multi-national sport and multi-billion business that it is today.

As previously noted, around 60 million people around the world now play golf. To put that into context, that’s roughly 12 times the population of Scotland. Indeed, if 'golf' was a country, it would be the 23rd most populous country in the world, larger than the likes of South Africa, Canada, Argentina, South Korea, Spain… the list goes on and on.

A recent report discovered that there are now more than 32,000 golf courses spanning six of the seven Continents. The oldest of them all, however, is found right here, on the east coast of Scotland, in the ancient university town of St Andrews.

Archbishop Hamilton’s Charter from 1552 is the earliest documented evidence of the people of the town being allowed to play golf on the famous links adjacent to the West Sands.

Principally a license to allow the Archbishop to breed rabbits on the ground, the document also permitted them to continue “playing at golf, football, schuting at gamis, with all uther maner of pastyme as ever thai plais.

Out of that charter, the world-famous Old Course was born.

In addition to being the home of the world’s oldest course, St Andrews is also widely accepted as golf’s spiritual and administrative hometown. The sport’s ruling body – The R&A – is based directly behind the first tee of the Old Course, whilst the influence of the game is felt all throughout the town.

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How appropriate, then, that it was a St Andrews man who helped accelerate the game’s popularity significantly during the 19th century.

That man was Thomas Mitchell Morris Sr. Although you may know him better as ‘Old Tom Morris’.

Born on June 16, 1821, Morris was the son of a weaver and started playing golf at the age of ten. Local legend has it that he used to knock wine-bottle corks, pierced with nails, around the streets of the town using a homemade golf club.

At the age of 14, he began an apprenticeship with Allan Robertson, generally regarded as the world’s first-ever professional golfer. As well as running St Andrews Links, Robertson was also the owner of an influential equipment-making business and Morris spent a number of years working with and learning from him before leaving to take up a job at Prestwick Golf Club in Ayrshire.

It was there that he helped to establish golf’s first real professional tournament - The Open Championship.

Old Tom Morris

Morris (pictured above) struck the first-ever shot in The Open on October 17, 1860, where a further seven golfers joined him at Prestwick to vie for the Challenge Belt. Made from rich red Moroccan leather and embellished with a silver buckle and other emblems, the idea for the belt came from the Earl of Eglinton and was purchased by the Prestwick members.

Sadly for Morris, there was to be no fairytale win for him in that first year. Instead, it was Willie Park Sr of Musselburgh who entered the history books as the first-ever ‘Champion Golfer of the Year’, beating Old Tom to the title by two shots. Old Tom would, though, win it the following year and three more times for good measure. His son, ‘Young Tom’, also won it on four occasions.

Since that first event, The Open has become an annual fixture in the British sporting diary and, along with The Masters, the US Open and the US PGA Championship, is one of golf’s four men's major championships.

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It has been held every year, with the exception of 1871 and during the First and Second World Wars, with the most recent edition in 2019 having been won by Shane Lowry. The Irishman became the 85th different player to take the title, although players no longer play for the Challenge Belt. Instead, the main prize is the iconic Golf Champion Trophy, more commonly known as the Claret Jug. It was first presented in 1872, when a new trophy was needed after the aforementioned Young Tom Morris won the Challenge Belt outright in 1870 following his third successive victory.

To date, seven different Scottish courses have staged The Open: Prestwick, St Andrews, Musselburgh Links, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Royal Troon and Turnberry.

With the exception of Prestwick and Musselburgh Links, all continue to feature on what has become the ‘Open Rota’. St Andrews has hosted the championship more than any other venue – 29 times and counting – with the event having taken place in Scotland on a total of 96 occasions.

St Andrews will stage its 150th edition in 2022, appropriate given the huge influence the Old Course has had on the way golf is played today. For one thing, it set the standard length of a golf course at 18 holes, having originally comprised 22, whilst many of the methods that Old Tom Morris used to maintain it – such as top-dressing greens with sand and actively managing hazards – set the benchmark for modern greenkeeping.

A true student of the game, Old Tom was also arguably the original ‘golf course architect’, lending his talents to the likes of Royal Dornoch, Cruden Bay and more. Many others followed his example, including Elie’s James Braid - a five-time Open champion, who was responsible for, amongst others, the King’s and Queen’s Courses at Gleneagles, Downfield, Boat of Garten and Royal Musselburgh – and the likes of Donald Ross, Mackenzie Ross and many more.

In more recent times, Scottish Ryder Cup-winning captains Sam Torrance and Colin Montgomerie have followed suit, designing exceptional courses of their own in their home country. Torrance’ eponymous links at the Fairmont St Andrews Resort in Fife is one such example, whilst eight-time European Tour Order of Merit winner Montgomerie created the popular inland track at Rowallan Castle in Ayrshire.

All told, there are over 550 golf courses to choose from in Scotland. You are truly spoilt for choice for places to play.

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As well as our Open Championship host venues, you have the likes of Kingsbarns Golf Links, Castle Stuart, Royal Aberdeen, Gullane, Dalmahoy, Dundonald Links, North Berwick, Monifieth and so on.

It is no exaggeration to say that the list of Scottish courses is long, distinguished and the envy of many other countries around the world.

Pleasingly, they are also extremely affordable and accessible. No matter how much or little you have to spend on a green fee, regardless of whether you are a scratch golfer or have never swung a club before in your life, and no matter if you are a young child or a grown adult, there is something for everybody in Scotland – and you don’t have to look far to find it.

On top of that, you’ll be greeted wherever you go with a smile. We Scots are famous for our friendliness. We’re accommodating, helpful and love nothing more than showing off all that is great about our country to the hundreds of thousands who visit each year. To that end, we’ve got accommodation options to suit every taste and budget.

From B&Bs, to five-star hotels, to campsites, to self-catering cottages, to ‘Air B&B’, we’ve got the lot. We’ve also got an environment to suit every visitor: cosmopolitan cities, charming towns, quaint villages and so on. Whatever it is that makes you feel most at home, you’ll find it in Scotland.

That’s the truth of the matter. We’re not the biggest country on the planet. Instead, we’re proof that the best things come in small packages. And as the world starts to embrace the ‘new normal’ brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a better time to fall back in love with the country that gave birth to this wonderful game.

Go, explore, enjoy your golf, and haste ye back!

• For more information on golf in Scotland, log-on to visitscotland.com/golf

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Visitors are asked to be aware of the latest government restrictions relating to Covid-19. For more information go to the Scottish Government website and the VisitScotland website.

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