The oldest golf courses outside of Scotland

Where are the oldest golf courses outside of Scotland?

So where and how did the oldest golf courses become established outside of Scotland?

Where was the earliest golf played outside of Scotland?

How and when did Golf begin in England?

If it was King James IV of Scotland who was the first recorded golfer in Scotland, then it was King James VI of Scotland who, almost certainly, brought golf to England.

By uniting the Crowns of Scotland and England, he became Jamesd I of England, and moved his Court to Greenwich Palace.

There is evidence that five years later, his Scottish Courtiers, having become homesick for their beloved game, had built a seven hole golf course at Blackheath.

James was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603.

By Daniël Mijtens (circa 1590–circa 1647), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hence, The Royal Blackheath Golf Club lay claim to having been formed in 1608, although the evidence is unclear as to whether or not there was a “Golf Club”, as we now understand the term, based there at that time.

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Royal Blackheath, England

It is recorded that James VI of Scotland took his clubs with him when visited Greenwich Palace, and probably played golf in the Royal Park at Greenwich. He became King Kames I of England in 1603 so golf would have been played around that time

Royal Blackheath, at Greenwich, England, therefore lays claim to be the oldest golf club known outside of Scotland, and possibly the oldest golf club in the world. 

What is uncertain is the date when Royal Blackheath was constituted as a golf club. 

The Royal Blackheath club itself believes that it was instituted as a golf club in 1608 and, as such, claims to be the oldest golf club in the world, having officially celebrated their 400th anniversary in 2008. 

However, the earliest surviving dating evidence is a silver golf club that is displayed in the clubhouse and this is dated 1766.  

King James VI would have brought golfers with him when he brought his Court to Greenwich Palace. One of his sons Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, is known to have played at Greenwich in 1606. So whether or not there is doubt about the club being formed at Blackheath in 1608, there is no doubt that golf was actually played there before that time.

Old Alick

Old Alick, the first greenkeeper whose story still survives, was born in 1775 as Alick Brotherston. He served as a caddie at the Royal Blackheath club before he was employed as a regular hole cutter in 1822

Mr. William Innes, Captain, The Royal Blackheath Golf Club, 1778 by Lemuel Francis Abbott, R.A.

Reproduced from the book by Bernard Darwin, “A Golfer’s gallery of Old Masters”, 1927

, “Old Alick,” Hole Cutter at Blackheath, home of the oldest golf course in England,.by R.S.E. Gallen, c 1835,

Reproduced from the book by Bernard Darwin, “A Golfer’s gallery of Old Masters”, 1927

Alick was innovative. It is said that he may have pioneered the use of flags to mark the holes. The holes, he cut with a knife, despite the stone of Blackheath.

Held in high regard at Blackheath, the paintert, portrayed him in the fashion of that the players of high social position would wear on the links.

Old Manchester

The second oldest golf club known outside of Scotland was the Old Manchester Club which was formed at Kersal Moor by William Mitchell in 1814. 

George Fraser, Esq. was chosen as the first Captain and President, in 1818, and continued in office untill 1820, when William Mitchell,  was elected Captain and President.

This club only had 5 holes and did not have any greens or fairways as would be recognisable by today’s standards. Kersal Moor was an open space that was shared by the public.

For the first 73 years of its existence the club was known as the “Manchester Golf Club”. The club moved to Broughton Park in the 1891, and then again to Vine Street in 1904. The club lost their course in 1960 when Salford Corporation gave the club notice to vacate the land.

George Fraser, The first Captain, and President, of Old Manchster Golf Club

Courtesy, The Old Manchester Golf Club

The club with no course

Since that time the members of the Old Manchester Golf Club have had no course and no clubhouse, but still play for all of the Medals and Cups on three local courses, each year. 

The Club became known as The Old Manchester Golf Club when the current Manchaster Golf Club, realised, in 1883, that the original Manchster Golf Club had effectively ceased to exist within the City of Manchester. Until this time the current Manchester golf Club had been known as The Manchester St Andrews Golf Club.

There is some fascinating information about the Old Manchester Club, as well as many other old clubs, many of which have now disappeared on a website called Golf’ Missing Links, created by John & Marie Llewellyn

See also The History of The Manchester Golf Club.

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The oldest golf courses outside of the British Isles

It was not long before golf began to spread to other parts of what was then called the “British Empire”. 

In India the Royal East India Company was the British Government’s administrative and military authority, and during the 17th and 18th centuries set up an administrative centre at Calcutta

Royal Calcutta, India

The British gentlemen who were based there created their own golf course, and founded a golf club in Calcutta, in 1829. It was later to become the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in 1911, following a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. 

The course was originally located near to the Calcutta airport. It then moved to the Maidan and finally to its present location at Tollygunge in 1910.

The Maidan Pavilion was opened sometime in January, 1885 with a bowling green being laid down in 1887. The first Amateur Golf Championship of India was held at the Royal during Christmas time in the year 1892,

The Royal Calcutta Golf Club is thereby the oldest golf club outside of the British Isles.

The Royal Calcutta Clubhouse, the oldest club outside of the British Isles

Courtesy, The Royal Calcutta Golf Club

It was soon followed, in 1842, by another golf course on the other side of India at Bombay, which has unfortunately not survived. 

The Indian Amateur Championship began in 1892 and as such is the world’s oldest national championship outside of the Open Championship, which started in 1860, and the Amateur Championship, which started in 1885. 

Pau, France

However, before this, golf had taken a foothold on the continent at Pau in the French Pyrenees.  A golf course was created by two Scottish Officers of a regiment of Wellington’s army, which was camped at Pau during the Napoleonic War in 1814. The two Scotsmen were avid golfers and so eventually created their own golf course.

Twenty years later, the same Scotsmen, with a desire to remember their youthful memories returned as tourists, along with some friends, and their golf clubs. Gradually, a British community was established in Pau, and the Pau Club was consequently eventually founded in 1856.

Pau Golf Club is therefore the oldest golf club on the continent of Europe.

Professionals at Pau in 1897, including Archie Simpson, Sandy Herd, Willie Auchterlonie, Harry Vardon, J-H Taylor, Joe Lloyd

Courtesy, Pau Golf Club

The Gutty Revolution

The impact of the introduction of the Gutty ball.

The introduction of the Gutty ball caused a major increase in the popularity of the game of golf, which, in turn, led to an explosion in the numbers of golf courses and clubs.

Until around 1850 golf had not been a very popular sport. 

This was because the game had depended on the use of the “feathery” balls, which were very expensive to purchase. 

Golf had therefore until this time been limited to the wealthy minority of the population, who could afford the equipment, and thus giving golf a reputation as a rich man’s game. 

It was the invention of the gutta-percha ball in 1848 which revolutionised the game. 

Longer flight, more durable and less expensive

It flew further, rolled truer, was more durable, and was much less expensive, and although it did not yet open up the game to the masses, it was the “gutty” that popularised the game and attracted a larger proportion of the community. 

From this point on golf grew like a contagious virus – within the British Isles and to all parts of the world. 

Previously golf had been largely seen as a prelude to and an excuse by the privileged classes to indulge in gluttonous feasts. Tobias Smollet described golfers of the 1770s as “they never went to bed without each having the best part of a gallon of claret in his belly.”  

The mind boggles to even contemplate drinking so much!

The golf explosion

In 1850, around the birth of the gutty, there were only 17 golf clubs and societies in the British Isles

By 1890 this had leapt to 387, playing over 140 different courses. 

The founding of the Open Championship in 1860 helped to popularise the game and within the next decade a number of major clubs were established.

This included the following clubs, which can rightly make claim to being some of the oldest golf clubs in England :

1864, Westwood Ho!, now Royal Devon Golf Club

1865, The London Scottish Club at Wimbledon, London, the oldest English club still using its original course.

1869, The Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake, now the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, and which hosted the very first Amateur Championship in 1885. 

It is interesting that Westwood Ho! And Royal Liverpool were, like many early Scottish golf courses,  both built on Links land, that is the narrow strip of, otherwise useless, sand dunes that separate the sea from the land.

Today, any golf course that is built on such land is called a Links course. It is generally frowned upon for any other type of golf course to be referred to as a links. Instead they are classified as parkland, heathland, moorland, etc.

Comments from the time

Here are comments from the time, by the, then, famous golfer and author, Horace Hutchinson, taken from his book “Fifty Years of Golf” written in 1914, but reminiscing of his youth, in the 1870’s, spent at Westward Ho!.

On Westwood Ho!

It seems to me that the establishment of the Club at Westward Ho! and the discovery that it was possible to play golf, and the very best of golf, in England, even as in Scotland, sent a new thrill of life into all the dormant golfing energies of the country.

It stirred up the Blackheathens; then it led to the institution of the Golf Club associated with the London Scottish Volunteers, which was later to develop a schism, of which one division became the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club.

 

» read more of Horace Hutchinson's reminiscences

The great man of the volunteers was the still present Lord Wemyss, then Lord Elcho, and he was as keen a golfer as rifle shot. To us at Westward Ho! the Wimbledon Club sent down Henry Lamb, Dr. Purves and many more; but these two were perhaps their strongest.

On his early golf

Of the Blackheathens I have spoken, but I want to give a special word to Mr. Frank Gilbert, both because he was especially kind, of all the others, to me as a boy and also because his gift of nomenclature survives in the popular name still often ascribed to one of the Westward Ho! holes. At times of excitement his aspirates used to fly. He was perfectly aware of it and did not in the least mind gentle chaff on the subject. I even think he often sent them flying purposely, for sake of effect.

After all, he used just as many aspirates as anyone else, only that he used them in rather different places: that was all. The hole that his genius named was that which is now the ninth, and its naming was on this wise: after hacking his ball out of first one bunker, thence into another, and from that into a third, he exclaimed in accents of inspiration and despair, “I call this ‘ole the halligator ‘ole, because it’s full of gaping jaws waiting to devour you.” Therefore the “halligator ‘ole” it remained for many a year afterwards and is so known to some even to this day.

I remember another exclamation of his that gave us purest joy at the time, when, having made what he believed to be a lovely shot over a brow to a “blind” hole in a hollow he ran up to the top of the brae in exultation, only to turn back with tragic dismay on his face and on his lips the eloquent expostulation, “Oh, ‘ell, they’ve haltered the ‘ole.”

Playing for a gutta-percha

I used to play him for a ball—a shilling gutta-percha ball—on the match, and for a long while, when I was a boy, we were fairly equal, and how often, towards the end of the match, he would miss a short putt in order that he might pay me the shilling, and not I him, I should be sorry to say. I know it was pretty frequently.

And then this thrill of new golfing life started at Westward Ho! communicated itself to the many Scots established in Liverpool, so that in 1869 they so far organised themselves as to institute that which is now the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, playing at Hoylake.

What that meant for us at Westward Ho! was that men of Hoylake came down to play matches with our local heroes and to take part in our medal competitions. There were Mr. John Dunn and Mr John Ball, the father of our many times champion. Colonel Hegan Kennard was another who was associated with the Hoylake club, though his association with Blackheath was closer—of that venerable Club he was Field Marshal for very many years.

On big money matches

But some of the first of the big matches, matches with sums of money depending on their result which seemed to me fabulous in days when a sixpence in the pocket was a rare coin, were those which were planned by the enterprise of Captain Molesworth—himself and Johnnie Allan in partnership against Mr. John Dunn and Jack Morris, who had come as professional to Hoylake.

Now John Dunn made very much more show as a player than the old Mole. “The mole—an animal that keeps to the ground” was a definition which we used to be fond of quoting as we grew out of the years of veneration to those of impertinence. He had an absolute inability to drive the ball any height in the air.

The Old Mole

No other man ever played golf so cheaply as the old Mole: he had but three clubs, sometimes profanely stigmatized as Faith, Hope and Charity, a driving weapon of sorts, an iron and a putter, which he carried himself, never taking a caddie, and his ball was generally of the colour of a coal from long and ill usage. But he would bet you £50 on a match if you cared about it, and would play you with fine pluck to the very finish.

He was in fact a miserable driver; nor was there any “class” or science at all about his iron play. But he would shovel the ball along, and up to the green somehow or other with his iron: he had a knack of getting there; and when once on the green there was not nor ever has been a better putter.

»

An Old Westward Ho group,

From left to right: Mr. P. Wilmot, Mr. T. Oliphant (of Rossie), Major Hopkins, Hon C. Carnegie, J. Allan, Admiral Thrupp, General Maclean, Sir R. Hay, General Sir Hope Grant, Mr. T. MacCandlish (putting), Rev. T. Gosset, Colonel Hutchinson, Mr. J. Brand, Mr. Peter Steel, Mr. R. Molesworth, Mr. Lindsay Bennett, General Wilson, Mr. Eaton Young.

Sitting: Mr. Baldwin, Colonel Hegan Kennard, Mr. George Gosset.

Mr. John Dunn (driving), Captain Molesworth, R.N.

From Horace Hutchinson’s book, “Fifty Years of Golf”, published 1919, but depicting a scene of around 1875

Westward Ho as it is today, illustrating the course’s links qualities

Coutesy of The Royal North Devon Golf Club

The next golf explosion

The impact of the Haskell ball

There was another, even bigger, surge in golf course development, not just in the UK, but worldwide from the 1880s onwards. This resulted from the game becoming more and more popular, which was fuelled by the introduction of the less expensive. mass produced, rubber Haskell ball,. 

Asia

In Asia, from 1888 to 1990 courses were built at Taiping in Malaysia, Bankok in Thailand and in Hong Kong. This was mainly driven by British “ex-pats”.

In Japan the oldest golf course was built in 1901, but it was not until the 1920s and 30s that golf really took off here. 

The Old Commonwealth

Golf was initiated in Australia with Royal Adelaide in 1872, followed by Royal Melbourne in 1891,

In New Zealand, Otago was founded in 1871, and merged with Dunedin in 1892.

In South Africa the oldest golf club was established at the Royal Cape Club, Cape Town in 1885.

Dunedin Golf Club Clubhouse, Fogarty’s Mornington Hotel, New Zealand 1872-73

Featuring John Brown Park and a caddy putting out on the 18th green. John Brown Park came from Bothwell in Tasmania carrying clubs to start a school in Mornington and was secretary to the Dunedin Golf Club in 1872-3.

Coutesy of John Evans, Former Director PGA Tour Australasia

South America

In South America it was railway construction that sparked the game, with British railway engineers being employed to build the railways. In Argentina, Buenos Aires Golf Club is the oldest golf club and was founded in 1878 and in Brazil, San Paulo is the oldest golf club, founded in 1890. 

Europe

On the continent of Europe golf spread, initially in the northern countries through Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Czechoslovakia, and then followed sun seeking northerners to the southern countries of Spain and Portugal.

Next – Discover how golf came to the United States

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