August 18, 2009

Golf's Confusing And Contradictory Origins In America

"The first" of anything important is usually a matter of high prestige, and as such, you will find a lot of hyperbole that borders on fabrication surrounding it. For example, what was the first golf course in America? Who started the first golf club? You will sometimes hear nearly as many different answers as the number of times you ask the questions, and all of them will be "right." Well, most of them, anyway.

Many claim it, some even advertise it, but only one can legitimately claim it -- and even then, given the spotty records surrounding sport a couple of centuries ago, it is difficult to claim primacy without fear of contradiction.

The USGA says this:
"The origin of golf clubs in North America can be traced to the year 1786 with the founding of a club in Charleston, S.C., and the charter of the Royal Montreal Golf Club in 1873. Golf was played at Oakhurst, W. Va., in 1884, the Dorset Field Club, Vt., in 1886, and in Foxburg, Pa., in 1887. The St. Andrews Club in Hastings-on-the-Hudson, N.Y., has been documented as the longest continually running club since its founding in 1888."
The Charleston club they mention was t
he South Carolina Golf Club, which was founded by Scottish merchants on September 29, 1786. The club was a social organization at first, and it is difficult to ascertain if they even played the game from the outset of the club's formation. It is recorded that members did play golf not long afterwards on Harleston Green, a public park in the center of Charleston that was also used by other city inhabitants for horse races, cricket matches, picnicking, and walking. Harleston Green did not have a dedicated golf course as we conceive of them today, so while the SCGC was almost certainly the first golf club, it had an arrangement where it used a public park as its field of play.

One could even question if South Carolina Golf Club's activities were golf as we know it. History does not make the dictinction between the game they played at Harleston green as being the "short" game - similar to ‘kolf’ played in the Netherlands - a commoners’ game round churchyards and village greens, hitting balls at targets in the landscape, or whether there were holes specifically cut for the purpose of golf.

What is interesting is that a shipment of 96 golf clubs and 432 golf balls was received by one David Deas of Charleston in 1743. Surely they weren't mantle decorations or party favors -- a featherie golf ball from that time would be worth an average worker's annual salary. That said, it is safe to say that golf was played even before the formation of the SC Golf Club forty-three years later. Again, the specific type of game that was played with that equipment is still questionable and the subject of debate amongst interested historians.

Royal Montreal claims to be the oldest golf club in North America, having been founded in 1873. In that year, a small group of eight gentlemen sat in a dockside office and formed the Montreal Golf Club. That claim, however, is contradicted by well-documented South Carolina Golf Club, which is 87 years older. Perhaps the claim is the oldest golf club continuously operated since it was formed, but that's not the claim on the club's website - they lay claim simply to being "the oldest."

In America, in February of 1888, Scottish-born John Reid and several friends played a "friendly game of gowf" in Yonkers, New York and later formed the historic St. Andrews Golf Club, which was of course named after the Scottish town that is the home of the game. St. Andrews lays claim to being the oldest continuously operated club in the United States, and given its role in forming the USGA, and its recognition in the golf world, that fact is almost impossible to dispute. Among many of the early clubs, St. Andrews is the thoroughbred.

The Foxburg Country Club is founded in Foxburg, Pennsylvania, where in 1887, the Foxburg Golf Club was organized, a course built and it has been in use continuously ever since. Since Oakhurst Links closed for roughly 70 years in the 20th century, Foxburg could lay claim to being the "oldest" course in the US, given that its fair links have never been used for any other purpose besides golf since their contruction.

Oakhurst Golf Links
claims to be the first golf course in the United States, having been laid out in 1884. That may be strictly true, however, once again, the South Carolina Golf Club may still earn primacy, because they played one or the other forms of golf on Harleston Green in more than 100 years before Oakhurst was cut into the West Virginia hills.

Granted, Harleston Green was either a temporary or a shared course when the SCGC played, but was still a course when its members were whacking featheries from a tee towards a hole. Perhaps the most accurate claim is that Oakhurst Links is the oldest dedicated course, a claim that would withstand historical analysis. Whether it is truly the "oldest" may well depend on one's definition of a "golf course." The Scots, who undoubtedly can lay claim to the provenance of the modern game say simply that "‘links golf’, played with a variety of clubs to holes, marked by flags" constituted a "golf course." In fact, the Scottish Golf History website states flatly that "this is golf as we know it. "

So perhaps Oakhurst Links is indeed the first golf course in the United States, at least one as defined by the Scottish.

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