Why am I doing this?
A group of businessmen got together and decided to form a Golf Club …
My introduction to golf heritage came when I served on various committees of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (‘R&A’), some 20 years ago. At that time, the principal focus was the commissioning of a history of the R&A to mark the 250th anniversary of the club in 2004. This resulted in three wonderful volumes being published: Challenges & Champions, Champions & Guardians and Traditions & Change. The principal authors of these books were Peter Lewis, who had been Director of the British Golf Museum since 1988, and John Behrend, a former captain of Royal Liverpool Golf Club, whom I knew as a good friend of my father when he looked after the Rules of Golf Committee of the R&A. As a new boy on heritage matters, I had very little input into the approval of these iconic books but, from that moment on, I was hooked on learning more about the heritage of our great game.
Due to professional commitments, I had very little time to go delving into Peter Lewis’s researches but, as these pressures eased, I found time, on many occasions, to ask the hall porter of the R&A for the key to the locked, glass-fronted bookshelves in the club’s library. Behind these glass doors lie a cornucopia of golf club histories, most of them marking the centenaries of clubs from around the world. I was particularly interested in the centenaries of the American clubs, because on many an occasion when I had accompanied my father, I had met representatives of the USGA, who often said that we in the UK were so lucky to have such a long golfing history, whereas American golf history only really started about 130 years ago. That comment always intrigued me. Virtually all of the club histories of the oldest American golf clubs start with words similar to ‘a group of businessmen got together and decided to form a golf club’. Much has, of course, been written about the legacies of the Scottish professional golfers, green keepers and club makers who crossed the Atlantic and were instrumental in servicing the demand for the golfing explosion, but very little has been written to understand what caused all those businessmen to marshal that demand and create these American clubs.
I decided that I would research how Scottish social history and Scottish investment might explain the demand for golf in America. But I needed some solid foundations, and to understand how the gentlemen of Scotland could have had the surplus wealth to invest in the risk-frontiers of the world, but particularly America. Scotland is, after all, a small country. It had been virtually bankrupt in the early eighteenth century, following the failure of the Darien Scheme to create a colony on the Panama isthmus. This ultimately caused Scotland’s political union with England, and so led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. So what changed Scotland’s fortunes for the better?
I found my solid foundations in what is, arguably, the most famous golfing painting of all time. This is, of course, ‘The Golfers: A Grand Match Played over the Links of St Andrews on the Day of the Annual Meeting of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’ by Charles Lees, completed in 1847. We are presented with a snapshot of the Scottish gentleman golfers of their time. Just as the American golf club historians do not tell us much about the businessmen who were inspired to form their clubs, we have been equally as guilty in not considering the 52 characters in The Golfers, all of whom are identified by the artist in a key. While The Golfers celebrates the game of golf, Lees must have had his own intentions in the assembling of his characters. So, I decided to research the biographies of all the gentlemen who appear in the painting, and in so doing I found that The Golfers is an amazing tapestry of interwoven stories and a celebration of the game of golf at a critical moment of its development.
By using metaphors, the artist set out to create a royal and ancient account of the game of golf, stretching from the time of the Stuart King James I of Great Britain (VI of Scotland) in the early seventeenth century. But the spectators of the Grand Match add depth to the painting, forming further metaphors. I suspected that Lees applied Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory to let the lives of the chosen participants narrate the social context, and social history, of Scotland at that time. I tested my assumption on Lees’ other iconic painting, The Grand Match at Linlithgow Loch (1849), and I believe it supports my thesis.
For the American reader, The Golfers also provides some interesting historical links.
First, there is the link between a character in The Golfers with William Johnstone Pulteney, the developer of the vast tract of Native American land south of Lake Ontario, known as the Phelps and Gorham Tract.
Secondly, there is a link that sets the Scottish origins of Charles Blair (‘CB’) MacDonald in context. CB is widely regarded as one of the fathers of American golf and wrote the iconic book Golf: Scotland’s Gift.
Thirdly, there is a link between another of the characters and Elizabeth Willing Powel, who was known as the premiere saloniste of Philadelphia, in charge of the locations where elite men and women in the late colonial era spent their evenings, including George Washington, who was a close friend.
There are also links to colonial governors in America: the Scots of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had extraordinary international reach.
I got more than I bargained for in selecting The Golfers as the foundation for my researches into whether Scottish golf history can also be considered to be American golf history, but it is a fascinating story that almost qualifies for a television exposé on Who Do You Think You Are!
I hope I have intrigued you!
You can explore the painting in depth and at your leisure in my book, with the aid of over 100 full-colour images. Gentry Links: The Great Men of ‘The Golfers’ will be published in early 2019. It will be available through selected golf clubs, the British Golf Museum, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. However for most people, my book can be ordered through this website. Unfortunately, for those people who buy their books through Amazon, that platform is not available for this book.