The Independent Golfer

Excert from CHAPTER 10

Featheries, Gutties and Hickory Shafts

..surprisingly hard “feathery.” With a final coat of paint to protect it from the weather, the ball could be sold to a gentleman golfer for four shillings, a price well beyond the reach of most Scots of the time.

Golf clubs were also works of art and equally expensive. The heads of clubs were made of very tough wood such as apple, beech, holly or pear and were skillfully connected using a splint, leather straps and string winding to shafts of a more limber or “whippy” wood such as ash or hazel. A gentleman’s set of clubs would have consisted of a few play clubs (longnoses) for driving, some fairway clubs (or grassed drivers) for medium range shots, some spoons for short range shots, a niblick or two (similar to today's wedges) and a putting cleek. The cost of such a set would be beyond all but the few wealthiest members of the community.

To make the game even more expensive, as you might guess, feathery balls were vulnerable to miss-hits. I picture a golfer hitting his ball thin and watching a cloud of feathers drift away on the wind. Though, in reality, the feathers were too compacted to explode like a pillow, the balls could be damaged easily and, of course, playing on the links among the heather and gorse, these valuable little pellets could be lost as well. Clubs were vulnerable too. The ash and hazel shafts were so prone to breaking that it was common for a gentleman golfer to stop by the clubmaker’s shop after finishing a round in order to turn in a club or two for repair.

Little wonder that golf before the mid-19th Century was a rich man’s game. Only the wealthy merchants of the towns and the minor royalty who lived off the produce of the land they held from the King could afford to keep themselves in balls and clubs. Thus, the list of names of the founders of the early golf clubs did not include working men or laborers, farmers or fishermen. As their club names indicate, they were Gentlemen Golfers. The only exceptions were the club- and ball-makers themselves who could make their own equipment and thus be able to enjoy the game. These were, in fact, the first “golf professionals” who had the equipment and the time to perfect their game. Though respected for their playing skill as well as their craftsmanship, these “professionals” were considered by the Gentleman Golfers to be mere servants.

The Gentleman Golfers of golf’s early days were not above saving money wherever they could and their biggest savings were in the courses they played. The earliest courses were laid out on land owned by the town that was held “in common” for the use of all the town’s residents. This common land was generally too poor in quality to be farmed but served as a place to graze stock. Typically near the sea, it could also be used by fishermen to beach their boats for repair, by youths to play games, by archers to practice their war-related skills, and by the general population....

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