Oldest Golf Courses
This list of the oldest golf courses is based on the criteria of
- Date - authoritative reference to a date on which play began on the area of the current course
- Location - any part of the current course being within the area played at this date
- Continuity - continuity of play is disregarded
- 1754 St Andrews Old Course (1552)
- 1774 Musselburgh Old Course (1672)
- 1787 Elie and Earlsferry (1589)
- 1793 Fortrose (1702)
- 1812 Kinghorn
- 1817 Scotscraig
- 1818 Montrose North Links
- 1823 Kingsbarns
- 1832 North Berwick West Links
- 1835 Carnoustie
- 1840 Gullane Links (1 & 2)
- 1845 Monifieth Links
- 1846 Leven Links 1868 Leven and Lundin Links
- 1851 Prestwick
- 1851 Lanark
- 1856 Dunbar East Links
- 1856 Pau
- 1857 The Curragh
- 1860 Perth North Inch
- 1864 Westward Ho!
This list is very different from the list of Oldest Golf Societies, largely because all the oldest golf clubs except those at St Andrews, Earlsferry and Fortrose had to relocate late in 19th century to create 18-hole golf courses. In property, location is of paramount importance.
As with other historical lists, this one reflects the records that we have, rather than the reality of what may or may not have happened.
The right to play golf on their links was enshrined in the 16th century Burgh records of St Andrews (1552) and, reputedly, at Elie (1589) and play is recorded at Musselburgh from 1672, but not with the precision needed to prove these activities were on today's course, though they almost certainly were. Therefore the courses at St Andrews, Musselburgh, Elie go back much further than the index dates suggest, and they can rightly claim to be the oldest golf courses still played. However, the records do not document the precise location with any degree of certainty until the date shown.
There is still a golf course at Bruntsfield Links (1695) in Edinburgh, though only the short-hole game is played there now. Recently it has become clear that parts of Fortrose golf course play over the area used by the Fortrose golfers at the end of the 18th century, which means the course is older than the club.
The first mention of links golf is on Barry Links near Carnoustie, but the exact location is not specified and may not be an area currently played. The first mention of a golf hole is ascribed to Aberdeen, in 1625, on the old Aberdeen Links, which is Queens Links and Broad Hill. However, this area is no longer played. Likewise at Perth, early golf on the North Inch was closer to the town and has since moved further north.
There are no longer any golf courses at all on Leith Links in Edinburgh, Sauchope in Crail, Glasgow Green in Glasgow, Burntisland Links at Burntisland, Ward Hill at Cruden Bay, West Links/Hedderwick Links at Dunbar nor the East Links at North Berwick. As stated above, this is because they could not expand to 18 holes in the late 19th century at their original locus.
The lack of space to create 18-holes also applied to the early English clubs such as Blackheath and Manchester, which forced them to move as well. An interesting (and recent) exception is Royston (1869), which would be only a few years outside this list.
Only the Royal & Ancient and Musselburgh clubs were able to develop and play continuously over their original golfing grounds. All the other clubs of the 18th century and all the other 18 oldest golf clubs had to relocate, if only a mile or two, to establish the courses that they play today. Kingsbarns and Scotscraig returned to their original golfing grounds, having been unceremoniously turfed off the land by tenant farmers who ploughed the courses up, leading to the demise of both clubs for many years. In Montrose, the golfers play near the original links but not exactly where the first links, called the Mid-Links, was located.
It may come as a surprise that there are courses outside Scotland in the oldest 18 extant courses. The reason was that these courses were started where there was enough room for expansion. The age of the foreign courses does not reflect any early local interest in golf, but the visiting Scottish influence, though at Pau and Westward Ho!, the Scots were joined by prominent London golfers, whose support became noticeable in the late 19th century. These factors also applied at Wimbledon Common founded in 1865, which is just outside this list, as are Haddington (1865) and Brook Common (1865).
The Golfers Yearbook of 1866 lists 38 clubs playing 23 courses. (The average bogey for the course records is 5.21 per hole.) Of these, five clubs and eight courses are no more, which is a modest attrition rate, but includes many of the oldest courses. In the next two decades, the number of clubs and courses would rise rapidly. In 1888, the Golfing Annual lists 197 clubs playing about 126 courses, though some courses are not named. At least 15,000 golf club members can be identified, although some had multiple club memberships. By the end of the century this would be over 2,000 clubs, on over 1,000 courses.