Anomolies in the Data

30 April 2014

Some historians fail to pursue their investigations back to source and merely copy information from a more modern source.

David Smail 1989 Preswick Golf Club Birthplace of the Open

Recorded history is largely the propaganda of the victors, or counter-propaganda of the losers, and thus littered with misleading representations. Even golf suffers from politics.

In golf history, there are also many errors in the details of course dates or club dates or traditional stories for which there is no documented or contemporaneous evidence.

Even when there is good documentation, it can contain errors. The official records of The Open are not immune. In his history of Prestwick in 1989, David Smail apportions a whole page to the mistakes he found in these records.

Two of them tell an interesting and salutary tale.

In the 20th century, the Royal and Ancient took over the running of the Open, initiated at Prestwick as The Belt, in 1860, and responsibility for publishing the records.

In 1989, the R&A record showed Tom Morris senior won the 1864 Open in 160 strokes. Smail pointed out that only the Badminton Library of 1902 showed Old Tom won the 1864 Open in 160 stokes, while all other references, including Prestwick club minutes, said it was 167. It turned out this 160 error had been introduced in 1968 by Muir McLaren, author of the Australian and New Zealand Golfers Handbook, when he found the Badminton reference and prevailed on the R&A to ‘correct’ the entry from 167 to 160. Until 1968, it was 167 and correct.

Luckily this error was only around for 20 years. Another error, which McLaren had discovered, and with which Smail concurred took much longer to correct.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the R&A records showed that Tom Morris junior had won The Belt in 1868 in 157 strokes and had won again in 1869 in 154 strokes. However, these scores had been transposed.

McLaren had alerted the R&A to this error in 1968, but they had declined to correct it, apparently after checking the scorecards, for reasons which will become apparent.

Smail researched the original score cards, the Ayr Advertiser newspaper, the Badminton Library as well as the engraving on the Belt, which all recorded that Young Tom had won in 1868 in 154 strokes and in 1869 in 157.

Part of the problem was that the year of the event was not contemporaneously written on the scorecards, making it difficult in later years later to assign cards with same golfers’ names to the correct date, not forgetting that all the Opens were held at Prestwick for the first decade. In this case it transpired the dates on the cards had been noted correctly (later) on the scorecards, but then (later still) changed to ‘fit’ the official record. This meant anyone checking the cards now read them wrong.

Even then, it took many years after Smail’s detailed investigations of 1989 for the record to be corrected.

1868 Tom Morris junior 154 strokes

1869 Tom Morris junior 157 strokes

In the meantime, every record book published until 2007 ago perpetuates the error. In the National Library of Scotland, five out the six records books (published 1981-1996) on the public shelves are wrong. Only the R&A Golfers’ Handbook of 2013 has the correct record - a salutatory lesson to all historians that absolutely nothing of itself can be relied upon.

So it is not just a question of going back to source, but even cross referencing that source.

That is why the approach on this website is to build arrays of data, with multiple examples and cross-referenced instances rather than taking the odd document at face value. The pattern of dates and events shows the underlying reality much better than the (over) interpretation of single words or example.

Mundum mutatu errore singillatim.

For changing the world, one mistake at a time - Motto of the Library of Mistakes, Edinburgh

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