On the Dating of Golf Societies

6 October 2014

It is generally accepted that these four clubs are the four oldest golf clubs, but the order of their seniority would appear to require some rearrangement.

Charles B Clapcott writing to The Scotsman 30th April 1938

Charles B Clapcott, the early 20th century historian of golf, spent much time considering the claims of early golf clubs to their relevant ‘foundation’ dates. In 1938, he wrote to the Scotsman, as quoted above, to question the list of golf club dates which they had published. His view of the oldest five clubs’ history was:-

V     It can hardly be denied that the four Golf Clubs alluded to are among the five ‘Oldest Golf Clubs’ existing today. But might not the order of seniority be:

Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers – previous 1744

Royal & Ancient St Andrews – 1754

Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh – previous 1760

Bruntsfield Links Golf Club 1760

Royal Blackheath – 1766

He felt the Honourable Company must have been in existence for some years before the 1744 competition was held, as there had been previous requests for such a prize from the Council to sponsor a golf competition, as they had done for the Company of Archers' Silver Arrow forty years before. It should be noted that he was a member of the Honourable Company, but was commendably objective in his analysis.

On the Royal & Ancient, there is little dispute and they have continuous minutes from the date of their first competition to the present day. However, they did not make arrangements to meet socially until 1766.

The Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield Links were originally one group meeting at Bruntsfield. Clapcott took the date of ‘prior to 1760’, as the date of the schism, reported by the Bruntsfield Links. This date had no independent verification, relying on 30-year old memories in the Bruntsfield club. There are, however, particular reasons to believe that Clapcott is right.

  1. Bruntsfield Links had a club-house called Golfhall in 1717. This was an extensive establishment with a large pub and workshops. It has recently been discovered that the an early publican c1723-c1728 was Robert Bigger, a prominent golfer.  
  2. Thomas Comb, the club-maker, bought Golfhall at Bruntsfield Links in 1760, when he restarted the pub with David Babtie. Comb had been trained by George Neilson, who had been making clubs there for several decades before he retired in 1760. Golfhall can be seen in the Sandby watercolour of 1747. Comb's arrival and revival of the pub probably triggered an increase in golfers and golf club activity and the creation of second club, or schism from first. All the evidence is that a club was there before this date.
  3. At the Bruntsfield centenary dinner in 1861, the Captain claimed that the two clubs split over Jacobite vs Hanoverian differences. If true, they must have been in existence prior to 1745 as it would have been inconceivable that Jacobite and Hanoverian sympathisers would have formed a group after the ‘Glorious ‘45’ and its tragic and bitter aftermath.
  4. The masonic influences in Burgess are clear, yet, unlike the Hon Co, R&A and Royal Blackheath, official connections are completely absent, supporting the view they were one of the many Scottish groups that did not join Grand Lodge in 1736, and by default became a golf club. The Burgess group, probably without a name to begin with, carried on meeting, but unable to recruit official masons and with no clear mission to recruit non-masons as golfers. This makes sense of their first minutes and subsequent events, such as the purchasing of aprons for “Masonic” rituals, wrongly ascribed by some to the Burgess when it is in fact in the Bruntsfield minutes (though without any mention of rituals or masonic connections.)

Bruntsfield Link’s date of 1761 is a traditional date. The club minutes of 1790 state that the club had been in existence for thirty years and the centenary celebration was held in 1861. The arrival of Thomas Comb at Golfhall is the most likely stimulus for the Club's creation. Edinburgh was a city of almost 60,000 by 1755, which means that Bruntsfield Links would have had the largest number of golfers living within walking distance of the course. 

Clapcott dismissed Royal Blackheath’s date of 1608, as it would be no more than any other meeting of Scottish golfers of the time. There is no definite support for the date but it is probably derived from an anecdote of Prince Henry playing golf thought to be at Greenwich, but more likely at Richmond. The first written record of Blackheath is a bar bill for 55 members in the Chocolate House of Blackheath in 1787, though they had a golf prize from 1766, which is the date Clapcott took.

Mysteriously, Royal Musselburgh is missing from Clapcott’s list though the existence of a local golf club in 1760 is reported later by the Inveresk Minister. The Club is now credited with the date of its Cup, 1774, the oldest golf cup in the world.  The number of players in Musselburgh may well have been fewer than Edinburgh, but many prominent early golfers are known in East Lothian. They may have been a decade or so behind the city folks, but no less active, and Musselburgh Links is the oldest extant course of four of these clubs.

Overall what it tells us is that during the second quarter of the 18th century, golf groups began forming, some as Freemasons. As golf was associated with Jacobite royalty, they were not keen to publicise or document their existence Over the next 50 years, competitions began to be held; captains were elected; and rules were written. Golf clubs developed distinct identities. By the end of the century, all the clubs were recruiting non-masons, as formally recorded at Blackheath in 1789.

If we may now improve on Charles Clapcott’s observation, it is clear that these six oldest golf clubs are the oldest six clubs in the world, but the order of their seniority will always be somewhat arbitrary, as they co-existed for half a century with each achieving different golf club milestones at different dates.

When all is said and done, the fact remains that the Honourable Company organised the first golf competition in 1744, and on that at least we can all hang our baseball caps.

Page updated 2nd September 2015,  16the April 2017 and 11th November 2017

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