Feature Interview

with

Alfie & Harry Ward

February 2014

 

Happy New Year and lang may yer lum reek ! (long life) It should be noted that Harry and I were both completely sober when we put this interview together.

What drew your brother Harry and you into looking for the sites of Old Golf Courses in Clydesdale?

The entire adventure began courtesy of our research for the Biggar Golf Club centenary book that Harry and I had taken on pre 1995.  The more golf information we dug up – the more we realised, that there was an abundance of forgotten golf history in the whole of the Clydesdale district, and not solely Biggar GC. The Biggar minute book told us of early golf at Langlees (1895) and Heavyside (1901) but little more than that. We had to get our investigative hats on and find these lost locations. Incredibly, after only a mere century, all local knowledge of these sites had all but disappeared. At Heavyside it was easy when the farmer told us where ‘the gowf field’ was located! Langlees was another matter but we were highly fortunate in having an old sepia photograph of the Opening ceremony in 1895. Even luckier, the photo showed the hillside horizon in the background and that became our focus of attention for finding the golf course. Of course, it wasn’t long before we did find it and automatically knew exactly where the first tee had been located and consequently, the whereabouts of the 9th green. As we didn’t have a sketch of the layout, we had to scratch our heads in puzzlement and curiosity for years trying to guesstimate the actual layout of the course.

So. When our duties for the club had been honoured we decided to continue our research, and therefore, continued with the field surveys of Clydesdales forgotten courses. All in all, it was great fun marauding around the local villages like Starsky and Hutch………. or Cagney and Lacey, if you prefer?

As a footnote to this question, the reader might be surprised at what can turn up on your very own doorstep. We recommend and urge anyone to go out and find themselves a defunct golf course – just as we did!

Opening of Biggar Langlees 1895. Tom Doak eat yer heart out!

Opening of Biggar Langlees 1895. Tom Doak eat yer heart out!

Why did you ultimately select Arbory Brae?

There were several reasons for choosing Arbory even though we could have restored a course at Biggar, Douglas, Crawford, Leadhills, Symington, Thankerton or at Roberton where our debut of green keeping skills were first put to the test! As soon as we had committed to a business venture Arbory won hands down due to its location only a mile from  Scotland’s busiest motorway, the M74. We were only a one hour drive from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling, Dumfries, and Carlisle just over the border in England. Compared to the other restoration wanabees, Arbory’s location was central, scenic and peaceful. We also knew from initial surveys of the course that the Hodges who owned the land would be easy to get on with and sympathetic toward the cause. But ultimately, the topography of the Arbory Brae site was indisputably sublime for ‘hickory’ golfing purposes.

Original sketch of the course. 1892.

Original sketch of the course. 1892.

Technology is bloody marvellous. Arbory circa 2005 courtesy of Google earth.

Technology is bloody marvellous. Arbory circa 2005 courtesy of Google earth.

 

What help did you get from golf historians like Archie Baird?

Mostly material help and a great deal of encouragement! We had found three doors open to us from the ambassadors of golf history in Archie, and the two Davids of St Andrews!  Archie has a nice wee golf library which was made available to us for general research and he owned an authentic Willie Park gutta golf ball mould which he loaned to us without hesitation. David Hamilton has a Challenger mould (Archie’s too, I think?) and he too loaned the mould for a little bit of gutta ball making, but more importantly, he gave us a preview of his manuscript of Precious Gum long before he published it. David Joy has been a good friend for twenty years now and was never anything less than supportive and remains so! We tapped all sorts of information and artwork from David. In fact, we are awaiting our very own David Joy sketch of the Brothers Grimm. How lucky we were to have associated ourselves with Scotland’s triumvirate of golf history knowledge and expertise.

Who might have provided help/support but didn’t?

You (Ran)! Don’t you remember me pleading for a $20,000 injection and you telling me to get stuffed?!

Seriously, and sadly, there a few candidates. My late mother-in-law could have saved the day in the blink of an eye. But you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. In the ‘alive and kicking’ category we could lambast the various political hypocrites whom we entered into dialogue with only to be told “the minister has no influence” to assist with funding. These same people would get up on their little soap boxes and tell Scotland we needed more start up businesses, more tourism attraction businesses, give the tourists better service, and generally – more bullshit than we could stomach! Unfortunately, here in Scotland we have an electoral problem in that scores of thousands of voters continue to vote for a monkey in a red tie! Not that I’m against Socialism of course, and said with sincere apologies….to the monkey. Mind you, Scotland (politically) has moved on a bit!

The main funding body in Scotland is Scottish Enterprise – who cannot be influenced by Scotland’s leading politicians? But you would think that any official body involved with enterprise would employ a few individuals with a modicum of vision. Not so. The only ones who displayed vision at Arbory were our valued paying customers! It has to be said, grudgingly, that we did receive a little funding which went into on course signage which we didn’t really need at the time. But the signs did look the part as well as being historically informative! My biggest gripe with public funding distribution was when you discovered who and how much some businesses were getting and failing also!

Next….the R&A…. rascals. Och. Perhaps they have their own opinion on the matter?

Lastly, for the purposes of this interview, I approached a wealthy Scottish entrepreneur who had embarked on his personal mission of philanthropic generosity to imitate the hand outs of one Andra Carnegie who was a keen golfer, it has to be said.  I wouldn’t have had an issue with rejection here, but the rejection was handled amateurishly and with little consideration to conveying such bad news to the organ grinder!

All in all, such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

When you first went looking for the sites you realised that nature soon reclaims her own. How quickly did Arbory Brae disappear? What features last longest?

Oh that bitch Mother Nature! Short answer; very quickly and none. You have to remember that the golf course we were managing was primitive by comparison to modern standards. (Fairways! What Fairways?) The only manmade features we had (excluding sleeper bridges/sand boxes/signs etc) were the greens and tees. Everything else on the 25 acres required constant maintenance only; i.e.,  thistles, nettles, rushes, bracken and those damn rabbit scrapes and mole casts! There wasn’t even a single sand bunker and no evidence of the locals having created any grass bunkers to protect the greens in the early history of the course. This was a common practice on the early inland courses before they advanced to the un-natural practice of introducing sand to their bunkers.
Late in 2003, I went up to the course around October for the first time in about six months. The place was looking rather sad, but that was more to do with cattle having re-entered the course through a broken fence. I guess the greens could have been easily saved at this time, had I given them their annual winter work out. I was of the opinion that if the Good Samaritan did appear on a big white horse, then I would get them back in the spring of 2004, but that never happened.

Basically, the greens, the most important part of the course, disappear very quickly beyond recognition. But because of the special topography of Old Arbory, she’s still there though badly in need of some tidying up here and there. As seen in the photo, the rushes can get out of control very quickly too!

Arbory revisited. Harry on the 1st tee June 2013. Mole casts in foreground!

Arbory revisited. Harry on the 1st tee June 2013. Mole casts in foreground!

There could be a modern insight to answer your question best, sadly, concerning the recently closed course at Lothian Burn on the outskirts of Edinburgh. They are continuing to maintain the course in the meantime, but if a solution is not found, then I believe many will be surprised at just how quickly that course will be lost beyond recognition.  I hope it doesn’t come to that, nor for the other eighty Scottish courses on the struggling list. Nothing to do with technology, of course?!

You praise the turf on what was basically a piece of land of little use to the farmers except grazing. How can fescue (loves dry, sandy soil) and moss (loves moisture) exist so happily together?

Pass. Perhaps a Tom Doak or one of the other distinguished agronomists could shed more light on just how nature works here? Subsoil was almost non-existent beneath the sward which exaggerated the problems with mole casts and rabbit burrows. On good arable ground one would simply flatten off the soil and leave nature to do the rest. On Arbory, we had to extricate all the small stones which could be fairly time consuming. What I can say is that one of our routine interactions with the customers was to (at some time during the experience) bend down and pinch the sward. Then spread the contents on the palm of the hand to display a small ratio of fine fescues mixed with the heavy presence of moss and a few other natural species. Some scientific loon might answer this question better than Harry or me. But, this is Scotland after all, and we have a knack of getting on well with each other – be it man golfer with she golfer, crabbit Scot with Sassenach, or even, fine fescue with spongy moss!

You rebuilt the course to the best plan you had, holes averaging 204 yards in length, a total of 1860 yards on a compact 25 acre hillside. You quickly decided for this course to work, you needed balls that performed as they did ‘back in the day’. What two balls did you offer customers?

Yes. The ball was more critical in priority than the wooden shafted clubs we would require. The correct ball for the future interests of our experience was, for us, no different than the correct ball is critical to golf’s future today. The whole question of giving an authentic experience related one hundred per cent to scale. We already knew that the golf collectors were busy playing with hickory (or other wooden shafts) but somewhat disingenuously, with Pro V’s or whatever. Our basic research pertaining to both club and ball became one solely dedicated to learning more about gutta percha. The ideal goal was to (somehow) produce our own gutta’s for our customers. This we achieved which was not only self satisfying, but I believe, totally unique anywhere in the world at that time! Below, you can see a slab of pure gutta, a smooth unpainted gutta, a moulded Bramble gutta with the ‘fin’ still intact, and finally the finished product resplendent with its six coats of paint! The other pic shows the Penfold Mesh/Lattice Pattern replica.

The only problem with gutta is that they’re quite difficult – no, extremely difficult – to play. Luckily for us we had an alternative ball which simulated a mesh or lattice pattern ball of the early twentieth century. As far as the ball was concerned we were in the fortunate position where we could have our cake – and eat it! The golfer had very reasonable options and I think there is a lot to be said for – ‘if you’re going to do something, do it right!’ Anyone out there engaging in hickory play should take a look at our friend Chris McIntyre’s excellent website www.auldgolf.net where they’ll find a great selection of gutta balls and all sorts of olde worlde gowf.

Real Gutta Percha

Real Gutta Percha!

 

Penfold replica’s

Penfold replica

The greens averaged a tiny 25 square yards each. Did your research suggest this was common at the time Arbory Brae was first laid out? Were the greens originally restricted in size for maintenance reasons? Or is it because putting was not so important back in the day?

Again, I have to stress the point that Arbory was a typical ‘village’ golf course from golf’s booming evolution in popularity of the 1890’s. She was also one of the sport’s inland Messiahs sent to liberate golf from the shackles of links-land golf! People had realised that the game was entirely possible away the sea shore and its sand dunes. Most essentially, the people had found an insatiable desire to become active in this ancient pastime. So, obviously, they had to go out and find themselves a piece of ground in order to lay out their golf course.

And this is where almost everything becomes subjective to all things golf architecture during the 1890’s! From the size of the greens, and tees for that matter, to the strategy of layout. The problem at this time in golf history is the lack of pure statistical detail in how they actually laid out their courses. The yardages of the holes and descriptions of the natural hazards was almost always the extent of the details given. Any existing minute books of the early clubs tell you next to nothing about the finer details of course construction.

So to answer the questions, our land surveys of Arbory virtually led us to ascertain that many of the greens could not possibly have been any bigger than the new ones we were laying down. We’re fairly sure that this was the case for many village courses, but not all of them. Just a couple of miles along the road at Old Tom and Rev McKunes Crawford course of 1888 we found unquestionable evidence of square greens in the region of 50 x 50 feet in size. They had been cut out of the hillside and many remain visible today. Crawford is a village not that much bigger than Abington! Just as every single square meter of the planet is unique to any other, then every golf course was unique to itself.

Additionally, we believe that maintenance was probably a factor with many of the smaller courses as well as practicality of the ground available to them.

Was putting as important? Oh yes! The man who can putt is a match for anyone (W.Park Jnr). And never a truer word has ever been spoken relating to the art of playing golf, unfortunately for me. Now this actually reminds me of our pal Noel Hunt (the world’s best trick golfer) who would quip during his show “…the things you have to do, because you can’t putt!”    http://www.noelhuntgolfshow.com/

What difference did the Haskell Ball make to Golf?

The Haskell IMO, should go down in the history of golf as the Jekyll and Hyde of the sport. On the one hand, I firmly believe it was a great evolutionary step for golf to embrace. By 1901, the old gutta balls had evolved into better made and modernised ‘gutty’ balls but they were still very difficult for the average golfer. The gutty remained the equivalent of hitting a small rock and didn’t fly all that well. The Haskell with its elasticised wound interior sprung off the face of the club much more favourably than the gutties which was the vital factor for the golfer, in making life a little bit easier. Less important was the fact that the Haskell could bounce (Bounding Billy) and roll, giving up an extra 20 – 30 yards in distance.

To explain my previous sentence, I believe ‘we hadn’t yet reached that line in the sand’ back then, which you shouldn’t cross in regard to those extra yards being gained in distance. Golf and its courses circa 1901-10 could still afford this little luxury of more distance and any new courses designed from 1901 onwards could allow for those extra yards in their new layouts. In other words, not a lot to worry about – yet! But golf didn’t learn from the Haskell and Mr. Hyde appeared to curse the sport and its players for the next century. The players lust for more and more distance gave birth to a new tradition in golf – greed! And who better to feed such hunger than the ball manufacturers.

So, in conclusion. I don’t think we can blame the Haskell for the present day state of golf. I know for sure that I would have loved it had I been there in 1901. The shame of it all is that no one listened to the likes of Max Behr and C.B. Macdonald and no one of authority was prepared to stand up for the sport and rally against so called ‘progress.’ And nothing has changed since the invention of the Haskell and the shame continues to exist in cowardly fashion. Buy hey, there are other opinions on the matter!

Member of the hit it long brigade.             Member of the ‘other opinions’ brigade.

Member of the hit it long brigade.                        Member of the ‘other opinions’ brigade.

You are a purist and adopted the saying from the 1890’s “play the ball as it lies, and take the course as you find it.” Yet, you were quite prepared to allow golfers to take a ‘preferred lie’. Was this pragmatism and would you like to see more people adopt a purist line?

You may be surprised but I’ll argue that I’m not a purist. I think you can be too much of a purist when it comes to Hickory Golf. It was very gratifying to see customers decline the ‘preferred lie’ while tackling a difficult course played with difficult clubs and balls! Harry and I analysed the proposed experience in every way imaginable because we knew that the golfer had to get something from it due to the fact that it was more difficult than the modern game. Not being expert golfers ourselves, we had nevertheless, both attained the single figure handicap and both of us struggled (sometimes) to play good shots, from regular difficult and awkward lies. So in offering the preferred lie to the customer, we were offering an acceptable ‘out clause’ in order that they would have a better chance of playing more good shots during their game. There were some who just couldn’t get to grips with the hickory game and that was frustrating for all concerned.

On the other hand, professionals or good amateurs were ridiculed (humorously) if they as much as hinted at taking a preferred lie, and told (humorously!) to get on with it! Oh the banter we enjoyed.

You employed methods that were available to Old Tom and Honeyman except that they had the benefit of a horse and cart! How many hours were needed to get this course into playable condition?

Wow – Thousands! Mostly because we just couldn’t afford to buy or even hire the necessary equipment. We simply had to do it the hard way, or forget about it altogether. Being mad probably made all the difference in seeing this restoration through to its completion although we did enjoy brief glimpses of machinery along the way. And to pre-empt another question – No! There’s no way Harry or I could do it all over again without the proper equipment being in place first. Too auld for that noo. Building golf courses is a young man’s gem! You know Ran, I could actually tally up the hours we worked on Arbory from my files. But that might just break our hearts!

Do we have an unduly sentimental view of the contribution sheep make to the maintenance/evolution of a golf course? How did courses clear up after them?

Oh we were both very sentimental towards our flock of sheep. So much so that we both cried after spending hours cleaning up their shit! The sheep were inarguably essential for golf course maintenance in the early days and especially for inland courses with lush rye grasses within their boundaries which was commonplace. Of course, modern grass cutting machinery solved that little problem which, I have to say, was an excellent ‘technology’ advancement. There were three methods of cleaning up the doh doh’s. The modern gang mowers chopped it up as they cut the fairways ; you manually picked it up and gathered it in buckets or Mother Nature would break it up through rainfalls or dung beetles. We did find evidence however, that children were employed on Saturday mornings before the Medal round began, to clear all the greens in readiness for the golfers putting. Sheep dung isn’t too bad for picking up by hand. Now a cow pat is another piece of shit altogether – nae chance!

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