Feature Interview with Alfie Ward
A born, bred and passionate Scot, Alfie Ward started playing golf at the age of six. Now fifty-one, his earliest recollection is when his school pal Robin received a set of junior clubs ‘from auld Santa Claus and we went down to the course for a game where I found myself instantly hooked! Unfortunately for me, Robin wasn’t quite so keen, and I can remember the absolute frustration of only being able to play when Robin had the urge for a game. That was sheer hell – but with some monotonous whinging and crying – my mother managed to acquire some old (very old) clubs for me, and I soon learned the critical craft of…..evading the local green keeper / warden who sought after the green fees we couldn’t afford ! The fascination, addiction, and passion, merely grew as the years passed and mercifully, has never left me ! Somewhat average in ability, I attained a best handicap of 5 without ever mastering the essential art of putting. By the way, I did eventually start paying my way with those fees.’
Brother Harry and Alfie became heavily involved with the Biggar Club’s centennial in 1995 and co-wrote/researched the club history. After that, the real adventure began with the restoration of Arbory Brae golf course (1997 – 2003), as previously described in the My Home Course section of this web site.
Professionally, Alfie has developed comprehensive building skills, having been in the building trade for over 25 years. He lives in the Burgh Market town of Biggar (as Alfie says, ‘London’s big, but Biggar’s Biggar’) which lies 30 miles south of both Glasgow and Edinburgh.
1. What kind of historian are you as it relates to golf?
Strictly amateur ! Although I’ve managed to get through a heap of research in the limited time I’ve been able to devote to it. I don’t believe there are experts in anything – experts still have a lot to learn, whoever they are, and I can’t imagine anyone who could say that they’ve exhausted the theme of golf history?
When Harry and I began researching golf in 1993 it was predominantly aimed at our local Clydesdale area in the south of Scotland. We had accepted the task of putting together a brief club history for Biggar Golf Club and soon realised that we had a minefield of information popping up at us, week in – week out. Much of it was localised, but still a great insight into the rise of golf as a national sport and pastime during the 1890’s. I still have a book in draft form awaiting an interested publisher but doubt if I’ll ever find one ?
Personally, I’m not at all interested in memorising dates of Open winners and the like. That may be what people want to hear – but they wont hear it from me. Obviously, I’ve developed a fascination for the gutta percha era and through the Haskell period which, I believe, is a great learning curve for anyone who says they have golf’s best interests at heart ?
Just recently, Ralph Livingston was kind enough to post a chapter of Vardon’s – How to play golf at GolfClubAtlas.com – which I’d never read before. That single chapter reassured me of many statements I’ve made over the years relating to technology. Although one must always remember, great golfer that Vardon was, many of his comments were still only his opinions at that time !
I’m also a believer in the ‘hands on’ approach to passing on historical knowledge. The easiest, and most convincing way of getting the history message over, is by setting up examples of ‘feel’ ! People don’t forget when they’ve actually experienced a facet of history – while they also gain a far better understanding of it, as well. Ah. Some people even think you’re a bit daft playing with those hickories of yours, Ran ? But I don’t ? (laugh)
Another example of the feel factor was when I’d plump a lump of soft gutta into a persons hand and ask them to roll their own ball. Some of the expressions were priceless but they were having FUN, just like Harry and I did, when we made our first gutta’s in my wife’s kitchen……oh aye ! we did a live radio interview on Radio Scotland from Arbory in 2000. Prior to going on live, we had a bit of banter with Ian Turner (my wife’s cousin) who was interviewing us. We told him of our exploits in the kitchen – attempting to employ modern technologies to hasten the process of gutta ball making ? We tried to soften the raw gutta in the microwave instead of simmering it in water, which was slow and time consuming. And for rapid hardening, we stuck the newly made balls into the freezer ! Good ideas, we thought at the time, but then we were still at the experimental stages. Of course Dorothy had no idea what we were getting up to in ‘her’ kitchen, except that every time we vacated it, there was a pungent odour hanging over the place ! Anyway, just before going on live, I stressed to Ian that he shouldn’t bring that up in the conversation. Aye well….he did ! and I got my ear bashed when I got home. The fun we had !
So to answer your question, I’d like to think that I was a kind of ‘practical’ historian and I’m lucky that in my field of historical interest, it’s entirely possible to give those experiences. I would also love to give golfers the feel of hitting a genuine feather ball – but that’s an entirely different ball game, both with balls and implements and their cost ! (£ding, $ding)
2. What books have inspired you most?
Well. I’m not the best reader in the world and most of the books I’d like to read are either too expensive to buy, or golfing antiquities. My copy of the works of Robert Burns is never far away and I never bore from his blend of poetry. He was a devil for the women and would have, I think, made a good golfer ? Samuel Smiles book ; Self Help, I found to be a stimulating read and useful reference for some excellent quotes relating to success, failure, and perseverance. For golf, it has to be Stirk & Henderson’s – Golf in the Making or Stirk’s later edition – Golf : History & Traditions. Anyone interested in golf history would be advised to read either of these for starters.
The early volumes of Golf Magazine (UK) give a fantastic insight to the world of golf from the 1890’s on. However, these are mainly museum archive material, and you don’t get to take them home !
One book I strongly urge every golfer to read, and read again, is Geoff Shackelford’s – The Future of Golf – In America. (The Future of Golf – in Scotland, may require a new title ? Perhaps – Golfing grounds of Scotland – and where they used to be ?)
Harvey Pennick’s – Little Red Book, I could not praise highly enough ! Priceless.
Other books I’d like to mention are ; Mark Rowlinson’s revised – World Atlas of Golf ; David Joy’s – St Andrews and The Open Championship – Malcolm Campbell’s – The Encyclopedia of Golf ; and last, but not least, (OT) Blind Harry’s – WALLACE !
3. Early pre-1900 golf course architecture – how do you define it?
Well. I suppose ‘natural terrain’ just about sums up the architecture pre-1870’s or thereabouts. Obviously, the sport just doesn’t compare with the modern trends of manicurism and artificiality of today’s layouts. What procedure they had, if they had any at all, for laying out a course, is probably more akin to subjectivity than real fact ? What is fact, was that the following teeing ground was no more than one club length away from the preceding hole ! A hole which (pre 1823 and in many places much later) would be cut with a sharp knife using a clenched fist to trace round, remembering to keep your thumb carefully tucked in ! Small pots were also used for this purpose. Hole tins were, I think, suggested by Tom Morris and introduced to protect the actual holes later in the 19th century.
I assume the positioning of greens was determined by the natural lie of the land where a reasonably flat piece of grass area became a ‘green’ ? I remember Harry and I walking the obsolete courses of Clydesdale trying to locate old hole positions. Sometimes it would be fairly obvious where a small green could be placed (and obviously – where it couldn’t !) Information is fairly scarce for the 1890’s – never mind before that. Of course, actually shaping the land by way of excavations was unheard of until we reached those boom years of the 1890’s. The early inland courses of Crawford (1888) and Leadhills (1891) still display their original greens to anyone who wishes to find them. Built on hillside slopes, the greens were excavated in simple fashion in order to attain flat surfaces for putting on. Incidentally, Crawford was laid out by Tom Morris !
Certainly, once golf’s popularity began to spread through the nineties, we witness a definite consciousness relating to course architecture and a plethora of ‘sketches’ showing new golfing grounds all over Scotland began to appear in the newspapers. The main purpose of these sketches was to promote the existence of golf to all those wanabee gowfers with the most vital info of all – where the local train station was located ! Golf tourism had been born.
The actual process of laying out a course was simplistic to say the least. Sometimes an enthusiastic committee would apply the ‘do it yourself’ method and others would employ the professional services of the Park’s, Morris’s and Fernie’s of the day. The pro’s (accompanied by the local committee) would walk the proposed land and ‘peg out’ the tees and greens as they went along. The advice of the pro’s was invaluable to many clubs, but not applied by a few others when cost became a factor in the event of proposed excavations ?
Then The Haskell came along, and golf course architecture became analytical and possibly essential, for the future growth and success of the sport. Albeit to the cost of every existing playing field requiring re-design to cope with this (IMO) marvellous invention ! If only we’d learned the lesson of ‘scale’ from The Haskell ?
4. Is it fair to consider Scotland the true Home of golf?
Oh yes ! I think we’re certainly justified in ‘claiming’ to be the home of golf as we possess the earliest edicts relating to a game of club and ball played (crucially) to a hole on dry land ! Other, more ancient, games are known such as ; paganica dating back to the Roman Empire ; the French have their jeu de mail ; Kolven was played on ice in Holland ; then there’s chole, crosse, pell mell and now the Chinese are getting in on the act stating a claim with…..?….oh well, I probably couldn’t spell it anyway !
I think it’s indisputable that we Scots are responsible for developing the sport as we know it today, and to a major extent, for spreading and expanding golf to the rest of the world. I find it quite amazing that from a mere 60 golf clubs in the UK in 1880, that number grew to 387 in 1890, and then to an incredible 2330 in
1900 ! Please note ; clubs, not courses.
Mind you, that does not imply that golf history is our domain as well. Thankfully, that is universal !
So until new evidence comes to light, I suppose we’ll just have to keep on claiming golf as one of our many, many inventions. I reckon Coburn Haskell and Max Behr must have been Scot’s too – but I’m not going to argue…..
5. Are you a collector of golfing memorabilia?
No. And probably never will be. I believe those old wooden shafted clubs were created – to be creative ! I think those long departed craftsmen would appreciate seeing their work utilised by golfers in play, rather than see their good work hanging on walls for display purposes only ? Mind you, if I was lucky enough to possess a Simon Cossar long nosed playclub from the 18th century, I don’t suppose I’d be daft enough to rush out and break the bloody thing. Then again, knowing me, who knows !
My advice to anyone owning an old hickory (of low collectible value), is to go out and whack some balls with it ! Preferably using soft balata’s.
An American friend e-mailed me last year to tell me that he’d bought an old ‘rut iron’ – so I promptly told him to get out and play with it ! I believe he did so, and he didn’t regret his experience (perhaps because the club remained in tact ?)
I do have, in my ‘custody’, the nine gutta’s and gutties that we found while restoring Arbory which are destined for the local museum once I have no further use for them ?
Apart from that, and about 30 hickories needing repairs that I’ve garnered over the years – that’s about it. But I do have a PC full of (seemingly) useless info relating to golf in one way or another.
6. Please provide some comments on early golf clubs (implements).
Well firstly, I can only wonder if the golfer of 2100AD will look back with fondness on the present collection of scrap metal in use ? What an age the Victorian era was ! Not only did they have craftsmanship in club making – but applied apt and fitting names to their work for good measure. David Joy (St Andrews historian) is quite funny when describing the ‘Baffy’ in his one man show. ‘It’s so called, because of the sound the clubhead makes as it swishes though the grass – listen’ he states. Then swinging the club and bouncing it off the stage floor he’ll shout – ‘BAFFY’ which results in laughter ! But it’s actually true – so he says ?
I remember David showing me an old club at his St Andrews home and asking me what I thought had happened to it ? It had whipping on the middle of the shaft. ‘Oh, I reckon that one’s been a casualty, got broken, and someone’s joined it back together’ I said. Then he went on tell me that it was thought to be an old trait of the early pro’s to actually break a club at the shaft, in order to alter the flex in the club !
A common misconception regarding the early wooden clubs is that they were all made of hickory. In fact, many species of wood were used including ; blackthorn (thorncut), beech, applewood, dogwood, hornbeam, holly, and copper beech as hardwoods for the heads – and Hazel, ash, and of course, hickory for the shafts.
You know, we all whittle on about today’s technology – but very little (in the world of golf) is actually new ! Some of the old Patents are quite fascinating to look at and demonstrate the inventiveness at work from the 1890’s into the 20th century. This was not only the time of creating a tourist industry, but the making of the golf industry as we know it today !
There were some great names for the old clubs ; Baffy, Bulger, Scare necks, spoons, rake iron, rut (aka track) iron, water iron, spade niblick are a few examples which says a lot about how the game was played !
Play the ball as it lies – and take the course as you find it !
7. The Haskell – good or bad for golf?
In some ways I view the Haskell as a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde character. Had I lived through this era, I’m pretty sure I would have welcomed the Haskell’s arrival with open arms ! Although this is when we should have seen the writing on the wall and controlled the advancement of the ball, IMO. By about 1905-10, the warning signs were clear and it became evident that the entire game could be turned on it’s head with improving ball technology. Again, I must emphasise strongly, that club technologies were (and are) a totally different argument ! Hindsight is a marvellous thing, so they say, and yet we in golf do possess that hindsight, but don’t act upon it ?
I think I’m correct in saying, that the Haskell was the first example of how equipment technology could actually affect the playing field, and so began this distance war with equipment technology continually battling against the courses. Golf course defence was simple ; lengthen what holes you can, and / or replace the hazards. But the early concerns and debates surrounding the well being of the sport while being amazingly similar to today’s, were in other ways – vastly differing ! I have long argued that there existed in those days, ‘scope and options’ for the adaptation to distance increases. Golf’s growth and development was still at a comparatively early stage and therefore the new courses that evolved would be designed according to this new distance attainment at the very first instance (just like they are today). Golf didn’t have thousands of golf courses at that time and so damage and expense was, to some extent – limited. Urban areas were not yet fully developed as they have been since ! Hell ! When places like Augusta are struggling to expand, what chance the mere mortals of our beloved game ? The ‘scale and balance’ which Behr referred to is all but lost in relation to ‘skill and challenge’ whether it be classic course or otherwise. And all because the bloody ball goes too far ! A few years ago athletics reined in the technology behind the javelin because it was going too far (albeit partly to improved athleticism) and what did they do ? Keep one end of the stadium free of spectators and turf it with grass – NO ! Make the athletes throw from outside the stadium – NO ! (think St Andrews 2005 ?) No, they simply reined in that demon called technology for the good of the sport, not to mention the well being of the spectators !
As I see it – golfers have two choices. Either standardise the ball – or bastardise the sport !
I still think the Haskell was great for golf – we just let it go too far……as we do !
8. What were the positive lessons learned from your project at Arbory Brae?
Looking back, there was a whole load of shit hit our fan, and I don’t think we deserved that, but we had some great times as well. Harry was excellent at setting up the promotional stuff (which had to be free of cost !) and I soon learned that I had to be a little more extrovert in the name of the cause. I never dreamt that we would be featuring on TV and radio, magazines and newspapers, and rubbing shoulders with a few prominent people ! By Spring 2002, Harry was forced to quit for financial reasons and I decided to carry on for another year. So I was on my own, and became the ‘nearly man’ in golf ? Nick Faldo was lined up to play 9 holes through a leading London newspaper but called off on the morning he was due to play. He had picked up a virus from his daughter and fell ill. I was a bit suspicious, but it was 100% genuine as he pulled out of the European Open at the KClub in Ireland the following week. Hell. Forget about any rollback – I burst my balls for a full week and had Arbory at it’s natural best ! Poor Nick. He doesn’t know what he missed.
Another event involved the late, great, Sam Snead esquire. What with Sam and his friend Lewis Keller at Oakhurst Links, I reckon they must have been talking about Arbory ? Sam had decided it would be a nice gesture to send me over a hickory club to exhibit in our small Pavilion. The plan was that the great man would take the club and hit some shots with it and take some photographs for authenticity. Then he would autograph the face and have it sent over with a visiting party from the Greenbrier…..but only after he had returned from his annual visit to the Augusta Masters ! Well, we all know the sadness that followed that final visit to the Masters and here was I, a nobody in golf terms, who could only say that one of the greatest legends of golfing history had….gone and died on me ! But I know you didn’t intend to, Mr Snead.
Another interested party was none other than Scotland’s number one (living) son, Sir Sean Connery. Aye, Big Tam himself had picked up the phone to me after I’d optimistically lettered him about Xmas time. I’d forgotten all about it, until a wet dreech day in May when I had taken refuge from the hellish weather to indulge in a wee cup of tea and well earned fag ! The mobile rang and it was indeed Mr Connery wishing me luck but unfortunately he said he would be unable to make a direct visit due to his heavy schedule. Still. It did act as a pick me up even though I failed to get the whole body to Arbory that might just have made a difference ? Quite chuffed, I phoned my mate Craig at the local rag to tell him the good and bad news. ‘Great !’ he said, ‘Connery is going to play your course’. ‘No he isn’t !’ I replied. But Craig was more streetwise than I, and he hung up saying – ‘Of course he IS !’ So he wrote up a whole load of BS and went to press with it after which I had an amazing couple of days. Craig had started a media frenzy and I kid you not, I had every UK national newspaper on my case wondering when they could send ‘their’ team to cover the visit. But I didn’t have the heart, or perhaps the savvy, to exploit the situation.
I was highly honoured when Jim Dodson DID play the course and wrote it up for Golf Magazine. I remember him saying to me – ‘What I think you have here is……the soul of golf’. That pleased me no end !
Of course, Arbory gave me the chance and privilege to meet so many good people in such a short time-scale. I had also learned so much from it’s 25 acres about the essence of golf – whatever that is ? Previous to our encounter, I thought I knew a great deal about the sport…….. I didn’t ! So….
Thaaaaanks, for the memories…….
9. Please describe your favourite hole to play at Arbory Brae, and what made it fun to play.
Och. That would have to be the 2nd…3rd…4th or 8th hole ??? But I’ll pick the short 102 yard 4th hole which was guarded by a small pond to the fore, and ground that sloped away rapidly at the rear to another welcoming ditch ! I always walked the course with my customers and ranted along the way and accompanied by my mashie niblick (approx 7 iron) which I used mostly for a walking stick. When we arrived at the 4th tee it was star turn time for me and I would attempt to show em’ the way ? From an elevated tee, approx 30 feet above the green, the prevailing wind was usually straight in your face and the hole, for me, varied from a firm punch to a full shot with the mashie niblick. The green also sloped away to the rear making an accurate shot really tricky, especially when the greens were firm during the summer months.
Anyway. Strike a good clean shot with a gutta and you instantly learned about the ‘Floater’. Hit a bad one into the pond – and you also learned about the Floater as it would pop back up to the surface making retrieval a simple exercise ! The well struck high shot gave real value for money as it appeared to hang in air for an eternity, wavering all over the place until finding earth. Now that was fun, and often very comical ! However, my ultimate satisfaction was derived from seeing a typical hacker find the sweet spot at that 4th tee and see the expression of joy on their face ! Sometimes I would urge them to play a 2nd…3rd or 4th ball just to let them try and find the shot.
I got really lucky…. once ! Having delivered the usual descriptive oration inclusive of the customary excuse making prior to hitting the shot, you know, my backs really sore today – but I’ll try, and a hundred others I can think of….I teed up on some sand and proceeded to knock it stiff, 6 inches from the hole on a soft Spring time green. Immediately, I was offered a £10 reward if I could repeat the exercise……but failed miserably in the attempt. Just pressure, I suppose ? Yes, the 4th was a favourite because it didn’t matter how good, or how bad you were, the player always had a decent chance to perform here !
Incidentally. I had constructed a Tiger tee about 30 yards further back and higher up on the hillside – but nobody ever got the chance to play from it. Pity.
10. How did you maintain the fairways and greens at Arbory Brae?
(laughing) Well Ran. I think I’m right in saying that you were somewhat tickled by the following comment I made in the My Home Course article ?
Fairways ? What fairways ? We didn’t have fairways !
We had bumpy-ways ; boggy-ways ; rushy-ways ; a quite a lot of sheep shitty-ways ; and even a few moderately level-ways throughout the course. All areas (except the small greens) being fully maintained, by 300 or so, hungry marauding sheep. So the maintenance costs here, were dirt cheap. The sheep belonged to the farmer Duncan Hodge and his father George, and although those sheep had the liberty to graze the neighbouring acres on Arbory Hill, the buggers remained diligently faithful to feeding upon the lower slopes of the golf course ? Fabulous, and absolutely necessary in one sense, but a complete pain in the backside in another. The cost of good ground conditions came in what the sheep deposited daily – and at a phenomenal rate ! I never know whether to laugh or cry at our maintenance methods. 25 acres is quite a lot of ground to cover when you’re equipped with a bucket and rubber gloves, and a perpetually bent back ! My God. Those were the days ? We did find the ideal option of a hired mechanical sweeper pulled by a quad bike at a cost of £60 per day. That was brilliant ! Sitting on your backside once in a blue moon to get the place cleaned up. That was living all right – but an expense well beyond our means as a permanent feature. (sigh)
It actually gets crazier. Nature is a real bitch, isn’t she ? Every year the bracken would encroach onto the course from Arbory Hill and the new plethora of Bonnie Scotch thistles kept them company, just for good measure. These were tackled using an old sickle and scythe before we managed to ‘acquire’ an old strimmer for the purpose. We would splash out now and again and buy some selective weed killer (mostly agricultural) and spray the damned things.
The ground did receive an annual boost courtesy of Duncan and a heavy feed of standard agricultural fertilizer to encourage grass growth. Strangely, this was history revisited where the golfer and the farmer had a small conflict of interests regarding maintenance of the land. Duncan wanted grass….loads of it, while I didn’t ! That’s exactly the way it was 100 years past when disputes were a regular occurrence between golfer and farmer when a leasehold was involved. An agreement would mean that the golfers would be held responsible for applying a good dose of lime annually. Something the golfer frequently forgot to do and then all hell broke loose !
Basically, it was a case of keeping the course free of nature’s unwanted specimens by whittling away at them during the growth months of spring and summer. The bull rushes were particularly strong and a devil to control. They proved most penal to the golfer and they reminded me of Old Tom’s comment about early rough patches on a course viz ; ‘Lose yer ba’ ? Ye could lose yer dug in there !’
The greens, on the other hand, did receive normal (well nearly normal) green keeping maintenance throughout the year. I simply took advice from a turf management rep who I got supplies from. It was the very best of fescue turf (1000sq yards) that we put down as a compromise to the modern golfer. I was, in fact, the luckiest green keeper on the planet. What other course could tell their customers that the greens were 10 times better than they should be ? I never received one complaint about the greens. The biggest problem was the infestation of moss and weeds from the course in general. Moss was highly prevalent throughout the 25 acres and was a Godsend for good ‘inland’ golfing ground. The turf was ‘springy’ as John Panton immediately recognised on his visit. The drainage too, was quite remarkable. The network of ditches acting as catchments for most of the surface water and land drains (installed by the Abington golfers of late) took the rest. I remember the area suffering a complete deluge for about 24 hours and severe flooding surrounded the course ! When it eased off at around 7pm, I was curious, and took a wee walk up on to the course. I was totally amazed when I found that I could welcomed a party of golfers – no problem at all !
Anyway, the greens. The hardest work came every winter. I would heavily rake the moss out using a garden feather rake (leaf rake) which pulled the guts out of me. I hated this job. Then I would aerate the greens with a tine fork and then apply a proper top dressing. In cutting the greens, I had a small 14 inch petrol barrel mower which proved more than adequate for the job. I could have all the greens (and tees if I decided they needed cutting ?) complete in 4 – 5 hours. One fag after every 3 greens was my reward. Funny. As Armageddon approached, the old mower completely packed in – it had served me well, and was far beyond repair. So I resorted to an old push mower that a local resident had given to me……as an exhibit ? (one fag after every two greens !) Oh dear, the things we did up there. We were never stuck for getting a job done and I’ve no complaints nor regrets regarding the workload. We were still better equipped than those old green keepers of yesteryear !
By the way, talking about scythes ; I used to rubbish claims of how close a good scythesman could shave a green……until I saw an old photo of scythe work on the 18th at the Old Course. (ah well, wrong again)
During the summer, a few variety’s of weeds would appear on the surface which (some) were immediately removed with a pocket knife. Some of species I managed to identify were ; Common chickweed ; White clover ; Mouse-ear chickweed ; Autumn hawkbit ; Yarrow ; Hoary plantain ; Fairy ring.
Irrigation was another little problem we over came. During the F & Mouth of 2001 we had a very dry, warm summer and the greens were getting parched. There was water all round us in the form of fresh water springs coming off the hill, it was just a matter of how we could get it to the greens. Plenty of garden hosepipe and a small sprinkler head combined with ‘gravity’ saved the day !
11. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of modern golf course architecture?
After my experience at Arbory….my thoughts have been turned around in so many ways. Say, 10 years past, I would’ve hailed all this manicurism and prettifying of the land because I thought it looked better – I’m not so sure now ? I think I’ve grown older and wiser and believe I understand far better the relationship between golf and nature. Modern architecture contradicts nature in some ways in that the maintenance standards appear to strive for perfection in order to satisfy ‘fairness’? Perfection just does not exist, especially when attached to nature ! Isn’t it funny, that the nearer some ‘thing’ approaches (near) perfection – the more boring it becomes ? As for fairness. Life isn’t fair all the time ; why should golf be ?
I think it’s really sad that the architecture is continually diminished by one aspect of the game – the ball ! It must be frustrating for all the archies when they see their work become ineffectual to some extent, in such a short time-scale ?
Take bunkers, for example. Hazards ? You must be kidding ! I like what Tom Doak is doing with some of his bunkers with those natural grasses allowed to grow within. I think gca’s have a responsibility to golf to drive out the modern strategy of using the bunker as a ‘bail out’ option at any given golf hole ? Hazards in golf should scare the life out of you, simple as that ! The more scary they are, the better they are, and more fitting they become to golf’s playing field. But then we offend the masses who like the ‘easy’ way ? This really pisses me off in our modern culture where everything has to be designed to be easy going. In day to day life – certainly ! In golf – certainly not ! Although in golf, the archie must allow an acceptable degree of compromise for the less able. (IMO)
In saying all this – I’m not against well groomed courses – not at all. I just think it’s another case of not knowing when, or where, to draw that line ?
One thing you can’t help but notice when indulging in the gca.com threads, is the complete obsession with analysis into every minute detail of golf architecture. Interesting as they are, I’m well out of my depth in such conversations and that’s why you’ll mostly see me get my tuppence worth in the technology threads.
12. Do you think the expense of the game will hinder its growth?
In Scotland – YES ! For the rest of the world – probably not ? We’re already in decline whether golf’s experts want to acknowledge that fact, or not, as is more like the case ! There appears to be an abundance of denial in the world of golf – for one reason, or another ? Politics, politics.
I can only comment from a home perspective, really. I don’t know what the real structure of the American game is – or the English, European, World game is. But I have noticed many of our clubs (in Scotland) advertising frantically for business, and some of them you would never have imagined wanting to open their doors to Joe Public ? You can almost take your pick of which club to join now – that was either out of bounds a few years back, or a two, three year wait for the privilege ?
I think (hope) the ladies will bolster the growth of golf in Scotland, as elsewhere, and see them having a much stronger role in the future. Good on them, too ! And I hope they decide to play from the same tees as the male chauv’s ?
When I look at the prices of equipment in the pro shop, I shudder ! That’s got to be a deterrent for many people ? And who wants to play any sport with inferior gear from that of your fellow competitors ? And let’s face it – the equipment is almost everything nowadays in playing golf !
However, at the end of the day, I suppose all those marketing experts know exactly what they’re doing – eh ? What with massive potential markets in Russia, all the ex Soviet block countries, and China (now that they’ve accepted capitalism), I don’t envisage any problems with the growth of the sport internationally. How golf is ‘taught’ to developing nations is a bit more worrying !
13. As technology goes unchecked, what is the future of the numerous sub-6000 yard courses around Scotland (and the UK & Ireland for that matter)? Is their appeal in any way lessened?
Excellent question, and one which gives the greatest concern of all (IMO). You know, history does repeat itself – maybe because life itself is a cycle of fashion and trends ? It can be argued that these fashions and trends were the death knell for numerous courses and their respective clubs circa 1930 – 50’s in Scotland, and most probably, elsewhere in the UK ? At this time, golfers became more selective in the courses they played because they had the advantage of travelling far greater distances than they could have previously ! Support for the smaller courses dwindled as visitors travelled further afield and in pursuit of superior challenges at the longer courses. So too, and still do, are those seeking membership to a club. Who’s to say that the same scenario isn’t about to be repeated in the next few years ? I reckon it’s happening already, and so too, I think, does the Scottish Golf Union ! Of Scotland’s 500 plus courses, there’s probably about 300 (minimum) that don’t meet the ‘must play’ expectations of the modern tourism golfer ! Why ? Because they’re instantly deemed much too short from the yardage stats in the first instance of course selection. So the appeal factor is diminished from the outset, and so long as technology in golf goes unchecked – then life isn’t going to get any better for the vast majority of courses (worldwide) that are lagging in this mad distance race !
In response to reports of serious concerns over the state of Scottish golf and falling club membership numbers (Nov 2004) I undertook a little research on Scotland’s golf courses. Of 503 registered in the 2003 Golf Guide I found that 155 (31%) were sub 5500 yard layouts ; 113 (22%) 5501 – 6000 yards ; 185 (37%) 6001 – 6500 yards ; and 50 (10%) 6501 yards and over. In direct relation to the question you ask Ran, and if my personal concerns are justified – then that puts over 50% of Scottish courses under the ‘at risk’ umbrella ? That is, if fashion and trends and unchecked technology has anything to do with it ? I believe it has !
The size of the various golfing markets is a factor to think of. What is it in America ? 25 million potential golfers ? We have an estimated 500,000 participants in Scotland with 260,000 affiliated to the SGU. So who’s going to care much about Scotland’s golfers, just so long as we keep our best courses solvent for golf tourism purposes.
With the present and future accent concentrated on teaching our kids that long is good, where do the visionaries of golf growth see our future long hitters playing ? And there will be far more than the 1% figure being brandished by today’s progressionists ! Will they set their sights and join their local sub standard course ? Like hell they will ! They’ll play at the courses that suits their game, and where they can sportingly take out their drivers and boom away to their hearts content, or become bored at the local pitch and putt. So by my estimation, we’ll have about 50% of our courses in the ‘dead zone’ and under real threat because of an ageing membership, few, if any golf tourists, and only youth to be found in the junior sections. I really don’t see the situation being all that different in many other places.
I read an article recently by Ronald Wright who warns of society’s history of always taking technology too far, quote ; ‘Our culture measures progress mainly by technology : the club was better than the fist ; the arrow better than the club………Our faith in unbridled progress has sometimes served us well – those of us seated at the best tables, anyway – and may continue to do so. But we must also recognise its dangers. Progress has an internal logic that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe.’ ………..
Although Wright’s comments are aimed at the possibility of global catastrophe, I believe the same link applies to the relative insignificance of golf ! We, as golfers, may not be in any powerful position to save the planet – but we certainly could save golf ?
Just imagine the instant restoration of thousands of courses worldwide with a rolled back ball and a more certain future where they can invest sensibly and safely for the betterment of those courses – and their members ? Classic courses – you’d have thousands of them ! Oh. And some people wonder why you insist on playing those old hickories, Ran. How many ‘classic’ courses have you played recently ? (wink)
14. What are your favourite Scottish courses that perhaps someone from overseas may not have heard?
Turnberry Ailsa is beyond any doubt the finest course I have ever played – although you could hardly say that it’s a hidden gem ! The Braid Hills (inland) courses in the Heart of Midlothian (Edinburgh) offer some great views of the city and was once regarded the best municipal course in the world ! Dunbar (1794, links) on the east coast south of Edinburgh is, IMO, one of the most under-rated links courses in Scotland. Home of John Huggan (golf writer) and my pal Willie Paul, I would have thought that this course would be on most visiting golfers must play agenda ? Lanark (1851, moorland) is an excellent challenge and was used as an Open qualifying course not so long ago. The Roxburghe and Cadrona in the Borders are two new courses (inland) which I’m sure will gain in stature as they mature.
Although I’ve never played them, the Gullane links (pronounced Gillane) near Edinburgh hold a worthy reputation among Scottish golfers. If you’re really lucky, you may even encounter Mr Archie Baird at his golf museum next to the courses. Archie is an historian and true character, and generally very fine person.
The north of Scotland may be the place to concentrate a golfing tour of the future ? To compliment the many fine courses up there ; Dornoch ; Aberdeen ; Nairn ; Tain ; Skibo ; Strathpeffer ; there are several proposed developments in the pipeline. And with air links being much improved, Inverness makes a good base for touring golfers, IMO. Then again, so does Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Ayr, Dundee, Aberdeen, and….OK, St Andrews (if you can hack the rip off ?)
And while we’re on the subject of ‘rip offs’ – I’ll expand on my personal views and opinions which may shock some people ? Scotland, I’m disgusted to say, is rapidly becoming an obnoxious rip off tourism destination, and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because of pure greed and a general lack of respect for our customers ! So. If you happen to be reading this, please don’t be put off in making a visit to Scotland – just make sure you complain vehemently about any of our little discrepancies that you may encounter along the way !
And why not try some of our un-classic 9 and 18 holers. You may be pleasantly surprised with a day out, away from the rat race ?
15. What do you think of the American influence on golf?
Not bloody much ! Next question Ran. Nah, only joking ???
There’s no doubt that America took a firm grasp of golf and dragged it into and through the 20th century. I think golf has a lot to thank America for in some respects. Unfortunately, there are some aspects I personally would rather had not come about ? So I’ve got mixed feelings on the American influence. Although we (UK & USA) consider ourselves to be blood relations separated by the Atlantic, we are nevertheless quite different in culture and philosophy. Something which, I believe, is instrumental in where America is steering golf’s future !
From 1900 to 1930, I think the American influence was a boon for golf by introducing the Haskell and pushing for the legality of steel shafted clubs. Those were excellent progressive factors that improved the playability of the sport (IMO) and consequently enabled the sport to grow into the behemoth we know today. And all those golfing greats who contributed so much in promoting golf as a ‘must play’ sport.
Ah. But the influence of power soon wastes all the good that has been achieved in so many instances of history. You know, here we are in Scotland, fair chuffed that we gave golf to the world – and now there’s hardly a soul left who makes clubs or balls ! I must be one of the few ball makers left in Scotland ??? We’re still churning out woolly jerseys though, so it’s not all bad ? And then there’s the R & A – Ruling Body my backside ! They’re nothing more than foot soldiers to the USGA. All this hype about equal status for the ladies is nothing but one big red herring to con the masses into believing that they’re still a revolutionary force in golf.
I have no wish to offend my American cousins – but, oh but…..what the hell are you doing to our sport ?
16. What do think of Max Behr?
From the information available to me, and having read many of his articles, I think Behr was a really deep thinker in all matters relating to golf. His writing is intricate and exact, and while a little difficult to absorb at times (almost cryptic) – his views on golf are, I believe, entirely comprehensible and surprisingly – maintain much relevance to the modern era. (eg ; The Ball Problem, 1927)
For example – Max Behr said in 1927: ‘The seller of goods generally panders to the blind instincts of his customers. Rarely do we find him an artist considering what the result must be when his goods reach their destination. And the blind instinct that he catered to was an insane desire to merely hit the ball a long way.’
I’d certainly like to learn more about the ‘man’ and what made him tick, outside of golf, if such info is available ? I’m surprised that Behr hasn’t been acknowledged more than he appears to be, for his contributions to golfing literature. Perhaps he has, in the States – I’m not sure ? But I do know you’d be lucky to find very many over here in the UK who could relate to Mr Max Behr in any form ! That’s a pity, but something that could be remedied with a Behr biography by, say, Geoff Shackelford ? I would have to buy that one (if the free copy wasn’t forthcoming !)
I think Behr recognised the speciality in golf which separated it from so many other sports or games. I think he also understood (felt) the element of ‘humanity’ that golf, in it’s finer moments, promulgates.
When golf loses these elements of speciality – man has invented some other form of pastime…..that is not golf !
17. What Scot do you feel has yet to receive proper due for his influence on golf course architecture and the development of the game?
Can’t think of anyone in architecture, unless Mr Behr’s grannie was Scottish ? In relation to the development of the game – well…there are thousands the world over who will never receive their proper due. I can’t state these people’s case highly enough – somebody should ! These are the people who gave ‘all of us’ the opportunity to indulge in golf, and those who continued in their footsteps and kept it going through the decades. All unknowns, but hero’s to each locality ! Could they be the mystical essence of golf ?
For me, the people who come to mind are like Provost Walter Lindsay (Biggar) ; Rev Christopher McKune (Crawford, see below) ; Rev John Scott……now there was a man with some lead in his pencil – fathering no less than 13 children and a major contributor for the establishment of golf in Biggar, in his spare time, naturally ! We all have someone to thank for serving up our local golf course ? Then there’s the thousands who volunteer their time and energies at club level who rarely gain the acknowledgement they deserve ! I’d take my hat off to all of them (if I had one) !
Course architecture and golfers are equals. One without the other….is nothing.
18. What now are your ambitions/goals within golf?
Well – one of the best goals I’ve ever accomplished in golf, must be right here, right now ! A Feature Interview with Ran Morrissett on GolfClubAtlas.com – how much better does it get ? A fantastic honour indeed (for me) !
I reckon I’ll keep plugging away with the Hickory concept for another year (part time), at least. I know it’s a winner – if conducted properly – although hardly likely to make anyone a millionaire in the process. Once I get my Lottery up, I’ll buy the piece of land I’ve earmarked and build a new hickory course and visitor attraction. All gca’ers will play the course for free – but a cup of tea will set you back £20 just to keep in line with St Andrews. Tut, tut !
I would like to have a concentrated effort at writing a couple of golf related books, but can’t see that happening either, unless the financial circumstances change drastically.
I don’t know why (maybe ego) but I feel an obligation to try and help solve this technology farce through whatever time I can lend to it. Surely it’s time to rid ourselves of all this negativity ?
‘For them, and theirs’ Four simple words used in a poem to describe the making of my home course at Biggar in 1907. I can’t (and don’t want to) imagine what life would have been like without golf – and how many millions would agree with that sentiment ? I would urge all golfers not to lose touch with ‘their’ golfing forefathers, and what they created for us to inherit. Of course we must move on, but what’s wrong with looking back now and again, if for nothing more than to show a little bit of respect for their efforts ?
Finally. I’d love to play in a fourball match with Allan Robertson versus Jones and Nicklaus….but I doubt if Jack would have the time to fit it in ?
Best regards to all – whatever your opinions / desires may be !