The lost art of cross coun­try golf

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Behind The Scenes - By Stu­art McLean, Edi­tor

wo of the old­est golf clubs in the world ad­join each other on wooded park­land over­look­ing the Firth of Forth in Scot­land. The prop­er­ties oc­cupy what were once hunt­ing es­tates. Deer still roam the fair­ways and woods.While their golf cour­ses don’t have the cham­pi­onship pedi­grees of a Muir­field or Gul­lane fur­ther along the shores of the Forth, th­ese are two of the smartest golf club ad­dresses in Ed­in­burgh. The Royal Burgess is the old­est of the two, founded in 1735, while its neigh­bour, the Brunts­field Links Golf So­ci­ety, had its ori­gins in 1761. The club­houses, par­tic­u­larly Burgess, reek of his­tory.

Golf in the 18th cen­tury, and for most of the 19th, was played by the mem­bers of th­ese clubs on ground nearer the cen­tre of Ed­in­burgh, within sight of the cas­tle, or at Mus­sel­burgh, where ear­lier ver­sions of the Open Cham­pi­onship were con­tested. Brunts­field moved to their present site, Bar­ton­gate, in 1898, and I wrote this in the club­house, look­ing down the 18th to­wards the wa­ters of the Forth, with a stream of com­mer­cial jet air­craft pass­ing by on the flight path to Ed­in­burgh Air­port. Slightly ir­ri­tat­ing for golfers, as they are fre­quent.

I’m not in the habit of writ­ing col­umns from Scot­land, but I didn’t have a topic in mind be­fore leav­ing home. In­spi­ra­tion came while con­vers­ing with Brunts­field mem­bers in the lounge. For such an old club, the rules are re­laxed. I’m wear­ing jeans and golf shoes (spike­less), and there is not a jacket and tie to be seen, al­though they are com­pul­sory in the up­stairs din­ing room. Brunts­field has been re­ferred to as a “din­ing club with a golf course.” No porter to greet you at the front door, but it is locked, with a se­cu­rity code re­quired to gain ad­mit­tance.

Risk and safety are per­ti­nent is­sues to­day at UK golf clubs, even for those in the fourth cen­tury of their ex­is­tence.We don’t hear a lot of that in South Africa, al­though it is a con­sid­er­a­tion at es­tate cour­ses where home own­ers are in the fir­ing line. Brunts­field moved a green more than 50 me­tres

Tfrom its orig­i­nal site to avoid the prospect of golf balls be­ing hit into a school. Golf balls tend to be both­er­some.Any­one who has played at Ara­bella lately may have no­ticed that a large home near the 16th green is al­most en­tirely cov­ered in net­ting. It be­longs to the club cap­tain, who had had enough of the steady stream of “am­mu­ni­tion” strik­ing var­i­ous parts of the house.

When the Royal Burgess cel­e­brated their 250th an­niver­sary in 1985, four of their dis­tin­guished mem­bers, cap­tain and vice-cap­tain, club cham­pion and club pro­fes­sional, had a Grand Match against their coun­ter­parts from Brunts­field. Each four­ball, dressed in pe­riod cos­tume and us­ing hick­ory clubs, set off from the first tee at Brunts­field, fol­lowed by 500 spec­ta­tors, the ob­ject be­ing to count the num­ber of strokes each team took, play­ing in al­ter­nate or­der, be­fore hol­ing out on the 18th green at Burgess.The So­ci­ety, it is recorded, won by 19 strokes to 26.This was a fine ex­am­ple of cross coun­try golf, some­thing that used to be rel­a­tively com­mon, but is in­creas­ingly rare to find to­day. Dif­fi­cult to do with the high­ways and sub­urbs that have iso­lated our golf cour­ses, but I can imag­ine a cross coun­try com­pe­ti­tion be­ing vi­able at 36-hole fa­cil­i­ties in Jo­han­nes­burg, those at Coun­try Club, Rand­park and RJ&K. I re­call in Port Eliz­a­beth some 50 years ago a four­ball set­ting off on a chal­lenge to play from Walmer CC to Hume­wood, a dis­tance of sev­eral kilo­me­tres across open veld, and get­ting there hun­dreds of shots later. And, while it would be re­garded as un­safe to­day, golfers at Mow­bray in Cape Town used to play tee shots over the rail­way lines that split the course. And then walk­ing across the tracks be­tween pass­ing trains.

With ev­ery­one look­ing at novel ways to pop­u­larise the game, per­haps the art of cross coun­try golf will be re­vived, with all the un­con­ven­tional strate­gies it re­quires.

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