The lost art of cross country golf
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.