Since the middle ages, St Andrews has been a place of religious pilgrimage. However, today’s pilgrims appeal to Godless for their immortal soul and more for their ability to hit a hole in one. While the origins of golf are more hotly disputed than one would expect, there is no doubt that Scotland, and especially St Andrews, have become synonymous with the sport. Early golf historian Sir Walter Simpson once hypothesized that the beginning of golf in St Andrews could well have begun “when a shepherd idly hit a stone into a hole with his crook.” While this is an unlikely genesis of golf in St Andrews, St Andrews, and Scotland as a whole, has loved the sport for quite some time.
Nearly six hundred years ago, golf was such a popular sport in Scotland, that King James II issued a statute in 1457 banning the practice of it completely. At the time, all men older than the age of twelve were legally required to practice archery in case the monarch needed to form an army. King James II feared sports such as “ye golf” were detracting from national security. However, golf’s alluring challenge continued to attract sportsmen and sportswomen alike. One famous lover of golf was Mary, Queen of Scots. Her love of the sport was even used for slander by her detractors who criticised Mary for golfing too soon after her husband’s death. Lore even has it that the Queen of Scots golfed at St Andrews (take that, Hugh Grant).
The first written record of golf played at St Andrews dates back to 1552 which is just (roughly) one hundred years after the university was granted its charter. Even after the Crown had given up trying to police golf, the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland (founded during the Scottish Reformation) took up the baton. Records of St Andrews Kirk sessions from the sixteenth century contain complaints against parishioners “profaning of the Sabbath-day” by golfing. This perceived moral offence was not just a fault of the young and rebellious but was even a vice of Kirk elders. Not even ministers were immune to the siren call of golf. Robert Blair, minister of St Andrews during the early seventeenth century, was so enamoured with the sport that he once delivered a sermon during which he compared the mystical union of the Presbyterian Kirk and God to the relationship between the shaft and head of a golf club.
By 1691, St Andrews was being hailed as the “Metropolis of Golfing.” For context, St Andrews was considered the home of golf about one hundred years before the American Revolution was fought. Even students in1885, such as R. F. Murray, an American at the university, recognized the importance of golf and wrote of St Andrews as “a city given over/ Soul and body to a tyrannising game.” Our town’s globally exalted place in golf has continued to this day as a facet of St Andrews life. It is a pinnacle of beauty and a reminder of our home’s historical significance, not only in Scotland but the rest of the world.
Burnet, Bobby, An Anecdotal History of the Royal and Ancient (St. Andrews, 1993).
Geddes, Olive M., A Swing Through Time: Golf in Scotland, 1457-1744 (Edinburgh, 1992).
Roberston, James K., St Andrews: Home of Golf (Edinburgh, 1984).