By Jay McCurdy Ph.D. – Associate Professor, Turfgrass Extension Specialist – Department of Plant & Soil Sciences, Mississippi State University
In part one “Origins of Turfgrass,” we delved into the history and roots of turfgrass. Here we explore turf’s march towards modernity by focusing on the game of golf.
The popularity of lawns, the ability to maintain turf, and turfgrass in general, are all interlinked with the game of golf. Golf courses comprise less than 3% of maintained U.S. turf, yet the turfgrass industry is heavily impacted by the technology and agronomics that make the game possible. Golf’s origins are unclear and debatable. The earliest mention of colf (dutch for club) was in 1261. In 1297 Utrecht (modern day Netherlands), there’s mention of the colf or kolf used to play a ball sport.
Golf was banned at various points throughout its history: in 1360 the Council of Brussels banned the game under penalty of 20 shillings (or confiscation of one’s overcoat); in 1457 King James II prohibited golf due to distraction from archery practice; in 1471 and 1491 it was banned in Scotland because it was said to be an “unprofitable sport”; it was banned again in 1490s by King James IV; and in 1592 it was prohibited on the Sabbath in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Modern golf’s 18-hole format originated in Scotland, and most consider that country’s landscape and culture to be formative to the role of turfgrass on modern golf courses. The oldest sanctioning golf club is disputed—either the Royal Burgess Golfing Society (1735) or the Honourable Company of Edinburgh (records dating to 1744; originally played at the Leigh Links near Edinburgh and now hosted by Muirfield). The “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf,” the oldest surviving rules of the game, are dated 1744 and are preserved in the National Library of Scotland.
Scotland and the North Sea coast of Europe share similar landscapes and environments that have shaped the game of golf and turfgrass culture over the centuries. Their proximity to the sea moderates temperature and assures ample and frequent moisture for the growth of common forage grass species. Those cool-season species thrive in this environment and have been shaped for millions of years by foraging livestock. Furthermore, the area’s links-land landscape (Photo 1) has harsh reliefs and rocky crags that are inviting to wallowing livestock seeking shelter and grazing. The seaside terrain is characterized by rolling hills of sand or links (via the Scottish or Northumbrian language from Old English “hlinc” which means “rising ground or ridge”). Away from the coast, the terrain remains pock-marked with the familiar “Kame and Kettle” topography that is mimicked by golf course architects the world over. These environments were shaped by glaciation—having been covered several times by ice over the last 500,000 years. These glacial landscapes are as dramatic as the Scottish Highlands and as placid as the moraine landscapes further south. These conditions were conducive to the original game of golf—played by shepherds and yeoman farmers with their crooks while tending their livestock. In fact, the “bunkers” that have evolved into common penal features of most modern courses originated in these sandy landscapes.
The earliest golf course architects highlighted the natural beauty of the game’s home at new locations, and the game (and the grasses) spread. The game of golf had evolved from a yeoman’s sport to one for the wealthy who could afford custom equipment.
Allan Robertson (1815-1859) (Photo 2) is widely considered one of the earliest influential golf course architects and greens keepers. He was also the period’s renowned ball and club maker and oversaw course renovations and general supervision of the St. Andrews Links as well as the 10-hole course that eventually became Carnoustie.
His protégé Thomas Mitchell Morris (Old Tom Morris) assisted Robertson in his shop, and they played as a pair with great success. Robertson ultimately fired him after Morris beat him using the gutta ball, a competitor to Robertson’s featherie ball, and a superior piece of equipment that soon replaced other alternatives. Morris became greens keeper at Preswick in 1851 and returned to St. Andrews in 1865. He mentored the likes of C.B. Macdonald, Donald Ross, and A.W. Tillinghast. He is credited with more than 60 course designs and remodels throughout the British Isles. He was an early advocate for frequent sand top-dressing to improve playing conditions of greens.
In the late 19th century, golf began to spread worldwide. Golf course architecture and greens keeping became popularized as professions/careers. Renowned Scottish Architects Harry S. Colt, Willie Park Jr., and W.H. Fowler moved to the United States. The Chicago Golf Club opened in 1892. Architect C.B. Macdonald, famous for National Golf Links of America (1911), coined the term “Golf Course Architect.” In 1913, Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open sparking a golf boom in America. He is considered by many to be the father of amateur golf in the U.S.
In the 1920s, the rapid growth of the game led to more than a thousand new courses. Prominent architects included A.W. Tillinghast (Bethpage State Park), Donald Ross (Pinehurst), William Flynn (Merion), and Alister Mackenzie (Augusta National). Between 1930 and 1950, golf’s growth in popularity slowed tremendously due to the Great Depression and World War II.
Tremendous post war expansion and an exodus of intercity middle-class fueled the growth of suburbs and accompanying amenities, including golf courses, but also parks and community green space. This was the era of “free-way” style golf courses, characterized by straight forward golf game rather than strategy and risk. This simplistic design commodified the game for the masses and led to a great golf-boom.
Expansion slowed in the 70s and 80s due to oil shortages and economic contraction. In the 90s and early 2000s, there was tremendous growth of the industry sparked by economic growth and the peak golfing age of baby-boomers. The game of golf, and the diverse industry surrounding it, has waxed and waned due to the prominence of professional golfers, the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. A post-pandemic golf boom has most recently strengthened the industry around the world.
Throughout its history, golf course architecture and maintenance has pushed the bounds of technology necessary for cultivation of turfgrass in some of the harshest environments on the planet. Equipment spawned for the manufacturing of textiles (principally, the modern reel mower, Photo 3) quickly became available for golf course maintenance—first drawn by horses or pushed by man, but then mechanized with early combustion engines. Modern, high-maintenance golf courses would be almost unrecognizable to the earliest golfers, but the game remains reliant upon the people that design, build, and maintain the turfgrass playing surface.READ THE ISSUE