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Golf History, Golf Poetry and the Making of the Featherie

A Featherie Ball

For many American golfers, the history of golf begins with the 1913 U.S. Open won in a playoff by Francis Ouimet over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. The author Mark Frost marks this event as “the birth of Modern Golf” in his bookThe Greatest Game Ever Played. But what about the birth of the game? To get a better idea as to the origins of golf and its early history I would suggest a book called A Swing Through Time — Golf in Scotland 1457-1744 by Olive M Geddes (revised edition published in 2007).  Quoting from the book’s introduction,

This book takes a close look at the earliest written records of golf in Scotland, from the 1457 Act of Parliament banning the game to the first ‘Rules’ of golf — the ‘Articles and Law’ of 1744 drawn up by the Company of Gentlemen Golfers for the competition for the Silver Cup played over Leith Links.

Interestingly, some of these “written records” were recorded in verse. For example, Ms. Geddes devotes a chapter to a discussion of the first book entirely devoted to golf, called The Goff, first published in 1743. It was a mock-heroic epic poem, 358 lines long, written by an Edinburgh lawyer (who later became a Minister) named Thomas Mathison.  A second edition was published in 1763 and a third 30 years later. In 1981 the United States Golf Association published facsimiles of all three editions under one cover in a limited edition of 1400 copies. One of few surviving third edition copes was sold for $80,500 in 1998.

The Goff tells the story of a golf match on the Leith Links played between Castalio and Pygmalion, the heroic combatants of the tale. But the poem also makes reference to some golf related activities of the time. In one interesting section of eight lines, Mathison describes in some detail how featherie golf balls were made:

The work of Bobson; who with matchless art
Shapes the firm hide, connecting ev’ry part,”
Then in a socket sets the well-stitch’d void,
And thro’ the eyelet drives the downy tide;
Crowds urging crowds the forceful brogue impels,
The feathers harden and the Leather swells;
He crams and sweats, yet crams and urges more,
Till scarce the turgid globe contains its store.

Ms. Geddes remarks that “Bobson” probably referred to a St. Andrews ball-maker named Robertson (likely an ancestor of Davie and Allen Robertson). The implication is that although balls were made in Leith at the time, the best balls came from St. Andrews. (Featherie balls dated back to 1618 and were only replaced by Gutta-Percha balls in 1848!) I hope that those of you who might be interested in golf’s early history will have the opportunity to consult A Swing Through Time.

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