History Nuggets

April 2017 Nuggets

Question #1

Which is the oldest golf club in Australia still operating as a club today? (It should go without saying that the claim to be the oldest must have good supporting evidence)

Question #2

The picture below, captioned "St Andrews 1800", is a hand-coloured engraving by Lawrence Josset. Can you spot a glaring historical error?

St Andrews 1800

St Andrews 1800 (click for larger image)

Answers next month.

June 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

How many majors did Australian-born Jim Ferrier win?

Jim Ferrier (1915 – 1986) won the 1947 PGA Championship, played at the Plum Hollow Country Club in Michigan. In the 36 hole final he defeated Chick Harbert by 2 & 1. The match play format at the time was particularly gruelling, 216 holes played over seven consecutive days. The 1947 PGA was Ferrier’s only win in a major. He was runner up on three occasions: the British Amateur in 1936, the Masters in 1950 and the PGA in 1960.

Ferrier learned his golf in Sydney at the Manly Golf Club, where his father was the Secretary. He had a sterling career as an amateur in Australia in the 1930s, winning the Australian Open in 1938 and 1939 and the Australian Amateur in 1935, 1936, 1938 and 1939.

In 1940 he went to the USA as a golf journalist. He was disappointed to find that he could not enter the 1940 US Amateur as, under American rules, his receiving royalties from an instruction golf manual he had written cost him his amateur status. He turned professional in 1941 and stayed on in America. He became an American citizen in 1944 and served in the American Army 1944/45.

He died at Burbank, California, on 12 June 1986.


For many years there was no effort to standardise the size and weight of a golf ball. When were these golf ball characteristics first standardised by the ruling bodies?

For many years there was no effort to standardise the size and weight of a golf ball. When were these golf ball characteristics first standardised by the ruling bodies?
Answer. During the eras of the featherie and the guttie, the golf ball could have any size or weight. The same was true of the early rubber-wound balls, invented by Coburn Haskell in America. Yet the size and weight of these early balls were not wildly different from those of a modern standardised ball. There are sound reasons why, through trial and error, the old balls came to be the size and weight they were.

To explain fully what happens during impact between clubhead and ball and the subsequent flight of the ball through the air requires some understanding of physics. If you simply want a ball to go far when played from the tee, you would make it quite small. The smaller the ball the less it is held back by air drag and blown off course by side winds . But if the ball is too small it would not sit up very well for the next shot from the fairway. So a ball about the size of a modern ball is a compromise. The big advantage of a heavier ball is the same, i.e. the heavier ball is less effected by air drag and side winds. The disadvantage of extra weight is that the ball does not sit up so well on the fairway and a heavier ball could, especially with old style golf clubs, result in club breakage. On the other hand, if the ball is too light air drag and side wind will have a greater effect. So a ball about the weight a modern ball is a compromise

From about 1902 the rubber-wound ball became the ball of choice. It flew much further than the superseded guttie. The ruling bodies and golf writers began to express their concerns that the game was being made too easy and many golf courses were now too short to present a real challenge. Same old story! Balls that were slightly heavier and smaller than average, and therefore flew further, were rightly viewed as the big threat. After long discussions the R&A and the USGA, both decided on a standard. The R&A issued this rule effective from 1 May 1921: The weight of the ball shall not be greater than 1.62 ounces avoirdupois, and the size not less than 1.62 inches in diameter. The Rules of Golf Committee will take whatever steps it thinks necessary to limit the power of the ball with regard to distance, should any ball of greater power be introduced.

The R&A stuck with the 1.62/1.62 standard, but the USGA kept to it only for so long. After much experimenting the USGA diverged from the R&A and in May 1929 adopted a new standard: weight not greater than 1.55 oz, diameter not less than 1.68 inches. This was a specification for the ball to sit up better but fly less distance. In 1932 the USGA changed the rule yet again:  weight not greater than 1.62 oz, diameter not less than 1.68 inches. The USGA kept to this standard and the R&A kept to the 1.62/1.62 standard until a great coming together in 1990. In the Rules issued on 1 January 1990 R&A adopted the USGA standard of 1.62 oz and 1.68 inches, and this standard has been the same for both ruling bodies up to the present day.

In 1921, when the size and weight of the ball were standardised, the ruling bodies and other golf pundits were aware that a ball could be manufactured to fly further by means other than altering the size and weight of the ball. Without getting too technical, the simplest way is to increase the springiness of the material under the skin. In the case of the wound ball different rubbers under different tensions could be and were used. Finally, in 1976 the R&A and the USGA issued the following rule: The velocity of the ball shall be not greater than 250 feet (76.2m) per second when measured on apparatus approved by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews: a maximum tolerance of 2% will be allowed. The temperature of the ball when so tested shall be 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Centigrade). A similar rule applies today. It spelt out in great detail under the Initial Velocity Standard and the Overall Distance Standard and is kept on file at the R&A.

For the last few decades improvements in the design and manufacture of golf balls (and clubs) have made drives fly further, which in turn has led to monstrously long golf courses. It would be quite easy for the R&A and USGA to overcome this problem by adjusting the Initial Velocity and Overall Distance Standards. It would also be fairly easy for golf ball manufacturers to conform. Golf balls today are no longer rubber wound. Under the skin is a one piece or two piece solid core. To reduce the distance the golf ball travels, the overall design need not change. The material for the core would need to change to material that, without getting too technical, was less efficient from the point of view of “springiness”.

The 'History Nuggets' page will be going into a brief hiatus. Thanks to Dr Michael Sheret for providing this illuminating series of questions and answers. Stay tuned for further 'History Nuggets' in early 2017.

May 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

What made the Victoria Golf Club in Melbourne an exceptionally proud club in 1954?

In 1954 Doug Bachli won the Amateur at Muirfield. He was the first Australian to win the Amateur (not forgetting Australian-born Walter Travis, who was an American citizen when he won in 1904).

In 1954 Peter Thomson won the Open at Royal Birkdale. He was the first Australian to win the Open. Both Bachli and Thomson were members of the Victoria Golf Club. Not many clubs can boast of two members, each a winner of one of golf’s major trophies in the same year.

Bachli won by 2 & 1 in the 36 hole final against the experienced favourite, American Bill Campbell. Thomson was only 23 years old when he won by one shot from Bobby Locke, Dai Rees and Syd Scott.

Question #2

Who is the man in the portrait?

The man in the portrait is Henry Callender in the golfing uniform of Captain General of Royal Blackheath in London. Royal Blackheath can trace its origins back to 1766. Callender was a prominent member of the Club. He was the Secretary: 1783 to 1790, 1796 to 1800, 1802 and 1805. He was Captain in 1790, 1801 and 1807. On the occasion of his third captaincy in 1807 he was given the special title of Captain General as a gesture of the high regard in which he was held by the Club. A Captain of Royal Blackheath is entitled to one epaulette. A Captain General has two, as in the portrait. The highest office at Royal Blackheath is Field Marshal, roughly equivalent to President in a modern golf club. A Field Marshall is also entitled to two epaulettes.

Early golf portraits are very rare. Consequently the portrait of Henry Callender is quite famous. Royal Blackheath plays on Crown land. For some time the Club has had ambitions to acquire the freehold. To raise funds the Club made the decision to sell the portrait. In December 2015 it was sold at Bonhams, London, for a hammer price of £722,500 (about 1.4 million Australian dollars).

Early 19th Century putters were almost uniquely of the wooden-headed long-nosed variety. The metal headed putter in the portrait is very unusual. Royal Blackheath had in its museum a similar putter considered to be the very one in the portrait. It sold at the same auction for £62,500 (about 120,000 Australian dollars).

April 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

It's the Australian Open, and an amateur leads from start to finish. In the top ten, there are eight amateurs and two professionals. What is the year?

The 1960 Open at Lake Karrinyup was won by Bruce Devlin, before he turned professional. Eight out of the top ten were amateurs.

1  * B. Devlin 69 69 69 75 - 282
2  * E. Ball 70 71 73 69 - 283
3  * T. Crow 69 74 74 68 - 285
4  * E. Routley 71 68 73 74 - 286
      K. Nagle 73 69 74 70
6  * P. Billings 73 69 75 71 - 288
    * D. Bachli 76 72 71 69
8  * K. Donohoe 75 72 68 74 - 289
9 *  R. Stevens 70 68 79 73 - 290
10  J. Sullivan 76 68 75 72 - 291
        Asterisk denotes an amateur.
Modern golfers may find these results very strange, but the situation for professional golfers in 1960 was very different from today. After adjusting for inflation, prize money was not as lucrative as it is today. Most professionals on tour were also attached to clubs and had to spend some of their time on club duties. A really good amateur could be offered a sinecure by a large company and given generous time to practice, travel and play golf.

Writing in November 1961 Henry Longhurst was surprised that Jack Nicklaus announced his decision to turn pro. This came after winning the U.S. Amateur in 1959 & 1961 and coming a close second to Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open. While still studying insurance at university, Nicklaus worked in the insurance industry and had a very handsome annual income for such a young man. If he had continued in insurance he would probably still have won a few major tournaments. Clients in the presence of the great man would have bought oodles and oodles of insurance and Nicklaus would be a rich man. 

However, he decided to turn pro and the rest is history.

Question #2

Why are the names James McEwan and Hugh Philp important to golf collectors and historians?

James McEwan and Hugh Philp were both golf club makers. Their long-nosed scare-necked clubs are considered to be the best examples of their craft from the featherie ball era.

James McEwan started making clubs about 1770 at Bruntsfield in Edinburgh. He died in 1802. The business was handed down to son Peter (1781 – 1836), who took the business in 1847 to Musselburgh (near Edinburgh), a golfing site which the old Edinburgh clubs began to favour rather the city sites.

The business was handed over to James’s grandson Douglas (1809 - 1886) and finally great grandson Peter (1834 – 1895). Clubs by Douglas are considered to be particularly fine examples of the craft. The business closed in 1897, by which time golf clubs were the product of larger more organised workshops rather the product of an individual craftsmen.

In 2012 Christie’s sold a play club by James McEwan for a hammer price of £39,650. It was clearly stamped with James’s name, had good provenance and could be dated as circa 1786. In the same sale there were several McEwans sold in the range £938 to £2500. It was not stated who was in charge of the business when the club was made, and condition and provenance would clearly have varied. Graham Rowley Auctions had a McEwan putter in decent condition that failed to sell for £500. By the 1870s and 1880s long-nosed scare-
necked clubs were produced in fairly large numbers, so their value drops. In that same sale, Graham Rowley had a Tom Morris putter in decent condition that failed to sell for £300.

Hugh Philp (1786 – 1856) was the club maker for the Society of St Andrews Golfers, aka the R&A. He is often described as the Stradivarius of club makers. A joiner by trade, he opened his club making shop in St Andrews in 1819. After his death he was succeeded by his nephew Robert Forgan, who formed the Forgan Golf Company. Clubs bearing the Forgan name are still made today, but the company has seen several owners and periods of

In 2004 Christie’s sold a putter by Hugh Philp for a hammer price of £23,900. It had good provenance and was thought to have belonged to Allan Robertson. You may wonder why the price was lower that the club by James McEwan. A strong reason is that play clubs, because they were more easily broken, are rarer than putters.

The AGHS Golf Museum in Granville has several long-nosed scare-necked putters. Visitors can try out one of the putters. Staff will explain how the putters were made. There are also fact sheets that visitors may read at the Museum or take away to read at their leisure.

March 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

When was golf first played in Melbourne?

The most commonly cited date is 1847. A newspaper in 1896 reported the recollections of one of the players, having in his possession “ ... an entry, however, of a subscription of £2 paid on August 31, 1847, to the golf club … ”.

The player, James Graham, also recollected: “The course played on extended from the old Flagstaff Hill to about where the Flemington bridge is erected, nearly the whole then being vacant ground”.

A contemporary newspaper report provides further evidence of golf still played on the same site. The Melbourne Morning Herald of 28 June 1850 page 3 reports: “Golf. – It is not generally known that this exhilarating, athletic Scotch game is played here every week, by a few gentlemen who intend forming themselves into a regular club to carry out the spirit of golf in all its genuine manliness. The gentlemen meet every Saturday, weather permitting, somewhere in the vicinity of the flagstaff, and go to work with that enthusiasm so characteristic of the game itself, and of the Scotch national character.”

Question #2

What is the oldest golf club - still in existence - outside of the United Kingdom?

The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (originally known as the Dum Dum Golfing Club because it was situated in the Dum Dum area) was established in 1829. The club’s records go back only as far as 1874. Evidence for 1829 is in the Oriental Sporting Magazine. The May 1830 issue published a letter to the editor dated 23 December 1829 reporting the formation of the Club and listing the initial subscribers.

Royal Calcutta G.C. Clubhouse
Royal Calcutta Golf Club Clubhouse (click to enlarge).

February 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

Name the golfer who has won the Australian Open the most times?

Gary Player
Gary Player
(Click to enlarge)

 Gary Player won seven times: 1968, 62,  63, 65, 69, 70, 74. Close behind was Jack Nicklaus, who won six times: 1964, 68, 71, 75, 76, 78. Ivo Whitton won five times: 1912, 13, 26, 29, 31, as did Greg Norman: 1980, 85, 87, 95, 96.

The 1960s and 1970s were heady days for the Australian Open, when it was much easier than it is now to attract the top international players like Player and Nicklaus.

About 1960, international travel by long-range jet aircraft became practical, and the PGA tour in America finished much earlier in the year in the 60s and 70s, making summer tournaments in Australia attractive to professional golfers.

Other national and regional tours were less important than they are today.

Question #2

When was the last golf major won using only hickories in winner’s bag?

 John W. Fischer won the U.S. Amateur at Garden City, New York, in 1936 using hickory clubs. As far as anyone knows, he was the only player in the field to have only hickory clubs in the bag.

In the final he defeated star Scottish golfer Jack McLean, halving the match on the 36th hole with a birdie 2 and winning on the 37th with a birdie 3 (Chicago Tribune, 20 September 1936).   

Fischer did all his own repairs, including re-shafting. He only moved to steel in 1955, when it became increasingly difficult to get supplies of good hickory.

In 1950 he played in the U.S. Celebrity Pro-Am with his hickory clubs and finished second to none other than the great Ben Hogan. Needless to say, Hogan was not using hickories.

John W. Fischer
 John W. Fischer in 1936
 (Click to enlarge)

January 2016 Nuggets

Question #1

Kel Nagle famously won the 1960 Centenary Open at St Andrews, with Arnold Palmer as the runner-up. In 1964 he won another tournament that the media at the time were touting as the fifth major. What was that tournament and who was the runner-up to Kel?

In 1964 Kel won the Canadian Open, a very old tournament dating back to 1904. At the time some parts of the media tried to promote the Canadian open as golf’s fifth major. The runner-up to Kel in 1964 was, once again, Arnold Palmer.

Question #2

About 1850 a revolution in golf technology occurred. Many golf historians consider it to be the biggest technological revolution in golf. What exactly was that revolution?

The guttie ball was invented and began to be used at this time.

The guttie was a ball made from gutta percha, which is a resin from the rubber (sapotaceae) tree. The guttie’s biggest advantage was that it was very much cheaper to make and more robust than the previous ball of choice, the very expensive and not-so-robust featherie.

When gutta percha is warmed it becomes soft. It can then be moulded into a one-piece golf ball. When it cools down the ball is hard and has compression and elastic properties similar to a modern golf ball.

Early gutties had a smooth surface. They had a disappointing carry until, after some use, the surface got roughened up and, surprisingly, they carried further. Soon moulds were made to produce balls with various patterns on the surface to take away the smoothness. Modern balls have dimples to take away the smoothness.

The image shows the elaborate surface pattern on a late 19th century guttie. To understand why a smooth surfaced ball is inferior to a dimpled ball, you need an understanding of aerodynamics, boundary layers and air drag.

Another great advantage of the guttie was that, if it got knocked out of shape, it could be warmed up and put back in the mould.

Why do golf historians consider the guttie ball to be such a great revolution in golf?


From 1850 on you didn’t need to be one of the rich and privileged to play with a decent golf ball. It was the beginning of golf for the masses.

December 2015 Nuggets

Question #1   

On the basis of evidence, when and where was golf first played in Australia?

The key words are “evidence” and “first”. Based on evidence contained in the diaries of Alexander Brodie Spark, a reliable witness, sometimes referred to as a “Respectable Sydney Merchant”, the first golf in Australia was played in Sydney on the 25th of May 1839.

It was played on Grose Farm, land now occupied by RPA Hospital, Sydney University and Victoria Park.  The original diaries are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. There are ten entries on golf from 25th May 1839 to 17th August 1839.

There are at least two competing claims for golf played in Australia earlier than 1839, but neither of these claims has been backed up by primary source evidence. See our article Golf in Sydney in 1839 for a more detailed explanation and links to a recent AGHS research article.

Question #2   

Below you’ll see an extract from a mock-heroic poem published in 1743. What process is the poem describing?

    Upon the green… two balls …
    That with Clarinda’s breasts for colour vye,
    The work of Bobson; who with matchless art
    Shapes the firm hide, connecting ev’ry part,
    Then in a socket sets the well-stitched 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:
    The dreaded falcon’s pride here blended lies
    With pigeons glossy down of various dyes;
    The lark’s small pinions join the common stock,
    And yellow glory of the martial cock.

The process described is the making of a featherie golf ball.

The featherie was the ball of choice, for those who could afford it, until superseded by the cheaper and more robust guttie ball about 1850.

Featherie ball making was a highly skilled job and a ballmaker would be stretched to make three balls in a day. Each ballmaker would have had his trade secret, but the basic process was to stuff an enormous pile of wet feathers into a small leather pouch.

The poem describes an imaginary golf match played in Leith, Edinburgh. The Goff, an Heroi-Comical Poem, in Three Cantos was composed by Thomas Mathieson, a young Edinburgh lawyer. The poem is important to golf historians because prior to its publication in 1743 little was known about the details of how golf was actually played. Matheson’s poem considerably expands our knowledge.

When published the poem cost four pence. Some years back the USGA commissioned a limited facsimile; they can now be bought second hand for about $150 and up. If you wanted to buy an original first edition in reasonable condition, it would cost between $150,000 and $200,000. An excellent purchase would be a second hand copy of The Thorn Tree Clique by David Hamilton, about $250 if you’re lucky. This is a beautifully printed and bound copy of the poem, and it includes a facsimile of the original. It also gives a scholarly interpretation of the text.

November 2015 Nuggets

 Question #1. What is the name of the
 golfer who won the Australian Open the
 most times as an amateur?

Ivo Whitton (1893 – 1967) won five Australian Opens as an amateur, 1912, 1913, 1926, 1929 and 1931. Whitton worked as a wool broker before joining the Spalding Company, eventually becoming General Manager. He was a member of Royal Melbourne.

Question 1.
National LIbrary of Australia
 Question #2. Croquet style putting was
 popular in the 1950s and into the 1960s.

 In 1968 the R&A and USPGA banned the
 style. What two things were banned in
 the Rules of 1968 that effectively made
 croquet style putting illegal?

First, when a putter is placed with the head flat on the ground the shaft must be at least at an angle of ten degrees from the vertical. This effectively banned the croquet style putter, where the shaft is at a right angle to the head. Second, the player was not allowed to stand astride the line while putting. The AGHS Golf Museum has a split grip croquet style putter, which visitors can try. Once they get the technique right, visitors are surprised about how effective the putter is, especially on those nerve jangling short putts. The putter swings freely in the vertical plane. While addressing the ball the player takes a crouched position and can look straight down the line with both eyes. If you would like to learn more about the history of croquet style putting, contact the AGHS History Sub-Committee through this website.

August 2015 Nuggets

Question #1. How many Opens (British) did Peter Thomson win?

Five: 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1965

Question #2. How many Opens (British) did Norman von Nida win?

None, though he was often in contention. His best performance was tied third in 1948.

Question #3. At the Australian Open in 1951, what was the area of the 18th putting green at Metropolitan?

A good and an acceptable answer is 1256.64 square yards (or 1050.71 square metres) that includes the area occupied by the hole, 18.06 square inches (or 27.42 square centimetres). In fact the other seventeen putting greens at Metropolitan had the same area, as indeed did every putting green in Australia.

In 1951 the putting green was defined as the area within 20 yards of the hole. (Area of a circle = πr2, for those who remember their school geometry, 20 yards being the radius). This was a left over from the club rules of the R&A in 1875, when the area around the hole was generally indistinguishable from the fairway. In 1952 the definition was changed to one we would recognise today, namely an area especially prepared for putting.

The point of asking this question was to remind golfers that many of the rules in golf have changed radically over the years. For the pedants even that wonderfully precise figure of 1256.64 square yards is not good enough for two reasons. First, humps and hollow on the green add more area of grass than would be if the green were flat. Second, in 1951 water hazards and bunkers within twenty yards of the hole, wherever it may have been cut, were not considered part of the putting green.

The history of the Rules of Golf can be explored on www.ruleshistory.com, which has transcriptions of the Rules from the earliest in 1744 to the present day.


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