Town centers decayed, along with town finances. Epidemics swept through the countryside and many old courses were turned into burial plots. Men slowly migrated to the numerous factories that were constantly springing up, working many overtime hours. Sundays were the only off-days, a time just long enough to rest from the back-breaking work and get ready for Mondays.
The sport might well have died altogether were not for the Freemasons. Their enthusiasm alone virtually sustained the game from extinction. For about 100 years, from 1750 to 1850, they played the game with regularity. Golfing societies slowly formed, which were mostly members of the Freemasons. Royalty played very little or none at all during this period, but golf was kept alive by the Freemason groups.
Edinburgh, Scotland, claimed the first golfing society. The Gentlemen Golfers ' later known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and today in residence at Muirfield ' claim their club was already under way in 1744, when they petitioned the city of Edinburgh for a silver club for annual competition on the Links at Leith. Leith was a port town only a short distance from Edinburgh. This was followed in 1754 by the gentlemen of St. Andrews, Scotland, banding together to form the St. Andrews Golf Club. St. Andrews is today known as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh also puts forth a claim to have been the first golf club. They claim to have been in existence since l735, but those claims appear largely unsubstantiated. At any rate, the earliest golf societies seemed to be as preoccupied with dining as they were with golf. Numerous references in the early journals are made to dinners and not many to golf. Such would be the nature of the Freemasons, who were very big on pomp and circumstance and such fineries as meals served just so.
St. Andrews eventually became the traditional center of all golf, thanks partly to a publicity stunt. The Society of St. Andrews Golfers had an open competition ' everyone was invited, regardless if he were a member of the society or not. St. Andrews contributed a silver club to the winner. In a short time, St. Andrews became the premier golfing town. And in 1764, when the St. Andrews course finally settled on 18 holes (down from its previous 22), 18 became the accepted number for all golf courses.
With golf spreading across city boundaries and matches being played among competitors from several regions, written rules began to appear. The first such written set is for the Edinburgh competition by the Gentleman Golfers in 1744:
- You must Tee your Ball within a Clubs length of the Hole;
- Your Tee (area from which the ball was hit) must be on the ground;
- You are not to change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee before that hole is played out;
- You are not to remove any Stones, Bones any Break Club, for the sake of playing your Ball, except of the fair Green, & that only with one Clubs length of your Ball;
- If your Ball come among Watter or any Wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any Club and allow your adversary a stroke;
- If your Balls be found anywhere touching one another you are to lift the first ball till you play the last;
- At holeing you are to play your Ball honestly for the hole, and not to play upon your adversarys ball, not lying in your way to the hole;
- If you shoud lose your Ball, by its being taken up or any other way you are to go back to the Spot, where you struck last, & drop another Ball. And allow your adversary a Stroke for the misfortune;
- No man at holeing his Ball is to be allowd to mark his way to the hole with his Club or anything else;
- If a Ball be stoppd by any person, horse or dog, or anything else, the Ball so stoppd must be played where it lyes;
- If you draw your Club, in order to strike & proceed so far in your stroke, as to be bringing down your Club; if then your Club shall break in any way, it is to be accounted a stroke;
- He whose Ball lyes farthest from the hole is obliged to play first;
- Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke, made for the preservation of the Links, nor the Scholars Holes or the Soldiers Lines, Shall be accounted a hazard. But the ball is to be taken out Teed and playd with any Iron Club.
About the year 1830, though, golf had reached its absolute low point. Interest in golf at Leith had ebbed. The Gentlemen Golfers ' later known as the Honorable Company of Golfers ' was about to drown in a sea of debts. The military invaded the links, and with it the town citizens followed, trampling the course, and now numerous sheep followed.
In 1834 the Edinburgh golf clubhouse was sold to pay off huge debts owed by the Gentleman Golfers. The town of St. Andrews sold its course in 1799 to, of all things, a rabbit breeder. Estimates were that only 20 rounds a day were played there on a good day. Golf also declined in the west coast of Scotland. The Glasgow Herald reported in 1854 that, We have lost one of the oldest of our Scotch games, viz. the Golf, which used to be regularly played upon the Green of Glasgow, not only by boys, but also by many of our first-class citizens.
The gents of wealth, however, kept the game alive during this period. They werent beholden to the factory hours. Almost single-handedly they ' many of which were Freemasons ' persisted in their games, even branching out to playing in the summers. Golf in Scotland had been largely a winter game, the summers devoted to crop-growing.
Along about 1850, though, the sport was on the rebound. Wages improved. The epidemics faded out. After 1850, the textile industries which abounded in Britain gave time off from work ' two weeks was the standard, as well as Saturday afternoons. The Victorian Age was on the horizon, a time in which morals were greatly improved. Health and attention to sobriety were now the watchwords.
Eventually, the golfers of St. Andrews were able to rescue their course back from the rabbit warrens. In 1821, James Cheape of Strathtryum bought the links and saved the Old Course for golf. The introduction of the gutta percha ball around 1850 took the place of the old featherie, making golf cheaper for all. Railroads were coming into being, making it much easier to get to outlying courses.
The invention of the mower was critical. Before, it was hardly possible to play in the summer on inland courses because the grass would grow to such unwieldy lengths. It was cut back, when possible, by scythes. In most areas, cattle and grazing sheep kept the terrain leveled enough in the winter so that balls were not lost. But by 1840, the lawnmower started appearing at courses.
The St. Andrews Society of Golfers reached royal status in 1834. Murray Belshes had approached King William IV asking him to be their patron. The King not only agreed, but permitted the Society to rename itself The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. St. Andrews has since become known as the Home of Golf, since the Edinburgh golfers had left Leith and had yet to re-establish itself. There was no challenge to the claims of St. Andrews.
From that time on, the authority of the Royal and Ancient has been undisputed, with the exception of North American where the United States Golf Association is the preeminent authority. It was time for yet another era in golf.