Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Golden Era of Golf: How America Rose to Dominate the Old Scots Game

The Golden Era of Golf: How America Rose to Dominate the Old Scots Game

by Al Barkow

See All Formats & Editions

Until now, no one has made the point directly and unequivocally that the game "invented" by ancient Scots would not have reached its present stature in the world of sports if Americans had never gotten hold of it. Is this to say that Al Barkow is, in this history, being a narrow-minded, American-flag-waving jingoist? Not at all.

In detailing how America expanded


Until now, no one has made the point directly and unequivocally that the game "invented" by ancient Scots would not have reached its present stature in the world of sports if Americans had never gotten hold of it. Is this to say that Al Barkow is, in this history, being a narrow-minded, American-flag-waving jingoist? Not at all.

In detailing how America expanded on the old Scotsgame, Barkow does not deny that the United States more or less fell into certain advantages that led to its dominion over the game - there is the geography, the luck of not having to endure the physical devastation of two world wars, and a naturally broader economic strength. Still, Barkow also makes it clear that there were, and there remains, certain especially American characteristics - a singular energy and enthusiasm for participation in and observation of games, for melding sports with business, for technological and industrial innovation, and by all means democratic traditions - that turned what had been (and would probably have remained) an insular, parochial past time into a game played by millions around the world. America has been golf's great nurturing force, and Barkow details why and how it happened.

The history of American golf is not exactly a varnished treatment, a mindless glorification full of nationalist ardor, which is in keeping with the author's well-established reputation, developed over the past 37 years as a golf journalist, magazine editor, historian, and television commentator, as someone who looks with a sharp and candid eye at the game. Barkow has points of view and takes positions on affairs and personalities that impact on every aspect of golf.

Is the United States Golf Association, in its restrictions on equipment, playing ostrich to inevitable technological innovation? Hasn't it always? And, hasn't the association always been hypocritical in its definition of amateurism? Was the Ryder Cup ever really a demonstration of pure hands-across-the-sea good fellowship? Why did it take so long for the members of the Augusta National Golf Club to invite a black to play in its vaunted Masters tournament? Barkow was one of the first journalists to research in depth and write about how blacks were excluded from mainstream American golf for most of this century. Here, he expands on an element of history which is intrinsic to the larger American experience and which led to the coming of Tiger Woods.


How good has television been for golf, and when and by whom did this most powerful of mediums get involved in the game? Is Greg Norman's celebrity (and personal wealth) an example or the result of modern-day image making that gives greater value to impressions of greatness than the reality of actual performance?

Although some curmudgeon emerges in this chronicle of golf, what also comes through, and on a larger note, is the author's passion for the game itself. Its demands on each player's will, determination, and both inherent and developed physical skills are so penetrating, and the satisfaction that comes from just coming close to fulfillment so great, that the manipulations of the golf "operators" - administrators, agents, some of its players, et al - become mere sidebars.

This is golf history with a certain perspective that arises from someone who has lived intimately with the game as a player and writer for at least half the century that is covered, and in particular the last half, on which there is the greater emphasis. It runs the gamut - from feisty, albeit well-considered, criticism to an evocation of the human drama that is finally the most vivid expression of any activity man takes on.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Barkow's chronicle is not so much a cultural study of America's impact on the sport as a short history of the professional game wrapped loosely in the American flag. While this nationalism may distinguish Barkow's book from other golf histories, it doesn't make for a compelling argument. In the last century, it is true, the greatest heroes to the hacker masses were American. The tour and sponsors that brought the game into every home via television were American. And the technical innovations that changed golf from a medieval contest of leather, feather and wood to a modern battle of balata, graphite and metal were instigated by Americans. But suggesting that the entrepreneurial and democratic character of American society, as well as U.S. geography and economy, drove golf to its current prominence seems a stretch. It is also gratuitous; would one make the same argument about baseball as the apotheosis of rounders? Barkow himself seems uncomfortable with his titular argument, and he returns to it only intermittently. Instead, he prefers to rush through a chronicle of the game's evolution. His capsule bios of the game's greats are well rendered; his history of the PGA tour effectively traces the influence of agents and race; his stories of how golf innovations came about are worthy of Charles Panati. However, none of these aspects break new ground, so it is unlikely that Barkow's book will make it beyond the niche of dedicated golf readers. (Nov. 17) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.76(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.16(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

The Golden Era Of Golf

How American Rose to Dominate the Old Scots Game

By Al Barkow

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Al Barkow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8367-3


1900–1930: The Birth of a Golf Nation

Here Comes the Bouncing Ball; Seeding the Pro Tour; The First American Champions


For almost four hundred years the Scots used a leather bag filled with boiled poultry feathers as a golf ball. It was a little smaller than the modern ball, and was called a featherie (Scottish spelling). It did not have anything to recommend it, especially in wet weather, which in Scotland is as common as a heartbeat. The ball got mushy soft when wet, the cover often split, and it was easily knocked out of round. Even when in its best condition, fresh off the workbench, a featherie flew only 150 to 175 yards and hardly rolled at all. Yet, the Scots used this obstinate orb for some four centuries! Talk about complacency.

At last, in the mid-1840s, this golf ball torpor was breached. The story revolves around the Reverend Doctor Robert Adams Paterson, of St. Andrews, Scotland, and his son, Rob, and although the advance came by accident, or as an afterthought, progress was made. A little. The new golf ball was called, generically, a guttie, short for the material from which it was made — gutta-percha, a rubberlike material derived from the latex or sap of several types of sappy Malaysian trees.

The times were hard in 1846. The economy was in a downturn and money was in short supply. Given this state of affairs and Scotland's climate, a top priority in everyday life was a pair of shoes that didn't leak. This must have been on Rob Paterson's mind when his father received a marble statue of the Hindu god Vishnu from the Orient — protected against breakage by slabs of gutta-percha. The packing material was put aside until the day Rob Paterson got the notion that it could be heated, reshaped, and used to resole shoes. He did just that, and it worked.

A few weeks later, Rob perceived yet another use for gutta-percha — a golf ball. He again softened the material, but this time molded it into a small sphere, then went out on the links to hit it. The ball's flight was satisfactory, but after a few strokes it broke into pieces. Rob gave some thought to how the ball might be made to stay in one piece: Curing it for a week was the answer. The Patersons got a patent on the creation, and went into the guttie golf ball business.

The guttie very quickly took the place of the featherie. For one thing, it was much cheaper to produce and therefore buy, which appealed to the Scots' legendary parsimony and the poor economy of the moment. Leather was far more expensive than gutta-percha, and producing just one featherie was a lengthy and laborious process. Many more gutties could be made in a day's time and demanded little skill. Although a guttie didn't go much farther than a featherie, its greater durability and resistance to wet weather also made it more practical.

The first gutties flew erratically, diving like a duck or just darting one way then another in the air. However, it was soon noted that the flight became less and less erratic the more the ball was used. Someone put two and two together and realized that the nicks and gouges made from hitting the ball produced more stable flight. The science of this would be worked out some years later, but until then ball makers took hammer and chisel and purposely made nicks and gouges in the surface of gutties. Eventually, the molds in which the balls were formed were designed to produce an orderly pattern of these "irregularities" on the surface of the balls. Gutties were an advance, but they didn't last very long and no one minded except their manufacturers. The solid and rocklike piece of goods stung the hands miserably when mishit, especially hands chilled by brisk, damp Scottish air. The featherie was used for four hundred years, but the guttie lasted only fifty. Its replacement, an American invention, truly revolutionized the game.

The Bounding Billie Rules the Waves

In 1898 Coburn Haskell, with the considerable help of his friend Bertram Work, an executive with the Goodrich Rubber Company, in Akron, Ohio, invented the three-piece golf ball. Actually, two-piece at first. Some hard-nosed traditionalists would continue to play the guttie for a few years after Haskell's ball came into play, but that stony orb was effectively rendered a thing of the past in a matter of minutes. Haskell's ball was to mercury what the guttie was to lead. It sped off the clubface like a zephyr, and danced a happy jig when it landed. It went farther in the air and on the ground with much less effort, and no pain.

Haskell was an American rendition of the English gentleman. He dabbled in business, but having married well (i.e., into money), he mostly indulged in pastimes — horses, shooting, book collecting, light opera, and golf. A poor golfer, he was anxious to at least increase the distance he hit the ball as compared to his more skilled friends. Something of an aesthete, he was not fond of how the guttie felt when he struck it poorly, as he often did. There are a number of versions of how Haskell came up with his idea, all different in minor details but basically amounting to the same thing.

One day, while browsing about the Goodrich plant waiting for Work to join him for a round of golf, Haskell noticed some thin bands of waste rubber lying about. He realized they could be wound into a golf ball that would be as lively as a tennis ball, which was made of the same material. He suggested to Work that a ball of very tightly wound rubber thread or bands covered with a thin sheet of gutta-percha would make a terrific golf ball. Work saw the possibilities, added his manufacturing and rubber expertise, and called on shop foreman Emmet Junkins and master mechanic John Gammeter to assist with execution. Gammeter would prove the most important figure.

At first Haskell tried winding the rubber himself by hand but he kept losing control of it and the bands would fly all over the place. Junkins's contribution was to have nimble-fingered women in his shop wind the balls, also by hand. The first ones were covered with gutta-percha, until Work found that balata, another rubberlike substance made from the milky juice of a tropical bully tree, was a better material for the job. It would be used in its natural form for the next sixty years, and then after in a synthetic formula.

Junkins's women did a good enough job winding the balls, but it was labor-intensive and not at all cost-effective (to use modern-day terminology; Junkins et al. probably just said it cost too much). Work asked Gammeter, described as a mechanical wizard, if he could devise a machine to wind balls. Gammeter, the homely story goes, shifted the wad of tobacco in his mouth and said he could. His ball-winding machine used a relatively nonelastic core on which to wind the rubber strands. Then the two elements were covered, creating golf's first three-piece ball. This was the standard construction for the next sixty years. The machine made it possible to turn out a thousand golf balls in the time it took to produce one featherie or five gutties, and it also made a more reliable product. Gammeter, who was not himself a golfer, received a patent on his ball-winding machine, which had an enormous impact on the growth of the game.

To test the first modern golf ball, Haskell enlisted Joe Mitchell, the pro at his club in Akron. Mitchell didn't know what was in store, because the ball had been pressed in the same mold as gutties and therefore didn't look any different. But when he hit it, ahhh. Golf writer O. B. Keeler wrote an account of the moment.

Out across the fairway of the first hole was a bunker which never had been carried by anybody. It was so far from the tee that only an occasional tremendous poke with the old guttie would send the ball rolling into it, in dry weather. And it was right over the middle of that bunker that Joe's drive with the new ball sailed, high in the air, landing yards beyond.

Joe Mitchell stood watching the ball with eyes and mouth wide open. Then he let out a yell and began a sort of dance and began to implore Mr. Haskell to tell him if he was dreaming, and if not what was in that ball. So that's the way it started.

Some adjustments would be necessary. The nicks and gouges that helped the guttie fly more true did not work all that well on the cover of the Haskell ball. Jim Foulis, winner of the second U.S. Open and at the time the professional at the Chicago Golf Club (where Haskell was also a member) accidentally made a contribution. A Haskell ball got into a batch of gutties Foulis was remolding one day in his shop. He couldn't tell the difference, because it had the same cover markings. Foulis's mold had a bramble pattern — raised bumps — which went onto the Haskell ball's cover. When Foulis hit it, right after sending off a couple of gutties, he was astonished. It flew much farther and true.

Foulis cut open the ball to see what he had and discovered it was Mr. Haskell's invention. Haskell quickly had all his balls brambled, but there was another important alteration still to come. William Taylor, whose firm in Leicester, England, was the world's largest golf ball mold manufacturer, discovered that the brambles on the golf ball cover were flattened from constant hitting. When that happened, the ball would exhibit the same erratic flight characteristics of the smooth-surfaced gutties. Taylor reasoned that if he turned the pimplelike brambles inside out and made them dimples, the golf club would strike the larger radius of the ball instead of the smaller radius formed by the brambles. This prolonged the life of the ball and provided a more predictable flight pattern. Taylor's son, William Taylor, Jr., who made his career in Cincinnati, Ohio, recalled in an article in Golf Illustrated magazine that his father had used the scoop end of a blackhead remover to carve the first experimental dimples out of a beeswax coating applied to a ball. The birth of the dimple. How prosaic the tools of invention can be.

Taylor patented his round dimple in 1908, and sold the Spalding Company, of Massachusetts, an exclusive twelve-year license to produce and market golf balls with dimples of that configuration. This did not stop other manufacturers from horning in on the concept. They simply made square dimples and other variations on the theme that worked just as well, but didn't infringe on Taylor's patent.

It is fascinating to consider that when Taylor later became interested in the aerodynamics of the dimpled golf ball, he devised a dimple pattern that could keep the ball from hooking or slicing — or at least modify these flight patterns. However, when his son told him this "would take all the fun out of the game, and no golfing association would tolerate it," Taylor, Sr., gave up the idea. (What an innocent time, such high ideals.) Today, golf ball manufacturers produce balls with dimple patterns that do in fact reduce, if not entirely eliminate, slices and hooks. However, the golf association that governs such things, the United States Golf Association (USGA), has only barely tolerated this development and, in recent years, has threatened to modify the technology.

Haskell's ball was nicknamed the Bounding Billie, not in all cases a term of endearment. Traditionalists decried it for how much it bounced and rolled after landing, and for the greater (read, "excessive") distance it achieved. Here was the birth of one of golf's longest-running conflicts, one that persisted through the end of the twentieth century (and will surely go beyond). That is, the ball goes too far and therefore takes a measure of the skill out of the game. Another anti-distance argument is that a longer ball also requires lengthier courses, which means more costly real estate on which to build them, increasing the cost of playing the game. In fact, the longer ball (and it got much longer as the century progressed, but not entirely by virtue of its construction) has only affected the scoring ability of the highest level of players — tour pros, mainly. It has had little to no effect on the scoring ability of the average golfer in Haskell's day or ninety years later. Instead the Haskell ball made the game more enjoyable for the average golfer, who could mishit it without getting a "guttified" electric shock in his fingers. He also got a little something for his effort. A half-topped Haskell might bound nearly as far as a full-struck guttie. These features made golf more fun than it had ever been before, or at least somewhat less discouraging, and brought thousands and eventually millions of new players to the game.

A New Way to Work Wood

There was another innovation in equipment that occurred around the same time as the introduction of the Haskell ball. It was not as flashy as the Bounding Billie, but it would have a significant impact on the growth of golf. That is, the copying lathe as it was used in the making of wooden club heads.

For centuries the wooden heads of golf clubs were made entirely by hand. Craftsmen, including most golf professionals, shaped thick blocks of wood called flitches into a club head using saws, files, chisels, and sandpaper. It took days to finish just one head. That slow, toilsome process went the way of the quill pen when a woodworker from a shoe manufacturing plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, happened to see Scots-born golf professional Robert White crafting a club head the old-fashioned way. The story was reported by Herb Graffis in his magazine, Golfing. One day in May, 1897, a carpenter named Gardner was watching White chip away at a new club head in his shop at the Myopia Hunt Club, between Lynn and Boston. Said Gardner to White, "I always thought the Scots were smart, but they must be damn fools. There's a shoe factory at Lynn that could do that wood job of yours in two or three minutes." White gave the carpenter a chance to match deed to word and later said, "The fellow turned out some beautiful heads."

Gardner fashioned the club heads on a copying lathe that was used to produce lasts at the shoe manufacturing plant. A copying lathe in its simplest manifestation is what is used by your local hardware store to duplicate house keys. A stylus traces the model, while a cutting edge replicates the model on a piece of raw material. The adaptation of the copying lathe to golf was soon picked up by all golf equipment manufacturers, who were able to produce hundreds of identically shaped heads in one day. This led to the mass production of woods, which in turn made them less expensive, which of course helped widen participation in the game. One of the first such lathes, used by the MacGregor Golf Company, is now in a museum, literally and figuratively, for it was rendered obsolete with the coming of metal "woods."

Competition Arises, Rules Follow, and Eighteen Holes Become a Round of Golf

Golfers wagered against each other from the moment the game came to be. But official competition in the form of tournaments took almost as long to get on the boards as did a replacement for the featherie. It wasn't until 1744 that the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers staged the first competition intended for a large field of players, with a trophy going to the winner. The city of Edinburgh provided the trophy, a silver cup, with the stipulation that the competition be open to noblemen and gentlemen, or commoners from any part of Great Britain and Ireland. However, only ten men, all from Edinburgh, played. (This lack of interest seems odd until you remember that these were the same people who had been playing golf for three centuries with a leather bag full of feathers.) The event was held again the following year, again to a sparse entry, then it faded from the scene. The Edinburgh tournament did engender the first written rules of golf, though. Compiled by the Company of Edinburgh Golfers, these rules, except for one inconsequential clause, are the very same that the Society of St. Andrews, which would become the Royal and Ancient Society of St. Andrews (R&A), issued ten years later. (It has long been thought, or claimed, that the R&A wrote the first rules.) The original rules of golf drafted in 1744 contained thirteen items, none over a sentence long — although some of the sentences are fairly long. Many traditionalists decry the enormous expansion of the rules over the years and claim the first rules are still good enough. However, the original rules are not all that clear in themselves, and they don't address many of the changes that have taken place in the game, including innovations in equipment and course conditions, and man's penchant for drawing fine lines in the sands of regulations. For instance, original Rule Thirteen reads: "Neither trench, ditch, or dyke made for the preservation of the links, or the Scholars' holes, or the Soldiers' lines, shall be accounted a hazard, but the ball is to be taken out, teed, and played with any iron club." Go apply that to today's game.


Excerpted from The Golden Era Of Golf by Al Barkow. Copyright © 2000 Al Barkow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Al Barkow has been the editor-in-chief of Golf and Golf Illustrated magazines, chief writer on the original Shell's Wonderful World of Golf television series, and writer of countless articles on the game for such publications as Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, The New York Times, Golf Monthly (UK), Golf World, and Travel & Leisure. He has co-authored numerous golf instructional books with professionals that include Ken Venturi, Billy Casper, and Dave Stockton. He has written previous histories of golf, including Golf's Golden Grind: the History of the Tour and Gettin' to the Dance Floor: an Oral History of American Golf, which in 1986 won the first annual United States Golf Association International Golf Book of the Year award. Barkow also appeared for some ten years as a television commentator for Inside the PGA Tour and the Senior PGA Tour programs seen on ESPN. A native of Chicago, he was a member of the Western Illinois University golf team that won the NAIA national championship in 1959 and also competed in the US Amateur Championship in 1971 as well as other national and regional golf competitions. He currently lives in Clifton, New Jersey.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews