The historic St. Andrews Links in Fife boasts the record of being the world's oldest golf course. Going back to 1552, Archbishop Hamilton's Charter, granted some the locals of St Andrews the privilege of engaging in golfing activities on the hallowed grounds. This ancient charter not only sanctioned Archbishop Hamilton's rabbit breeding endeavours on the links but also extended permission for the pursuit of various recreational pursuits like "golf, futball, schuting at all gamis, with all uther maner of pastyme as ever thai plais."
We know that golf was played even earlier as James II of Scotland banned the sport in 1457. The ban was not lifted until 1502 when James IV became interested in golf. While people were allowed to play golf again in Scotland, St. Andrews remained off limits until 1552, when the Archbishop John Hamilton gave the townspeople of St Andrews the right to play on the links.
James Melville (1556-1614) was a notable student at St. Andrew's University (1569-1574). He came from Montrose, a place near the town of Maryton. He was the nephew of Andrew Melville, a famous theologian, and his father was a minister. He became Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1589 but was later imprisoned for opposing King Charles I. In Montrose, he's renowned for learning golf around 1562, taught by Reverend William Gray, connecting the town to early golf history.
Montrose is undoubtedly the most redeveloped golf links in the world. No fewer than four golfing areas on the Montrose Links (Mid-Links, South Links, East Links and North Links) have variously been developed and redeveloped, separately and together, and then abandoned or redeveloped. The current 1562 course at Montrose does feature part of the original golfing grounds and was designed by Harry Colt in 1913.
Although the first mention of an official course layout comes around 1770, when both a Short Course and Long Course are mentioned in official documents, it has been confirmed from Royal Charter that golf was played over “the golfing tract” in Earlsferry in 1589 when King James VI of Scotland reconfirmed the right for the villagers and visitors to play golf. The two courses were situated on the land now occupied by the 4th, 5th, 8th, and 17th holes, although there is little to suggest the sort of formal course layout we would recognise today. The current Elie Links golf course was designed by Old Tom Morris and James Braid at the end of the 19th century.
Documentary evidence proves that golf was played on Musselburgh Links as early as 2 March 1672 although Mary, Queen of Scots reputedly played here in 1567. If we would use the later date, then Musselburgh Links would be the third oldest golf club in the world, just after Montrose Golf Links.
Musselburgh Links was originally seven holes, with another added in 1838 and the full nine-holes coming into play in 1870.
The first documentary evidence of golf being played over Chanonry (now Fortrose) was not until 1702. A reference in the 1793 Statistical Account of Rosemarkie, confirmed that the game had been introduced many years earlier and had become an established sporting activity of the area. Evidence is in place that golf was being played at Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Links along the current 6th, 7th and 8th holes up further up towards the town of Fortrose in 1793 alongside the current caravan site.
The Kingsbarns Golf Club, which can be dated back to 1793, played over what was called the Cambo Links. Back then the Kingsbarns men met for their Spring and Autumn Meetings to challenge for the Societies medals on the links and to enjoy the conviviality of friends over dinner in the Golfers Hall. The course was ploughed up in 1850 by farmers, but returned on the same location in 1922. During the World War 2 it again disappeared. Golf has been revived at Kingsbarns in 2000, after an absence of half a century.
Although officially founded in 1887, a recent discovery of a letter from 1812 reporting golf being played on Kinghorn Links makes this club the 7th oldest course in this list. Through the name and ownership on this letter, it is clear that the land on which the golfers were playing was the land which the Council bought in 1886 to create the present course.
Surrounded by history, Scotscraig Golf Club was founded in 1817 by some members of the St. Andrews Society of Golfers - later to become the Royal and Ancient Golf Club - who wished to play more golf than the Society's occasional meetings afforded them. In 1817 golf was played on 6 holes in the Garpit racecourse. The present course is on the site of this racecourse, to which the club returned in 1888.
Although golf was probably played at North Berwick since the early years of the seventeenth century, the formation in 1832 of North Berwick Golf Club that marked the beginning of organised golf over terrain which in time would be expanded to become the West Links which we know today.
The game of golf has been played in Carnoustie for well over four centuries. The first indication that the game was being played in the Angus town can be found in the Parish Records of 1560 when the game of 'gowff' was mentioned. Carnoustie’s first golfer might well have been a gentleman named Sir Robert Maule (1497-1560), a local landowner. It's not known where Maule and his colleagues “exercisit the gowf” in the 15th century, but we do know that by 1839 the Carnoustie Golf Club had been formed.
As indicated in the beginning, establishing a list (or any list) is never an exact science. It's based on definitions and which criteria you have selected to construct a list. This list of oldest golf courses is based on the following criteria:
Many 'old golf clubs' moved to other locations except those at St Andrews, Earlsferry (Elie) and Fortrose. Clubs moved late in 19th century to locations where they could create an 18-hole golf course. Only the Royal & Ancient and Musselburgh clubs were able to develop and play continuously over their original golfing grounds. All other 18th century golf clubs had to relocate, if only a mile or two, to establish the golf courses that they play today.
Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society (1709) is not mentioned in the list - although golf is still played on the old location - but the club itself moved. Royal Blackheath (1608) was also forced to move, otherwise it would have been 4th in the list.
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