Arran knew nothing of golf until the early 19th century, but the early years of the game were no great loss, as golf clubs and balls were still quite primitive. The ‘featherie’ ball came into use from 1618 onwards and lasted for about 200 years, as there was nothing better – but it was not very satisfactory. It had evolvied from the Dutch game of ‘Kaatsen’ (hand tennis) and had a leather skin, usually bull’s hide, stitched at the seams and filled with cows’ hair or feathers – a slow, painstaking process. A single ball took a full bucket of boiled goose feathers, and no matter how tightly it was sewn, it was only roughly spherical and tended to burst. A golfer was fortunate if a ball lasted for two rounds, and often had to use several in a single game – but the featherie could be driven 200 yards, double the length achievable by the old wooden ball, so nobody grumbled much. But in 1848 the Rev. Dr Robert Adam Paterson of St Andrews achieved a break-though.
He used gutta-percha packing material to fill golf balls – which of course were immediately known as ‘gutties’. Gutta-percha is the dried sap of the Malaysian Sapodilla tree – a cheap, easily obtainable form of natural rubber. A guttie cost only a shilling, so for the first time the sport was accessible to people other than the wealthy – and it was far better. Within a few months, it had consigned the featherie to history.
Golf immediately became more popular. A growing interest in the sport coincided with the development of tourism in the west of Scotland. New steamers were being built, and entrepreneurs constructed piers and harbours to service them, together with hotels and boarding houses to accommodate the increasing crowds of holiday-makers setting out from Glasgow’s Broomielaw. Small villages like Helensburgh, Dunoon, Rothesay, Millport and Largs developed into towns. And golf courses were built.
Arran was left out of all this, largely because of the controls exercised by the Dukes of Hamilton. In the early 1880’s Arran was described as the most ‘unspoiled’ part of the Clyde area, but it could equally have been called the most primitive. There were no roads in any modern sense, and even the use of horses and carts was limited to the flatter land by the sea. On the hills, people transported goods on wooden sledges that could be hauled over the heather. The Duke and his trustees discouraged excursion traffic and exercised controls on the number of people permitted to stay for short periods. With a massive population of some 6,000 people, any further visitors were regarded as a burden rather than an asset.
On the mainland, things were very different. The arrival of the guttie established golf as a popular and profitable sport. Manufacturing its equipment turned into a flourishing industry and competitions sprang up, leading to the formation of the British Open.
The Robertson family of St Andrews had been in golf as ball manufacturers and designers of courses since the early 1700’s, passing down from father to son for 3 generations. Allan Robertson (1815-1859) is recognised as the first-ever professional golfer and was certainly the best exponent of his time. He improved the layout of the old St Andrews course by establishing much larger greens, to cater for the ever-increasing popularity of the sport – but he was a traditionalist and frowned upon the introduction of the newfangled gutta-percha ball. This of course led to the failure of his business. In 1858 he became ill with jaundice and died, but he is still remembered as the premier club maker of his time, whose merchandise was exported all over the world. Today any golf equipment or ball carrying his logo ‘Allan’ is much sought after by collectors.
Since 1835 Allan had employed Tom Morris, as an apprentice, then a journeyman, but they parted company in 1848 after a disagreement about the new guttie ball. Tom set up business on his own and in 1851 Colonel Fairlie of Coodham engaged him to be the green keeper of the new golf club at Prestwick. He re-designed and improved the 12-hole layout there, but in 1864returned to St Andrews.
Following Allan Robertson’s death, Tom Morris and a number of other golf professionals organised a golf competition in 1860 to commemorate him. It was held at Prestwick over 36 holes and aimed to identify Britain’s best golfer. That first competition is now recognised as the first year of the British Open. Willie Park of Musselburgh won the inaugural event with a score of 174. Other competing pro players were Tom Morris (Prestwick) Andrew Strath (St Andrews) Robert Andrew (Perth) George Brown (Blackheath) Charles Hunter (Prestwick St Nicholas) Alexander Smith (Bruntsfield) and Willie Steel (Bruntsfield). None of them knew that the competition they had set up would last forever.