The History of Golf in Savannah

I would like to spend some time telling you about the game of golf, and specifically why Savannah is the best place in the country to really connect with the history of the game.  Despite having its origins in Scotland sometime in the 13th century[1] in an early form of the game known at the time as “colf”, the game of golf has very strong ties to the United States of America, and more specifically Savannah.  The traditions of the sport can be easily found in the landscape of Savannah, through the many courses and clubs it has, as well as the notable golf figures who have come out of this area. Indeed, the historical importance golf in the city of Savannah is extremely evident.

The game of golf dates very far back in the city of Savannah, Georgia.  There is ample evidence to suggest that the game was played quite early on in the 13th colony settlement of Savannah.  Despite this, there is some disagreement on whether or not the city is in fact the very first site for the game to be played in America.  According to the Savannah Golf Club, now located on the site of the old Civil War fortress Fort Boggs, Savannah is the home of the oldest golf club in the United States, and might possibly be the site of the first game of golf played in the United States.

As evidence of this claim, the Golf Club points to a September 1796 issue of the “Georgia Gazette” which calls for an annual meeting for its members to attend. The brief announcement reads “Saturday, the first of October, being the anniversary of the Savannah Golf Club, the Members are requested to attend at the Merchants and Planters coffee house for the Purpose of electing officers for the ensuing twelve months and to transact other necessary business.”[2] According to Josh Williams, the director of the Pro-Shop at the Savannah Golf Club, the paper’s announcement referring to the “anniversary” for electing officers indicates that the Club must be older than 1796 (an anniversary being a repeat of an event) .This being an annual reelection of the officers would put the Club at least to 1795. Furthermore, the Club contends that this was not the first re-election, but rather the second re-election of officers.  This would put the Savannah Golf Club’s date of origin back to 1794, which would in fact make it the oldest golf club in the entire country[3]. Despite the newspaper evidence showing the Savannah Golf Club to be the oldest in the nation, a club in Yonkers New York, the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, claims to be the oldest club in the nation due to having the oldest recorded golf charter. Their charter dates the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club to 1888, much later than the Georgia Gazette[4]. Depending on which means you use to measure how old a club is, whether by the establishment of an official charter or historical newspaper analysis, the Savannah Golf Club might very well be the oldest in America.

However, even if one were to accept the Savannah Golf Club as being the first golf club rather than its Saint Andrews counterpart, whether or not that makes Savannah the oldest site of golf in general in the United States is still debatable. According to shipping records in 1743, 96 golf clubs and 432 golf balls were shipped from Leith Scotland to Charleston, South Carolina.[5]  Artist Carrol Ezell depicted the historic shipment in a painting showing the clubs in a 1743 style crate (See Image 1). This predates the Savannah Golf Club’s claimed origins by a staggering 53 years. When asked about this, Josh Williams of the Savannah Golf Club’s Pro-Shop agreed, and coyly said “there is no evidence those clubs weren’t used to play in Savannah instead of Charleston.”[6] The rivalry between Savannah and Charleston lives on.

Despite these early announcements, the game of golf was not solidly established in the United States until the 19th century.  Furthermore, the type of golf that was played in these early days was quite different than the game we know today.  As indicated by the diary of Edinburgh Thomas Kincaid, a surgeon in Scotland, even the size of a golf ball was not universal during the early days of golf.  According to Kincaid, “your ball must be of a middle size neither too] big nor too little, and then the heavier it is in respect of its bigness it is still the better. It must be of thick and hard leather (See Image 2) not with pores or grains whether it be better that the in equality of gamesters be remedied in the game or in the stakes.”[7]  Although Kincaid was writing in Scotland, the techniques he wrote about would be used by people playing early forms of golf in Savannah.  The golf balls that would be used in Savannah were a collection of feathers wrapped up in leather. It wasn’t until 1848 that a ball made of a rubber like material became popular.[8] These new rubber balls, called gutties after the sap used to make them from the Gutta tree, were much smoother and therefore traveled much further than their leather-bound counterparts.  Because of this, these new balls were much more popular, and soon became the standard.  The evolution of the club also pushed for the change in the type of clubs which were used. Iron clubs emerged for their ability to make excellent contact with the new rubber balls.

Early golf in America and Savannah was very informal in nature and did not follow a strict list of rules. This can be exemplified by groups like the “Apple Orchard Gang” in which they played a game of golf with no set number of holes.  Groups like the Apple Orchard Gang would simply play hole for hole, and take a shot of whiskey at the completion of each hole. In the late 1700s there was no set number to the amount of holes needed to be played in a match. In the 1800s, players decided that the nice round number of 20 holes per match seemed like a good idea, and that became the standard. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the modern day 18 holes to a round of golf was established and standardized.[9]

As golf became more and more established in its set of rules, Savannah’s importance in the game of golf grew.  Many notable figures have come out of the city and surrounding area. Bobby Jones (See Image 3) was an amateur golfer born in 1902, who would later rise to national fame.  His biggest claim to fame in the game of golf was in 1930 with securing the “Grand slam” of golf by winning of all four major golf tournaments of the day. This included the winning of the open and the amateur championships in both the U.S. and the U.K.  However prior to winning the Grand Slam had decided that his warm up event that year would be at the Savannah Open in mid-February.  Competing against Jones in the tournament in Savannah was amateur golfer Horton Smith.  In what was a relatively close match, the younger Smith defeated Jones in what at the time was considered a bit of an upset.  One might say that this initially loss in the start of the season to a less experienced player motivated Jones to kick his talents into gear, which he certainly did.  Either way, that year Savannah native, Horton Smith, was the only player to beat Bobby Jones, who went on to successfully win the Grand Slam title.  Savannah therefore plays an interesting role in the success of Bobby Jones.[10]

Other successful golfers got their breaks out of Savannah.  Born in 1954 in Savannah Georgia, Hollis Stacy (See Image 4), a member of the Savannah Golf Club, won 3 U.S. Women’s Opens matches. She won the Girls’ Junior tournament three consecutive years in a row (from 1969 to 1970) as an amateur, and is the only player in the United States to have done so. Born in Savannah, she gained her love of the sport in the courses surrounding the area and enjoyed a very successful golf career because of that passion. As a professional, Stacy won four majors, including the Women’s Open in 1977, 1978, and 1984, as well as the Peter Jackson Classic in ’83.

Gene Sauers, is a more recent professional golf player who got his start in Savannah. Born in 1962 in Savannah, Sauers attended Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, before becoming a pro golfer in 1984. He grew up playing the numerous golf courses in the area and perfected his talents right here in Savannah.  He has 4 dozen top 10 finishes in the PGA Tour, including wins at the Bank of Boston Classic, the Hawaiian Open, and the Air Canada Championship.[11] He is an all-around solid player who gained his love for the game in Savannah.

With such a rich history of golf in and around Savannah, there are many courses one can play the sport in the area. The Landings Club is located in a beautiful location between the Wilmington River and the Romerly Marsh (See Image 5). The scenic beauty this course offers is undeniable, with its course scattered with large oak and pine trees, and dotted with salt marshes and lagoons.  Furthermore, the Landings Club (See Image 6) has six champion golf courses designed by some of the greatest golf course designers, including: Arnold Palmer, Tom Fazio, Arthur Hills, and William Byrd.[12]

The design of a golf course is extremely important in how enjoyable or difficult a game of golf can and will be. Nobody understood that more than Donald James Ross. Born in Scottland in 1872, Ross eventually migrated to the United States, and designed many golf courses throughout America.[13] Ross believed in using his courses to help compliment nature, not detract from it.  Because of this, the courses which he helped to design work largely with the natural topography of the land. His signature touch to a golf course is that of the “turtleback” greens. (See Image 7) Turtleback greens are old fashion greens which are high in the middle and low at the edges, with the basic shape of the outer shell of a turtle. These type of greens are quite challenging, as any shot not in the center of the green will inevitably roll outside the boundary of the green.  Mr. Ross brought his designs, of the working with around nature instead of against it, and the turtleback greens, to various golf courses he designed in Savannah, specifically in Beacon Park, the Wilmington Island course on Wilmington Island, and the Savannah Golf Club.[14]

Savannah has a lot to offer with its connection to the game of golf. Whether its touch on the game from the very beginning in this country, the impact the region had on spawning some great professional players, or the natural beauty the area’s marshland and coastline in contributing to beautiful golf courses, Savannah is a wonderful place to get better connected to the game of golf. I hope you have the change to reconnect with the game in Savannah.

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