Leith Links is now a public park in Central Edinburgh but it also has a prominent role in the history of golf in that in 1744 The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (now based at Muirfield in East Lothian) set out the earliest recorded rules of golf for the world's first organised golf competition, as held over the Leith Links that year. Nowadays, the Leith Rules Golf Society exists to increase the recognition of Leith Links as the home of the earliest recorded rules of golf and one of the game's prominent early locations. Each year the Edinburgh Council, which currently owns and operates the Links as a public park, allows the Society to play golf for a few days in July each year on a 5 hole course laid out over part of the ground that formed the original 5 hole course that was used from 1744.
I played in the Society's annual Hickory Open with my buddy Douglas on 6 July 2013, using old hickory clubs and old-style 1.62 inch diameter golf balls. The format is foursomes stroke play, with handicaps based on our national handicaps. We had a combined handicap of 6 and we'd play the course twice, meaning we'd each tee off once on each of the 5 Holes. The course measures a modest 933 Yards, Par 18, with holes ranging from 125 to 310 Yards. However, such yardages are pretty meaningless, given the ancient equipment we were using. Scoring was made even more difficult by the rock hard condition of the course, after a spell of warm dry weather. Neither of us had ever swung a hickory-shafted club before, far less some that were owned by Society members that were clearly quite valuable. Douglas and I decided to share a small-headed wooden club that looked equivalent to a 5 wood, a Niblick that equated to a mid-iron, a Mashie that had around 60 degrees of loft and a putter. Although we had entered a serious competition, it was immediately obvious that we were unlikely to threaten the leader board. This is me about to tee off on the 1st, a 190 Yard Par 4, with my small ball perched precariously on a mound of sand (none of our modern tees were allowed). I made a decent swing and connected well but I'd swung too hard and my ball veered away to the right, so we took an opening double bogey. Putting on the small greens was simply a lottery as the rock hard surfaces had been cut severely short and were lightning fast and scarily bumpy.
Our first round total was a very average 28, including a triple bogey on the long 310 Yard Par 4 3rd. No-one was apparently reaching the green in even 3 shots, despite there being some pretty handy players in the field, so we just had to wonder about the outstanding skills of players using hickory shafted clubs in days long gone by. It's really difficult to describe how alien these old clubs felt. Normally we'd expect to reach a 310 Yard hole easily in 2 shots, but even well struck balls were finishing short and in my case way right of where I'd been aiming.
This is the 4th, a tricky 125 Yard Par 3, with OOB around 20 feet behind the green (all of which were no more than around 25 feet wide). We chose our Niblick for the tee shots on this hole and were well short each time. However, we did score a genuine par on the 4th in our second round - and a gross 24 in total. We'd played our 10 holes in 52 shots, net 46, (with 20 putts) to finish pretty low down the score board. However, we'd both really enjoyed the experience and novelty of playing with such antique equipment. Douglas and I are also planning an early visit to Kingarrock, a hickory-only golf course near Cupar in Fife, so hopefully we'll have a better idea how to use such old clubs following our 10 holes on Leith Links.
See www.leith-rules-golf.co.uk for more information on the Society's aims and activities.