ST ANDREWS, Scotland (Reuters) - The 1914 Dunlop V Floating Golf Ball perched in a display case inside the British Golf Museum would have come in handy at St Andrews after Friday’s dawn deluge.
Although the old ‘hairies’ or ‘featheries’, the balls once used by Scotland’s royals in the 1600s, might have become a little soggy on the famous Old Course links, dubbed the home of golf.
The evolution of the golf ball was just one fascinating distraction in the museum located a sand-wedge away from the 18th green where the 144th British Open will be won on Sunday.
Reopened in time for the tournament after modernization and the addition of a roof-top restaurant, it was an appropriate place to while away an hour on Friday as heavy rain forced the suspension of play and sent fans scuttling into town.
The modern museum charts the origins of the so-called sport of kings, a version of which, called Chuiwan, was played in China more than 1,000 years ago, through to the professional game we know today.
Strange that, as hundreds of thousands of golf enthusiasts descend on the Fife coast to catch sight of Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth, the earliest recorded mention of the sport was in 1457 when Scotland’s King James II banned “gowf” fearing it would distract common folk from practicing archery.
In times of war, firing arrows was deemed a more useful activity than knocking a ball into a hole.
Royalty were partial to a game though.
Mary Queen of Scots, it is said, was enjoying a round a few days after her husband, the English Lord Darnley, was strangled in 1567, a decision that came back to haunt her when she was implicated in his murder and imprisoned.
Commoners still played in confined spaces like churchyards but the larger version played by the kings became more popular as areas of land, like the strip of coast hosting this week’s Open, were set aside for golf.
The Old Course can be traced back to 1580.
St Andrews grew into “a metropolis of golfing” with a thriving cottage industry in club and ball manufacturer.
The museum’s curators are proud of their collection of golf balls — with a reconstruction of esteemed 19th Century St Andrews ball maker Allan Robertson at work taking pride of place.
Working in his kitchen he would stuff a “top hat’s worth” of goose or chicken feathers into leather, then coat it in three layers of paint — a labor-intensive process that restricted him to “churning out” three balls a day.
These balls could fly too.
Samuel Messieux, according to the museum’s records, hit one 361 yards at St Andrews in 1836 — a blow Dustin Johnson would be proud of today, although when hit with an iron club they had a tendency to explode in a shower of feathers.
Locals still claim to have found the odd ill-directioned feathery in gorse bushes.
Robertson’s skills were superseded by the rubbery “guttie” made from gutta-percha gum, before the wound rubber Haskell balls, more like today’s projectiles, arrived in 1901.
Old clubs, with names like niblicks, rake niblicks, mashies and cleeks, abound — some of which look like gardening tools.
The oldest set of golf clubs, discovered in a boarded up cupboard in the English city of Hull and on loan to the museum from Royal Troon, are believed to have belonged to the Stuart Kings.
Walking past the original set of Royal and Ancient rules, penned in 1754, and through the exit into the throngs heading for the Open entrance gates, it was poignant to reflect on what Old Tom Morris would make of it all.
The ball maker, green keeper and course designer came second to Willie Park, whose first club was a tree branch, in the first Open at Prestwick in 1860, won the Challenge Belt the year after and added three more titles.
He was golf’s first superstar.
Editing by Tony Jimenez