The Men Who Bought Golf to America

If not every schoolboy certainly every reader of LINKS Magazine knows that golf was formally introduced to America in 1888 with the founding of the St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, New York. (The club is marking the occasion with a series of 125th anniversary celebrations this spring.) John Reid, a Scottish emigrant, and his friends played their early games on a three-hole course routed through an apple orchard: Hence, the sobriquet “The Apple Tree Gang” for the founders of the club.

The records show that balls and clubs crossed the Atlantic Ocean on various occasions long before Reid and friends teed it up among the fruit trees. But a recent discovery pushes the first known instance of golf equipment landing on American—actually Colonial—shores even earlier than thought. Before getting to the evidence, however, a little history lesson.

The modern game known to us as golf had its origins in Scotland, probably in the mid-14th century. Whether it was an invention of the Scots or their adaptation of the game of kolf from Holland remains a matter of intense, though friendly, debate.

Known originally as The Ancyent & Healthfulle Exercyse of the Golff, the game became sufficiently popular in Scotland to get itself banned in 1457 by a furious King James II because of its interference with archery practice. At that time, the Scottish Army was regularly involved in major stroke-play events with its English counterpart and the king wanted the air full of arrows, not golf balls.

The union of Scotland and England in 1707 precipitated a great series of emigrations that took the Scots all over the former British Empire, including the 13 North American colonies from Maine to South Carolina. They would famously make their Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July in 1776 when 23 of the 56 signers would inscribe surnames of Scottish origin.

Wherever in the world they went, Scottish emigrants took their beloved game with them. The first golf club outside the British Isles was founded at Calcutta in 1829 by a group of Scottish army officers stationed in Bengal. In the U.S., the game of golf was old when the Calcutta Golf Club was young.

It has been known for some time that in August of 1743 the sailing ship Magdalen arrived at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, laden with salt, sailcloth, and, among other items, 96 golf clubs and 432 golf balls. Commanded by Captain William Carse, Magdalen had left Leith, the port of Edinburgh, in May of that year, her golfing cargo consigned to David Deas, a Scottish emigrant who had become a successful Charleston merchant.

Recently, a fascinating item has come to light in the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was discovered by Dr. David Dobson, an academic at the University of St. Andrews and the principal historian of Scotland’s connections with the Carolinas. The document—its dry official title is GD 377/402—is the financial ledger of Edinburgh businessman Andrew Wallace. It records payments, dated June 1739, for “Golf Clubs” and “Golf Balls” being consigned, “to [my] brother William Wallace in Charleston, Carolina.”

Dr. Nic Butler, Archivist at the Charleston County Public Library and an expert on the city’s 18th-century history, advises that a prosperous merchant by the name of William Wallace was active from at least 1716 in Charleston. He was in partnership with a John Cleland under the name of William Wallace & Company, until Cleland was appointed to sit on His Majesty’s Council for the Province of South Carolina in 1740. William Wallace appears many times in the business correspondence of Robert Pringle of Edinburgh and Charleston; Dr. Butler believes that Pringle may well have been the consignee of the 1739 shipment of balls and clubs.

Dr. Butler also unearthed the will of William Wallace of Charleston, dated May 28, 1741, in which he mentions two brothers “abroad,” one of whom is Andrew Wallace, presumably the author of the document describing the shipment.

So there you have it. Any reputable history of golf in America should now begin with the year 1739. And you still have the Scots to thank.

Golf historian David Purdie is an Edinburgh physician and a member of Pine Valley Golf Club.