CELEBRATING 150 YEARS OF THE OPEN – with Stephen Proctor

  15 Jul '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

On Thursday 14 July, the 150th Open Championship teed off in St Andrews. Golf’s birthplace, and home of the venerable The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, there is no better location to celebrate a century and a half of golfing excellence.

But how did we get here? Golf was not always the global sensation we know today. The roots of the great competitions of the modern day were laid down in the 1860s, where the first Open Championship was played at Prestwick Golf Club, in Ayrshire. From that first ground-breaking tournament, golf’s inexorable march across the globe began.

Four years later, on 18 May 1864, came a momentous occasion for the game – the formation of the first golf club that could fairly be described as English: the North Devon and West of England Golf Club. As Stephen Proctor writes in The Long Golden Afternoon:

North Devon was something different. It came to be acknowledged as the ‘cradle of English golf’ for the simple reason that fully three quarters of its original 51 members were Englishmen new to the game. In time the club would come to be better known as Westward Ho! That nickname was adopted from the title of an adventure novel Charles Kingsley had written in a hamlet next door to the Burrows not long before the captain and the vicar discovered its possibilities for golf.


Now known as the Royal North Devon Golf Club, this institute displayed the growth of the game across the United Kingdom, and soon new English clubs sprang up in its wake. In 1869 the vaunted Royal Liverpool Golf Club at Hoylake was founded (the venue chosen for the 151st Open in 2023), and in 1873 the Royal Wimbledon Golf Club followed.

But it was in 1890 that golf’s popularity truly exploded, when John Ball became the first Englishman, and first amateur to win the Open Championship.

Ball was not a typical celebrity. He was a man who loved the game, but detested the attention his exploits on the green garnered. When the Royal Liverpool had his portrait painted and hung on a stairway in the clubhouse, Ball responded by doing everything he could to avoid walking up the stairs.

Despite the nationwide fame that came with his exploits, Ball would be the least-known, most enigmatic player of his time. He was one of the few among his peers who never wrote about his own life, and he loathed speeches and interviews, once telling an inquisitive reporter that he couldn’t think of anything to say that readers might find interesting


Nevertheless, Ball’s victory ignited a rivalry between Scottish and English players that endured through the decades. Whether he knew it or not, the exploits of 1890 hurled the game into the limelight like never before. An influx of players, and revolutionary technical developments followed, driving fierce competition year on year.

John Ball’s exploits paved the way for a new generation of golfing legends, and he was soon followed by a trio of players known as “The Great Triumvirate”.

Harry VardonJohn Henry Taylor, and James Braid were three men who dominated the game from the 1890s up until the outbreak of the First World War. The trio combined to win The Open Championship 16 times in the 21 tournaments held between 1894 and 1914; Vardon won six times with Braid and Taylor winning five apeice. In the five tournaments in this span the triumvirate did not win, one or more of them finished runner-up.

‘The Great Triumvirate’ – from left to right, John Henry Taylor, James Braid and Henry Vardon

These giants, and many others paved the way for the players and contests we all know and love today. With the 150th Open now in full swing, you can learn more about this golden age of golf with Stephen Proctor’s new book, The Long Golden Afternoon. In between holes, settle down and immerse yourself in the glory days of Scotland’s greatest export.

Stephen Proctor has served as a senior editor at The Baltimore SunThe San Francisco Chronicle and The Houston Chronicle. A native of Maryland, he graduated from The American University in Washington and was later awarded a John S. Knight Fellowship in journalism at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He is an avid golfer and has spent the past decade studying the history of the royal and ancient game. He is the author of Monarch of the Green (Shortlisted for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards 2020 Biography of the Year) and lives in Malabar, Florida.

  • Paperback | Pub: 01 Jul 2021

    Shortlisted for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Biography of the Year ‘A splendid new biography. How good was young Tom Morris? Stephen Proctor makes his case cogently. Young Tom Morris was one of the greatest of them all’ – Allan…

  • Hardback | Pub: 16 Jun 2022

    Shortlisted for the 2023 Sports Book Awards for Best Sports Writing of the Year Shortlisted for the USGA Herbert Warren Wind Book Award The Long Golden Afternoon tells the story of the transformative generation of golf that followed the rise…

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