Golf History right down to a tee
The long history of the ancient game has left a legacy of intriguing memorabilia. Archie Baird, it's pre-eminent collector, reveals his secrets to Hugh Dodd
A weather-worn, muscular Gael stands on Gullane Hill and surveys the panoramic views of East Lothian. Immediately before him looking due west toward Edinburgh and the Forth lies Gullane No 1, a formidable golfing challenge, and behind him, towards North Berwick the inimitable Muirfield. Archie Baird belongs to both these clubs.
The prevailing wind suddenly stiffens, but he doesn't waver. Taking a slow, thoughtful practice swing, he says: "Golf undoubtedly began in Holland. I could prove it in a court of law, and would have the literary and pictorial evidence to reduce the opposition to tears". And surely he could. As one who has made golf, its history and its memorabilia a consuming passion for over 30 years, Baird has more claim than any to be called a master of golf.
Baird claims that the Dutch played a very similar game know as kolf as long ago as the 1300's. Itinerant Scots, merchants, and mercenaries soon learnt the game in Holland, but the Dutch neither developed the game nor kept it up. "They couldn't make a decent golf club", he explains. "However the Scots, as well we know, were great innovators. They made wooden clubs from beech, apple and blackthorn with sheep's horn on the leading edge of the club, but the game hardly took off due to the expense of the feather balls. In those days each ball contained a top-hat full of feathers and it took a skilled craftsman nearly half a day to make - a single ball costing as much as a club".
Up until 1850 there were only 15 golf courses in the world, 14 of which were on the east coast of Scotland, but by the turn of the century there were more than 2,300 scattered around the world. This rapid expansion was due to a new type of rubber ball known as the 'gutta' which was developed very cheaply at nearby Musselburgh. This innovation alone allowed the game to become the popular pursuit as we now know it.
Baird's own passion for the game only started by chance when, as a young veterinary surgeon (the fourth generation in his family), he had the good fortune to marry a recently qualified doctor. Sheila happened to be the great-granddaughter of Old Willie Park, the first Open Champion to win at Prestwick, in 1860. The newly-weds inherited a family flat in Edinburgh and, like so many others on a limited budget, set about furnishing it inexpensively, buying at the auction lane sales held in the heart of the city. It was at one of these sales that Baird came across a dusty old bag full of hickory clubs bearing the stamp of Willie Park which he promptly bought for 5 shillings. This coincidental purchase started him in what was to become an absorbing lifetime interest.
At that time in the late 1950's, Edinburgh junk shops were stuffed full with what we would now consider collectors' gems. Old golf clubs particularly had attached to them only a nominal value. "Had I known then what I know today, I would have been able to retire at 50," says Baird. Over the next decade he applied himself and learnt enough through trial and error to fill his wine cellar at home with hundreds of clubs of all makes and sizes. His unrelenting curiosity naturally led him to buying books in an effort to learn more about the subject. Edinburgh had always been an antiquarian's paradise with dozens of old bookshops scattered around the city and Baird was able to find many old books and records giving him an in-depth knowledge of the game. Such books were unfashionable at the time, so he was happily able to acquire some extremely rare volumes at bargain prices.
From books, Baird's interest spread to other areas of golf memorabilia; early balls, medals, prints, and ultimately pictures which he acquired whenever possible. In the subsequent years he has been fortunate to acquire an extraordinary breadth of art work by some of the most important golfing painters of the 19th century. The sheer volume of artifacts makes his the finest collection in private hands in the world. It was therefore natural that in 1980 part of his collection should have become the basis of the Heritage of Golf Museum in Gullane, ceremoniously opened by the champion golfer Ben Crenshaw. The museum has become an essential stop for visiting golfers who journey to East Lothian from all over the world, and as its curator, Baird is always delighted to welcome interested groups or individuals - that is when he is not out on his beloved links.
" I like to play as often as I can," he says. "Seven days a week is perfect. I don't know of anything better to do". For him the game of gold is a way of life. One thing it never is is dull. In this high- tech age there is something quite reassuring in that attitude and it is something others might well learn from. Baird is by temperament a golfer of the old school, whose dictum might be encapsulated in the well-known 19th century definition of the sport by David Forgan: "It is a test of temper, a trial of honour, a revealer of character. It affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman. It means going into God's out-of-doors, getting close to nature, fresh air, exercise, a sweeping away of mental cobwebs, genuine recreation of tired tissues. It is a cure for care, an antidote to worry. It includes companionship with friends, social intercourse, opportunities for courtesy, kindness and generosity to an opponent. It promotes not only physical health, but moral force".
For Archie Baird it is as much about people as anything else, how we play the game, how we work together, coping in adversity, winning and of course, losing is the very stuff of life. "When the ancient marker comes to score your card," he says, "it matters not how you won or lost, it's how you played the game." He swings into the westerly wind. "Aye, I think there's a nip in the air, a good time to go down the hill to the 19th".
The Heritage of Golf Museum, Gullane by appointment tel: 01875 870 277
Published in Caledonia Magazine Scott House Publishing, Edinburgh, Scotland February issue - 2000