WHEN GOLF was first conceived, participants arrived at the course on foot or horseback, or, if the company was honourable enough, by carriage. For this reason, it remained for centuries a parochial, largely Scottish pursuit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all of British culture was transformed by an industrial capacity that among other things launched a transportation revolution.
Trains would change golf forever.
In particular, completion of the Forth Rail Bridge, in 1890, widely exposed the bounty of Scottish links courses for the first time — to the rest of newly mobile Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.
The advent of train travel did something else marvelous: It spurred the development of “new” Scottish links built specifically to accommodate the rail-enabled.
Golf may not have been formulated with trains in mind but the idea and practice of “golf by rail” shaped and grew the game during the late 19th century, its first true boom period, an age we now drape with garlands like “ancient”, “timeless” and “classic”. The railway made the game what it was, what it remains today in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing image of golf we so idealize (the one we still travel to Scotland to find) might never have materialized.
Indeed, the very idea of golf travel was born in this time. By 1890, the railways had cozied up to several superb links in the Scottish lowlands. It only made sense: Rail connected population centers, which lay mainly along the coast, close to sea level where terrain was flattest and bed construction easiest. Just a short walk from these new “centre city” train stations lay the common lands, the links where, for example, in East Lothian, clubs like North Berwick, Muirfield and Gullane already resided. Today they remain as practical to play by train as they did in the 19th century — which is to say, perfectly practical for golfers with a sense of history and adventure.
The Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s first steel span, made this travel scenario a practical reality in Fife, revealing the birthplace of golf to the game’s myriad new zealots.
“As the train neared St. Andrews and I noted the gradually increasing numbers of the faithful,” wrote A.W. Tillinghast on his first trip to “that Mecca for golfers”, in 1895, “I marveled that the popularity of the ancient game had continued, unabated throughout the centuries.”