Steve Cardownie: The multi-billion-pound game that began in Leith

As I watched Patrick Reed put on the famous Green Jacket, having just won the Masters at Augusta National in Georgia, I reflected on how far the sport had come since its humble beginnings.

Wednesday, 11th April 2018, 7:00 am
Patrick Reed (R) of the United States is congratulated by Sergio Garcia

Despite some claims to the contrary, the first ever golf competition was organised by a group of golfers who were later to become known as the Honorary Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The city council put up a silver club as a prize for winning the competition but demanded that a set of rules be drawn up, which was the first ever.

By their very nature, these rules could be regarded as the definitive origins of the game as we know it. The event took place on Leith Links on 2 April 1744 and a cairn sits on the site commemorating this historic occasion. The inscription on the cairn reads as follows: ”Leith Links, The Home of Golf. Historical home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The game was played over a five-hole course, each hole being over 400 yards long. In 1744 the first official rules were drawn up for a tournament on Leith Links and these rules, 13 in all, formed the basis for the modern game of golf.“ So there you have it, Leith is the true home of golf!

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Today there are more than 550 golf courses in Scotland with Edinburgh boasting at least 21 of those. Its international appeal can be marked by recording that there are more than 34,000 golf courses in the world with more than 15,000 of them situated in the USA. Of course (forgive the pun), golf is big business in every sense with total consumer spending on the sport in the UK totalling some £4.3 billion and the manufacturers’ sales of golf equipment in the UK coming in at £113.8m. Add to this that there are more than 74,000 people employed in the golf industry and it’s easy to see why it is so highly regarded in the world of sporting economics.

In terms of participation, the figures are equally impressive; six per cent of the adult population of Scotland play monthly and 21 per cent of UK golf clubs are located in Scotland which ensures that the sport maintains a prominent position in the nation’s sporting fabric. Prize money is also eye-watering with the aforementioned Patrick Reed pocketing £1.4 million for winning the Masters after four days of competition out of a prize money “pot” of $11m with the Masters providing the second largest purse of the four major championships, where even the golfer who finishes last walks away with $20,000. Last year’s Open winner at Royal Birkdale, Jordan Speith banked $1.8 million (£1.4 million), the R&A having taken the step of paying out prize money in US dollars.

Golf tournaments are broadcast on television throughout the world with the major TV companies competing with each other and offering huge sums for the TV rights, generating massive audiences and spreading golf’s popularity.

And it all started with that wee tourney in Leith. Who would have thought it, eh?