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The First Golf Clubs in America: First Shipment of Clubs to America Painted

Carrol Ezell’s painting of the historical arrival of the shipment of golf clubs and balls from Leith, Scotland, to the colonies by way of David Deas of Charleston, SC, in 1743, shows the opened crates on board with a harbor view. The inscription includes details of the historical event: David Deas the recipient, May [10th/16th/18th(?)], 1743, 96 clubs and 432 balls.

My question is why is the crate opened? From the windowed cabin, it would seem that these are in the captain’s quarters at the stern. So perhaps, a Leith or Fife-man himself, he was grooving his swing during the long voyage across the Atlantic, perhaps even sending a few rounded wooden balls out into the sea off the main deck!

The First Golf Clubs in America: 1760s golf club

multiple images of 1760s lefty iron golf club

This is a golf club dated to the 1760s based on New Zealand technology [or lab work] testing the metal. The note on the “precise” date of 1760s has a margin of error +/- 40 years, which means the club could range from 1720 t0 1800.

Though there is such a large margin of error in the exact dating, this particular club (listed for bid starting over USD $1,000) does give an interesting footnote on the clubs of the era of the first golf in America:
1743 – the first shipment of golf clubs came over to America via Charleston, SC
1786 – the first golf club in America was formed, the South Carolina Golf Club, who played on Harleston Green

So, this club is an example piece of the irons used in that time. The clubs in that day were generally set as wooden-headed clubs as well as one or two irons being cast-iron-headed clubs. The use of these iron clubs was for the modern typical 5 iron to 9 iron, depending on the player’s prescribed make for the blacksmithy or cobbler or the like that fashioned the shafts and heads for the gentlemen players.

This particular iron looks rather poorly fashioned given the long metal support piece at the joint of the head and shaft, whereas the normal iron club making consisted of inserting the shaft end into the hollow of the iron head and cooling the iron in a pale of water which caused the iron to rather neatly and permanently shrink around the wooden end-piece. The shaft woods were generally ash (or apple, pear, hazel) until hickory became the new technological advance by the mid 19th century. [Related to this is that the golf club heads were either of the same/similar wood material as the shaft only out of a single block, or as was more predominantly the case, made from blackthorn, beech, or such until persimmon and even sometimes dogwood became the new technology.]

Irons were not really the most common club, though the putter was often a iron-headed club. The predominance of wooden-headed clubs of course makes sense in thinking about the origination of the game of golf from shepherds’ crooks, wooden walking sticks. But it also follows the logic of the ease-difficulty of manufacturing abilities of the time: dealing with multiple media (iron and wood) would have been a much more difficult work. Also, who wants to carry around a heavy iron club, even if you’re only playing Leith Links, which was only 5 holes?


The First Golf Clubs in America: a full set of golf clubs from 1840s

A full set: only 8 clubs!?

This is a typical looking of a full set of golf clubs from as early as in the 1700s and on through the 1800s. 5 or 8, or so, of these would be loosely carried in the arm or by a caddie. This particular set is dated to the 1840s, but the “long-nose” clubs and a couple irons are the typical make for a long time in the history and play of golf.
The “technology” for the craftsmenship of these early clubs was developed from archery equipment making and blacksmithing. It is interesting to note that these craftsmen would have been making a lot of equipments for military use, and thus the earliest documentation of golfing [in Edinburgh, Scotland] was the forbidding of golf play and football play on the archery military practice range.

The first set of clubs shipped over to the Americas in 1743 that arrived in Charleston, SC, would have looked very similar.

Historical Context in Charleston When Golf Arrived

The most important issue for the arrival of the game of golf to America in Charleston, as opposed to New York or some other major [even more major] city, is the fact that Charleston had a wonderful context for the game:
Charleston had an obvious plot of land in immediate access to the people of the city, the Harleston Green a parkland in common use by the public for riding and gaming.
Charleston was an extremely important shipping port due to a very rich agriculture (rice and tea), unfortunately as well as the horrible slave trade.
Scots were a significant population in the city because of the merchant shipping.
As with many rather unique points in history, there was an individual(s) that had the idea and went with it. David Deas received the shipment of golf clubs and balls, but the interesting thing about the shipment is its quantity. 96 clubs and 432 balls are a major amount. Today, with players having a 14 club bag, this would outfit almost 7 full limit bags, but at that time when the typical players carried 5-8 clubs, this amount of clubs would be good for 12-19 people! So whether Mr. Deas was alone in his project and was merely an experienting enthusiast with lots of money to blow on expensive custom handiwork or merely the shipping agent (and possibly not even involved in the gaming), the point is that the amount shows that it is highly probable a dozen players were ready and waiting that shipment.
Regarding the involvement of David Deas, a Scottish shipping merchant that had moved to Charleston, he was from Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, where in 1744 the first golf club was formed (the “Gentlemen Golfers of Leith,” who developed the first recorded rules of the game at that same time for their Annual Challenge for the Edinburgh Silver Club) and a five hole course existed. All this prior to the club and course at St. Andrews (1754). Of course, it is documented that golf, or “golfe”/”gauf”/”gawf,” was a part of Leith and the area as early as the mid 15th century. So Mr. Deas was from the historical homeland of golf.

This interesting mix of circumstances that made a welcome environment for the game of golf to come to America is only a part of the historical context of the area:
A major fire hit the city of Charleston in 1740. What bearing might this have had on the activity of the city for producing an environment of leisure or need for some folly and sport?
A new warehouse district due to a growing shipping business in 1740 (this is now known as Rainbow Row).
The population reached a significant 7,000 in 1742.

Charleston, SC, the city, the peninsula, the people, and the timing all lined up in 1743 for some group of men of the great city to carry a few mashies and featheries out to Harleston Green for golf.

Harleston Green, Charleston Peninsula, SC

Harleston Green was founded in 1786. The first golf in the US was played here as early as the 1743, thanks to some shipping merchants with Scottish “links” bringing their love for golf to the greatest city on earth.