Allan Robertson, maker of golf clubs and balls, was born on the 11th of September, 1815.
Whatever its ancient parallels the game that was known as ‘Kolf’ in the Netherlands and ‘Goff’ in England emerged as ‘Gowf’ on the eastern links of Scotland, in the 16th Century. Since the days of cleeks and the featherie ba’, it has been nurtured for over five hundred years and has become the great game of ‘Golof’, played by millions. Three hundred years later, in the 19th Century, the culture surrounding Golf had changed considerably, but it was still quite different from what it is today. Back then, it was an elitist, gentleman’s game, primarily due to the high cost of hand crafted clubs and balls, where the main form of competition was challenge matches, usually backed by noblemen or wealthy businessmen. Professionals made a living playing for wagers, caddying, making clubs and balls, and from teaching, just like today’s club professionals, excepting they only sell clubs and balls.
Allan Robertson was the most famous of those early professionals and, according to Charles Blair Macdonald, was “generally thought to have been the greatest player of his day.” Robertson is widely considered to have been the first golf professional, however, going back two generations to his grandfather, Peter Robertson, you will find that man described as a professional golfer whose prowess was also widely acknowledged. Allan Robertson was the third in line of a famous St. Andrews golfing dynasty and, apart from being an accomplished player, he was famous as a maker of clubs and balls. Claims for Robertson being the ‘father of professional golf’ are perhaps a wee bit exaggerated, but not too wide of the fairway. The strangest thing is that Robertson has only recently been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame – in the Veterans Category. Strange indeed, considering this obituary: “Allan Robertson was the greatest golf player that ever lived, of whom alone in the annals of the pastime it can be said that he was never beaten.”
Apart from being a professional player, Robertson was esteemed as a maker of the feathery (featherie) golf ball. In fact, Robertson, following in the family tradition began by his grandfather, was the premier ball maker in St. Andrews and among the very best in Scotland. Incidentally, one of Robertson’s apprentices was ‘Old Tom’ Morris. That early style of golf ball consisted of a leather pouch filled with goose feathers, hence the name. Robertson’s shop overlooked the 18th green of the Old Course at St. Andrews, from where he produced enough golf balls to satisfy both local Scottish demand and the export market. In his best year, Robertson produced 2,500 hand-made balls (he made about 10 per day!), exporting primarily to England and America. It was a lucrative trade in an ever increasing market, due to the popularity of the game, which has never waned.
Robertson’s business did wane, due to the introduction of the new, gutta percha ball that came into vogue around the time Tom Morris (Old Tom) started making his name. Robertson didn’t approve of the new ball, but only because it was a threat to his livelihood. As it happened, Robertson saw the writing on the ball [sic] and fairly quickly moved to manufacturing the revolutionary ‘guttie’, which was made from liquid rubber (from the gutta percha tree) that came from Malaysia.
Robertson sulked up for a while, even managing to intimidate Morris into promising never to play with a ‘guttie’. However, as Morris related in ‘Golf Illustrated’ one time, after he ran out of feathery balls in a match, “...we met Allan Robertson coming out, and someone told him I was playing a very good game with one of the new gutta percha balls, and I could see fine, from the expression on his face, that he did not like it at all and, when we met afterwards in his shop, we had some high words about the matter, and there and then parted company, I leaving his employment.” That significant event, the parting of Morris and Robertson, took place in 1849.
As a player, Robertson is generally considered as having been the best golfer throughout the 1840s and ’50s, even after the emergence of Morris, Park and their offspring. Many golf historians believe that he never lost a match and Macdonald, in his book, ‘Scotland’s Gift: Golf’, states that “it is said Allan was never beaten” – at least, when playing for money. Certainly, when playing as a pair or in foursomes with Tom Morris, between 1842 and 1849, the two were never beaten. One of Robertson’s epic contests occurred in 1843, when he played Willie Dunn Sr. of Musselburgh, one of the better contenders. The “grand challenge” was held over 20 rounds, when they played 2 rounds per day over 10 days. Robertson emerged as the winner; two rounds up with one to play.
Robertson was also active as a course designer, no doubt driven by the increase in the game’s popularity, which gave him another source of professional income. At St. Andrews, the out-and-back play, over a narrow strand of fairway at the Old Course, eventually led to the establishment of huge double greens, virtually unique in Scotland. That improvement, if such it be, was credited to Robertson. However, his first golf course design was in 1842, when Robertson and Morris laid out ten new holes at Carnoustie.
In 1858, Robertson gained a new claim to fame as he became the first golfer on record to break 80 at St Andrews, when he recorded a round of 79 on the Old Course. Another wee ‘factlet’ about Robertson is the archetypal story of his coolly and deliberately playing to win only when having reached the latter stages of a challenge match. He is said to have very often left it as late as the 17th to polish off his opponent, instead of much earlier as he could so easily have done in most cases. The reason, of course, was to ensure the odds for his next wager were still reasonably favourable. It had nothing to do with wanting to avoid wounding his opponent’s pride. A contemporary of his, James Balfour, once wrote, “With him [Allan] the game was as much of head as of hand. He always kept cool and generally pulled through a match even when he got behind.”
Born in Saint Andrews on the 11th of September, 1815, Robertson’s untimely death was caused by jaundice. Allan Robertson died on the 1st of September, 1859, and he was buried in the cathedral grounds at St Andrews. The Royal & Ancient issued a statement in praise of his contribution to golf and organised an annual collection to provide for his widow. His epitaph reads, “He was greatly esteemed for his personal worth and for many years was esteemed as the champion golfer of Scotland.” The death of the champion led directly to the formation of the oldest and longest running golf championship, the British Open, via the first ever tournament, which was held at the Prestwick club, in 1860.