The Long Golden Afternoon Book Review
The Long Golden Afternoon: Golf’s Age of Glory 1864 – 1914
by Stephen Proctor
Teachers’ Comments: A detailed and compelling narrative of the development of golf from 1864 to 1914.
The Long Golden Afternoon is a terrific work of golf history by Stephen Proctor. Beginning with the formation of the first English golf club in 1864, it traces the transition of golf from a Scottish pastime to a global game. Early golf was dominated by Scottish amateurs and professionals, but as the 19th century progressed, the tide inexorably turned toward their southern neighbors in England. After the turn of the century, it began to shift again, this time to the Americans.
It is a fascinating period, for much of the modern game took form during that time:
- The Open Championship, the (British Amateur), the US Amateur and the US Open established themselves as major tests of golf.
- The first Professional Golfers Association — with none other than Old Tom Morris as vice-chair — was formed in 1901 and shortly thereafter launched a series of professional events. In the process, the wealthy amateurs who had previously “owned” the game lost control.
- Purses for championships increased, putting a career as a touring professional within reach.
- Controversy surfaced over how the newfangled “Haskell” ball was changing the game, requiring the lengthening of courses.
- Golf journalism grew with magazines such as Golf Illustrated, and with Bernard Darwin as the most legendary practitioner. News of the World and other newspapers sponsored tournaments.
- Golf architecture attained a new level of refinement with the publication of John Low’s Concerning Golf, which called for strategic design. Those principles were applied by Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, CB. Macdonald and more as the game spread across the continents.
The Long Golden Afternoon is full of terrific characters, both well- and lesser-known. There are, of course, Old Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid. But there also are many who get less press: John Graham, Freddie Tait, Horace Hutchinson and Harold Hilton.
In particular, I found the story of Freddie Tait compelling. A soldier of the Black Watch, Tait was the Amateur champion in 1896 and 1898 before shipping off to a senseless war from which he would not return.
Detailed accounts of major tournaments occupy much of the book. The amount of research that went into that endeavor is impressive. I enjoyed the narrative, but at the same time thought that more casual readers might end up skimming through some of those pages.
The Long Golden Afternoon is nearly comprehensive but I still wanted to know much more about broader societal forces that contributed to the development of golf. There was a lot going on in those days, from the full realization of the industrial revolution (impacting clubs and balls, for example) to the development of mass media (generating enough revenue for newspapers that they were able to sponsor golf tours — and major scientific expeditions), to shifting demographics (a migrating Scottish population sparked the rise of golf in England, the US and the rest of the world).
There is, however, a limit to how much one author can cram into a book, so perhaps broader societal influences are a topic for another book.
While much of the book is a joyous celebration of golf, I also felt a sense of foreboding. Perhaps that is the history teacher in me. As the years march on in Proctor’s account, I kept thinking that the characters were getting ever closer to the end of that long golden afternoon in the fields of Flanders in the Great War.
Although I consider myself fairly well read on golf history, I came away from The Long Golden Afternoon with a much deeper understanding of the development of the modern game. If you have not already taken a dive into golf history, this is a good book to start; if you have, it is still very much worthwhile.