(Source: © 1999-2023, Douglas MacKenzie)
This Fife village has a most attractive golf course, the design and improvement of which has benefited from the suggestions of Tom Morris in 1899, George Forrester and James Braid. ‘The finest little course he had ever played over’, was Harry Vardon’s comment after playing local clubmaker A H Scott in an exhibition game in August 1899 though a 10 and 9 victory over 36 holes is likely to leave one feeling well disposed to the course. Strictly speaking, two villages are involved, Elie and Earlsferry. Think the twin cities, Minneapolis and St Paul albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
From the evidence of Royal Charters, golf has been played at Earlsferry since the 1500s with the right of the local people to play over the ‘golfing tract’ confirmed by James VI. Both a short course and a long course are mentioned in a document from around 1770. The interest in golf, though, apparently waned as when the Fife Herald mentions the formation of the Earlsferry Abbey Golfing Society in 1830 the following year it rejoices that, ‘it is truly gratifying to see our ancient golfing green, lately lonely and deserted, covered with golfers in their scarlet jackets’. Both the Elie Golf House Club and Earlsferry Thistle were founded in 1875, although an Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club had existed since 1858. One of its early captains, in 1897, was J.E. (Johnny) Laidlay one of the great amateurs of his day.
Johnny Laidlay, Earlsferry and Elie club captain, 1897
He was leading amateur in the Open four times and was in four consecutive finals of the British Amateur Championship, winning in 1889 and 1891.
Less well known but ultimately more influential in the creation of the course was
Thomas Craigie Glover, captain of the club between 1885 and 1888, and largely responsible for the extension of the course to 14 holes in 1886 and, ultimately, to 18 holes in 1895. Originally from Edinburgh, and qualifying there as a civil engineer, he went first to America and subsequently to Bombay (Mumbai) where he became one of the largest contractors in India being responsible for the construction of Bombay docks. He retired from India to Edinburgh, later buying Earlsferry House, and remained chairman of the Bengal Iron and Steel Company.
Thomas Craigie Glover, Earlsferry and Elie club captain, 1885-88
In common with many clubs of the period, the greatest problem in extending the course was due to land disputes. In Elie's case this involved years of costly litigation instigated by Sir James Malcolm against the club and the Town Council.
If you wanted to join the club in the early 1920s (when the views of the clubhouse and 11th green were taken), if you were successful in the ballot you would pay an entrance £3 3s and an annual subscription of £2. You would need to leave your dog outside the clubhouse, or face a penalty of five shillings from the steward, but could purchase ‘Intoxicating Liquors’ from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The clubhouse and out on the course, 1920s, Elie
There were several clubs in Elie and Earlsferry playing over the same links, as was, and still is, common in Scotland, but I doubt many will be offended if I nominate Earlsferry Thistle as the most illustrious of these. It was the club of James Braid, William Sime, Douglas Given, James Keddie, Isaac Mackie and Archie Simpson and his brothers.
Thistle were dominant in the Ranken Todd Challenge Bowl, a Fife team competition played over the Balcomie links at Crail every September, winning it ten times from its inception in 1899 until 1948. A prime mover in this was John Nelson (Jock) Smith (bottom left in the picture below from 1921), a later Walker Cup player, with A H Scott, the clubmaker seated next to him.
J N Smith, J L Laing, W M W Burton, A H Scott
Also influential was the gentleman behind him, John Liddell Laing, the small boy in the sepia-toned image on this site’s home page. , He was part of the Ranken Todd winning team in 1920 and 1921 and Elie Links Champion, an open competition for both amateurs and professionals, in 1924, 1930 and 1933, when back visiting from being a bank manager in the North East of Scotland.
He won the trophy below presented to the club in 1912 but it is not clear for what and when. From the address it must have been before 1921.
Inscribed on the lid, “Won by John L Laing, Inverallan, Elie”