The ball folks smacked around a Charleston peninsula field also used for cattle shows and horseracing wasn’t a Titleist, it was a “feathery.” There were no tee boxes 226 years ago, or flagsticks, or putting surfaces.
Research indicates Harleston Green was a rough but busy rectangle wedged between streets we know as Calhoun and Beaufain from Rutledge to Barre.
Slaves apparently served as the earliest “finders” (later dubbed caddies). They often cleared America’s first official golf club of children and animals, yelling “fore” to forewarn.
The 2012 PGA Championship starts this week at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, but golf in the Lowcountry — and all of America — can be traced to 1786 and the South Carolina Golf Club’s Harleston Green course.
“Everything new is old again, and vice versa. In Charleston, that’s particularly true,” said Harlan Greene, a Senior Manuscript and Reference Archivist at the College of Charleston libraries whose name coincidentally matches the subject.
Definitive Harleston Green research is found in “The Carolina Lowcountry, Birthplace of American Golf, 1786” by late historian Dr. George C. Rog
Rogers Jr. Heteamed with archivist Elias Bull and golf writer/historian Charles Price for a 1980 book published by the Sea Pines Company. Though few of the 76 pages are dedicated to Harleston Green, Price and Bull spent two years digging through estate records, archives and newspaper clippings before Rogers, a distinguished former University of South Carolina professor, verified the work with independent research.
“George Rogers was a solid scholar,” Greene said. “He obviously is authoritative. Charleston is famous for its firsts and this is one of them.”
Robert Rosen agrees.
“George C. Rogers is the dean of all Charleston historians,” said the Charleston historian, author and attorney. “Whatever he says is accurate.”
There also is some evidence of the first known shipment of golf equipment to arrive in the U.S., 432 balls and 96 clubs sent from the Scottish port Leith to Charleston in 1743. Price wrote that Charleston merchant Andrew Johnston returned from a 1759 trip to Scotland with golf clubs and balls, later mentioned in Johnston’s estate.
“It’s kind of cool that golf goes back so far in Charleston and to have so many of our Country Club of Charleston families that date way back,” said Hart Brown, PGA Director of Golf at the Country Club of Charleston, which was founded in 1901 but embraces ties to the South Carolina Golf Club.
The 1786 roots of the South Carolina Golf Club — probably more of a social club than a competitive sports pursuit — were discovered with anniversary references in Charleston’s City Gazette newspaper and in “The Southern States Ephemeris: Or, The North and South Carolina and Georgia Almanac.” A 1788 City Gazette advertisement calls on club members to “meet at Harleston Green (and) to adjourn at William’s coffee house.”
By 1795, there is mention of a Harleston Green “Club House.”
Charleston’s Scottish merchants likely introduced golf to the increasingly worldly peninsula. Rogers notes that the formal anniversary announcement is “exactly like that for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1766.” The famed Scottish club was founded in 1754.
The South Carolina Golf Club president in 1793 was Dr. Henry Purcell, who arrived in Charleston in 1769 to comfort patriots as a Revolutionary War chaplain. He served at St. Michael’s Church until his death in 1802.
Mysteriously, the South Carolina Golf Club vanishes from historical record after 1799. The decline of golf in the 1800s might be traced to Thomas Jefferson’s controversial Embargo Act of 1807, forcing a decline in Charleston commercial activity with Great Britain and other countries.
Homes began to crowd and eventually invade Harleston Green after 1800.
A diorama of 1786 golf at Harleston Green went on display at the Heritage Club at Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Plantation in 1970, the work of Charleston’s R.N.S. Whitelaw.
Harlan Greene thinks the 2012 PGA Championship might trigger some Harleston Green interest.
“You think about Charleston and you think about heritage tourism,” he said. “But there is also sports tourism, and there is a link. Of course, some golfers are focused only on sinking a putt but I think actual history will interest others.”
Don’t bother looking for a lost “feathery” between Calhoun and Beaufain; the fragile balls were made of boiled feathers stuffed into stitched bull’s hide.
Legend has it, however, that part of Harleston Green’s membership fee requirement lives on in a common golf term — green fees.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @sapakoff