Golf and The Army

Curated by John Maclean

Mastery of the longbow decided many a medieval battle. Sustained practice was required to produce swift and effective combat shooting with it. Archery tournaments were conducted with rigour and decorum.

A typical venue was Bruntsfield Links, some 35 acres of parkland southwest of Edinburgh. Significantly, there are records dating back to the 1680s of another sport, namely “Goulf”, on this and nearby links. Goulf may have been played by military officers whilst officially there to oversee skill-at-arms.

Fletchers not only constructed fine arrows but also were known to make the ‘featherie’ for these occasions. They skilfully compacted goose feathers into a cowhide sphere whilst wet that then dried into an almost rock-hard article.

Golf etiquette on the links was courteous in the manner long established by archery. In those days it was appropriate to play the game dressed in red military-style jackets. A distinguished senior officer, Lieutenant General James St Clair is a signatory to the first rules of golf published in 1754. These had to cover agricultural situations that were appropriate at the time, such as the need to obtain relief when a ball lay in a cart rut or hoof mark.

Enthusiasm for golf grew, no less amongst military officers, playing with the new-fangled ‘gutty’ ball, made from a type of latex discovered in East Asia. The gutty cost one quarter of a featherie and was remouldable when it had been biffed about. The Army clearly contributed to the spread of golf across the Empire with the Royal Calcutta established as the oldest golf club outside UK.

In the 1860s on Wimbledon Common, holes with names like the Long Butt, Running Deer and Blockade were carved out of the rifle range by members of the London Scottish Rifle Volunteers who were stationed there.

Our Society’s second president and by all accounts a golf addict was Field Marshal Earl Haig. He was a member of The Royal Wimbledon Golf Club where, on his return from South Africa where it is said that he proposed to his future wife, herself a keen golfer, on the course!

Formation of Army Golf Society (AGS), subsequently AOGS

The Army Golfing Society was the inspiration of Arthur Paget and Douglas Haig. It was formed in 1913 taking advantage of the groundswell of enthusiasm for convivial golf days with fellow officers. Membership of the AGS was open to those who held or had held a regular commission in the British Army, subject to their acceptance by the Committee.

The Prince of Wales accepted the patronage and honorary membership of the AGS in 1922. King George VI later became the Society’s patron then Her Majesty The Queen upon her accession. Since 1998 Andrew, Duke of York has been the Royal Patron.

The AGS availed itself of invitations and matches at the prestigious home clubs of its members and from former serving officers who had been appointed club secretaries.

The format of invitation matches has little changed since those days. The minutes of the Society’s Annual General Meeting repeatedly attest to competitive yet gentlemanly matches in established golf clubs throughout the country, conducted in much the same sentiment as today.

Every year apart from the war years, the Society has continued to hold its Spring and Autumn meetings through the hospitality of well known UK golf clubs. At these meetings, individual and regimental trophies are competed for.
To accommodate the golfing aspirations of all ranks, the Army Golf Association (AGA) was formed in 1974. As a consequence and to avoid confusion, the AGS changed its title to the Army Officers Golfing Society (AOGS) in 1981.

Historical Records

The earliest recorded AGM held at Sunningdale in October 1921 was attended by 40 members. Lt Gen Sir Arthur Paget received a vote of thanks for his term of presidency and the active part he played in establishing the Army Golf Challenge Cup.

Subsequent debate continued on those entitled to compete for this cup. In 1923, officers on half pay were deemed eligible. However a bid that units of the Indian Army should be permitted to contest received a carefully worded rejection.

In 1925, the subscription to the Society for Life Membership was set at one guinea. The Army meeting that year had been at Hoylake and was fixed for following year at the Royal and Ancient, St Andrews. By now The Argyll and Sutherland Cup, The General’s Cup and The Black Watch Gold and Silver Medals were also being played for. In 1930 Viscount Gort (later Field Marshal) commanding the Grenadier Guards, gifted The Guards Cup to be played for by retired officers.

In 1927 the Society had 750 members and played 38 matches in UK. There were some keen match managers (Col Howard, Major Lambert and Capt Ozanne receiving hearty appreciations for their efforts) and a touring side that went to Holland ‘had been most hospitably entertained’. By 1930 membership had topped 1000.

The nature of army deployment meant that the AGS had officers serving overseas. The Indian branch received a grant from the AGS of £20 ‘to start them off’ and a rather magnificent cup was procured. There was evidently some irritation that the Indian Customs then slapped import duty on it to the tune of 84 Rupees and 4 Annas. The hapless AGS secretary was instructed to recover this anyway and anyhow! Similarly the AGS in Egypt was furnished with a cup for its annual meeting paid for by AGS. History doesn’t record whether this attracted a similar duty.

In World War II, overall responsibility for large stretches of the East Anglia and Kent coasts fell to two officers who would later become the Society Presidents. Maj Gen Ozanne commanded the defence of coastlines that included Hunstanton and Royal West Norfolk Golf Clubs, whilst Maj Gen Edmund Beard commanding 133 Brigade oversaw Royal St Georges and Cinque Ports as part of his territory. Defensive measures employed on booby trapping the land and any response from a Club Secretary have not as yet been unearthed!

In 1946, the R&A invited the Society to hold its first post war meeting on their links at St Andrews. Life subscription was raised to two guineas or yearly membership of ten shillings. At that time there was over £1000 in the kitty and the Paymaster-in-Chief audited the accounts without charge. Ten years later when AGS funds were somewhat depleted, all members were requested to pay ten shillings as an annual fee.

In 1947, a Society flag was approved for flying at Spring Meetings and at matches when the opportunity afforded itself.
It was grudgingly agreed that other ranks serving on a regular engagement may be permitted to play in the Army Championship. However In 1949 Field Marshal Wavell took exception to National Service Officers becoming eligible, saying it was quite wrong that trophies should be won and held by a “passer through”. He was supported by Major General Urquart (who planned the airborne drop on Arnhem from Moor Park Golf Club) who declared it would become a cut-throat contest rather than a delightful competition. The views of these forceful officers won the argument at the time, but the decision was reversed a year later when the Army Cup received a poor entry with only a handful of officers below field rank competing.
The Army Championships continued to be run by AGS and changes to its rules and eligibility were regularly debated. For instance, it was a constant source of frustration that the Royal Artillery and other Corps in their larger numbers were able to enter teams with far greater strength than Infantry or Cavalry Regiments could match.

Matches have always been well attended due entirely to the voluntary efforts of match managers. Records of matches won, drawn or lost over the years are incomplete, but clearly the fixtures are all much enjoyed by home sides as well as the visiting AGS since they are repeated annually almost without exception. By 1960 one source of concern was the limited strength of AGS when playing Oxford or Cambridge Universities as the Society had lost to them several years in succession. As ever it was a question of the best players keeping the dates free – a situation that often conflicted with military exercises and regimental duties.

In 1962, the Society published a new handbook and its Spring Meeting attracted 152 entries. At this time, the army became subject to increasing cuts in manpower and the disbandment of well known regiments affected entries to inter-unit competitions. Mail was the principal method of communication and circulation of timesheets was always demanding chore. Limited financial grants to support the cost of meetings became available through the Army Sports Control Board and certain individuals could claim travel costs subject to a number of rules. Competitions, such as the Argyll & Sutherland Bowl was open to officer teams only although this ruling was successfully challenged to include other ranks a few years later.
The Royal St Georges Golf Club frequently hosted the Society and, in recognition of this and as a millennium gift, its captain was presented with a leather-bound book in which members could enter any special or unusual feats of golf. The first entry in the book was made the next afternoon when Major J Stephenson achieved a hole-in-one on the 16th!

In recent years, the Society has endowed a wall clock to Worpleston, tables to Aldeburgh and Rye, a seat to Royal West Norfolk, a drinking fountain to Liphook and another of those books for recording feats of golfing to Royal Cinque Ports.
At the turn of the century, over 800 members of the Society were registered. By 2002 the annual subscription stood at £10 and as of 2016, this is now set at £20.

In September 2013, the Society celebrated its 100th birthday at its Autumn Meeting at The Berkshire. Today it continues to enjoy enthusiastic support from its committee and playing members, an annual programme of excellent golfing, warm hospitality and, as ever, the vain anticipation of a near faultless round with one’s colleagues!

Golf is one of the few sports that can be played from an early age into one’s dotage whilst still positively contributing to a team. The Society has maintained its accomplished standing from the fellowship and obvious enjoyment gained by all members, senior and less senior, when playing in its many fixtures.