Golf In Scotland (In The Black & White Era): Q&A With Steve Finan
A new book shares stunning never-before-seen photos under one cover.
To kick off The Quad’s lead-up to the 150th Open, Steve Finan kindly answered questions about his beautiful new book: Golf In Scotland-In The Black & White Era.
As the subtitle says, the imagery is only with black and white from the DC Thomson archives and is focused largely on eastern Scotland. Thanks to Finan’s selections and Leon Strachman’s complimentary design, the book does not feel like a rehash of well-worn ground. Golf In Scotland features the best photographs—including many that went straight into a filing cabinet—for a fresh look at newsworthy events and scenes. Golf architecture nuts are going to flip over the stunning aerials.
Finan kindly answered my questions about the DC Thomson archive, his search process, images that resonated and how eastern Scottish links are looking in advance of The Open. I also included purchase options and how to get a signed edition if you are attending The Open.
GS: What prompted you to undertake this project?
SF: My job is to “monetize” material in the DC Thomson archive. In other words, find ways to create books. I had been, for 40 years, a journalist in Scotland with a special interest in newspapers of the past and the way events such as big football matches, golf tournaments, or momentous news events were reported 50, 60 or 70 years ago. DC Thomson own the regional newspapers in the east of Scotland.
This means I have spent a lot of time in the company archive in Dundee, which has copies of newspapers and magazines going back 250 years.
While researching various projects, I would find – here and there – fantastic photos of President Eisenhower at Turnberry in 1959, or Ben Hogan at Carnoustie 1953, or Sam Snead at St Andrews 1946. It didn’t take genius-level intelligence to work out that these photos deserved a wider audience.
Another part of my job is to visit Memories Groups around Scotland, giving talks and showing old sporting photos (the groups are for older people beginning to suffer memory problems, the photos get them talking about the old days). My own long-since-passed father suffered vascular dementia towards the end of his life but I know he would have enjoyed attending one of these memories groups. During one visit I “tested” the material on the Golf Memories Group in Carnoustie and was blown away by the response. They loved the photos, and these are men who have been immersed in the history of the game. They grew up with it, they are the craggy old guys who know every last nook and cranny of golf courses. They liked best photos that showed wider-angled views of tournaments. They liked close-focus photos of the players of old too, of course, but their attention was really grasped by photos showing spectators, the course set-up, the way they remember watching the game. They were looking at photos of their own experiences.
This set the tone of the book for me. I set out to create a type of golf book that, I think, hasn’t been done before. It isn’t intended as a history book, it is a nostalgia book.
Far more learned and accomplished writers than me have weaved tales around the great players of the past and the history-making tournaments. I’m trying to show the game from the point of view of the spectator. I want to give a flavor of what golf as an event felt like, how galleries behaved, what tournaments consisted of at ground level. Views of the game that have never previously been seen. Almost all the photos in the book are “new” old photos. They have lain hidden for so long.
I like to claim that there has never been a golf book like this before and, unless a time machine is invented, there can never be a golf book like this again.
GS: Tell us about the DC Thomson archive?
SF: Almost since photography was invented, newspapers have sent photographers to The Open. And St Andrews and Carnoustie, being within a 15-mile radius of Dundee, were covered extensively by the newspapers I work with.
Photographers, even back in the days of glass plate negatives, took lots of photos but only one or two might be used. The rest of the photos were carefully stored away in the archive.
And there they lay – tournament after tournament, decade after decade. No one ever looked at them. Over the years, many different archive managers employed many different filing systems. Some photos are arranged by date, some are in boxes of negatives that are labelled alphabetically. Sometimes they were filed under G for golf, but then sometimes O for Open or S for Sport! Some labels were lost, some boxes were (during moves and reorganizations) filed in the wrong place.
The archive is an Aladdin’s Cave of golf history, but one that is difficult to navigate a way around. My task, then, was to hunt, follow hunches, look in unlikely places – to do anything to somehow find the best golf photos.
Bear in mind, the archive is vast. It has photos of all the myriad things a newspaper or magazine would cover. It took time (and the sustenance of many cups of tea) to sift through all those negatives using a lightbox and magnifying glass. Most of all it took patience – this was a project with a timescale that had to be measured in years. Very little of the archive is digitized, so there was no “search” button to press. There were no shortcuts, it had to be done manually and carefully so as not to damage old brittle glass or celluloid.
Frustratingly, I’d often find what looked like great photos but they had no information attached to them. I had to work out what I was looking at, or consult my friends at the Memories Groups to unravel who, what and where the subject matter was. It was though, before you start feeling sorry for me, a hugely enjoyable task.
As I progressed through the years it got even more difficult. A 1940s tournament might have a dozen negatives. With improved photographic techniques a 1970s event could have an avalanche of material. Newspapers would use photos of winners, or round-defining adventures in bunkers. But the most newsworthy pics of a particular day weren’t necessarily the most historically significant photos.
Those iconic photos – ones which give context and contain a sense of history or provide an example of how the game has changed – were the ones I sought most keenly. I took my time and made sure I got the best.
GS: What were some your favorite finds?
SF: I particularly like photos that cannot now be taken. A railway line ran alongside The Old Course at St Andrews until 1969 and the course played differently when trains would rattle by. There was the noise, clouds of steam from the engines, or the danger of landing a drive on the railtrack. The railway had to be part of your game management. The line, for instance, passed perilously close to the 16th green so a wide approach shot was risking trouble. I love photos that show the old track in place. Indeed, I think they should bring it back.
A favorite position for photographers was atop the footbridge at St Andrews Links Railway Station, but that bridge was taken down 50 years ago. I have photos taken from this high vantage point, looking directly up the 18th, from various years which again cannot now be taken. One is used as the book’s cover shot. I found it very interesting to use these photos as comparison shots, showing how the course was set up for tournaments.
An individual favorite is a pic of Cary Middlecoff blasting out of a bunker at St Andrews in 1955. It is a technically well-composed action photograph, with the galleries almost within Cary’s swing arc. But the real fascination is the close-up view of the face of the bunker, the type of sand and shoots of the locally abundant marram grass growing through it, and the debris on top of it. They all look very different to the way bunkers are set up today.
One very valuable sequence is an eight-photo analysis of the Bobby Jones swing. It is a 100-year-old montage, having been used in a newspaper in the 1920s. But is remarkable because, substitute Scottie Scheffler for Bobby Jones, and that same type of photo sequence is still used in golf magazines today.
However, two photos really “touched” me. The first is a very simple shot from the Open Centenary Dinner of 1960 at the R&A, showing reigning Open champion Gary Player (then aged 24) shaking hands with Willie Auchterlonie (aged 88) the then oldest living Open winner. Willie had been the champion golfer of 1893. It is the plain-to-see mutual respect that two greats of the game are showing that strikes you. They are from different eras themselves, and that long-ago photograph was itself taken in a markedly different era to today. It is layer upon layer of golf history.
The other photo that I think carries great poignancy is from 1958, showing the ceremony granting Bobby Jones the freedom of St Andrews. This is termed “being made an honorary burgess” in Scotland. Bobby was, from that point on, allowed to graze his flock of sheep on the town’s common lands (should he wish to do such a thing!) It is the greatest honor St Andrews, as a town, can bestow and is done very rarely. The previous American to be granted the freedom of St Andrews was Benjamin Franklin in 1759.
After that 1958 ceremony a crowd that had gathered outside St Andrews University’s Younger Hall spontaneously serenaded Bobby with the sentimental old Scots air Will Ye No Come Back Again. It brings a lump to my throat to think of the townspeople paying respect to their old hero in such a way. Believe me, that sort of thing doesn’t happen often among a crowd of dour Scotsmen.
This year, before The 2022 Open begins, Jack Nicklaus will be afforded the same distinction, the first golfer to be made a burgess of St Andrews since Bobby 64 years ago.
GS: The aerials are of particular interest for the architecture world. How these were shot?
SF: I do. The Old Course at St Andrews is just a few miles from the now-closed RAF Leuchars airbase. The base kept up a very good relationship with the local newspapers (to alleviate all the low-flying complaints of locals) and would often offer photographers ride-alongs on their various training flights. The DCT archive has an extensive collection of these aerials, showing The Old Course especially.
It is this chapter that I hope might be of interest and maybe some use to historians of the game and perhaps to golf course designers or those interested in the history of course design. I used three main sets of photos, from St Andrews Opens of 1955, 1957 and 1978.
It has been said many times that every golf course in the world is, to some degree, a copy of The Old Course. I couldn’t say whether that is true or not. But I can offer photographic evidence to anyone who wishes to make an informed call on the matter.
It will take an experienced and knowledgeable eye, but changes to the course from 1955 to the present will also be apparent. The yardage in 1955, for instance, was 6,936 – compared to 7,297 today. It takes a bit of working out to see where the extra 361 yards was inserted, it is the length of a solid par-4 hole.
And the Road Hole 17th changed from a par-5 to a par-4 in 1955. The rail line is gone, the locomotive sheds that came into play on the 17th are also gone.
These aerial photos, of course, also illustrate how close Carnoustie and St Andrews are, just 11 miles apart as the crow flies.
I think people might be struck by how very ancient and yet very small St Andrews is, and how fragile-looking is the sandy peninsula upon which the Old and New courses are situated. From the air, you’d think one strong wave from the North Sea might wash it all away.
GS: You live in Carnoustie, how are the links looking as we near The Open?
SF: “The Beast” is a matter of great pride to we Carnoustie folk. We revel in the knowledge that our course is among the toughest tests of golf anywhere on this planet. It is common land, so anyone who wishes can walk upon it, but few do. We don’t want to trample or damage it. Great care and effort is taken to keep the course in pristine condition for any who dare to test their game against “Carnasty”.
I know a few of the greenkeeping staff and with the R&A Boys and Girls Amateur Championships in August, and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championships in late-September/early October, the course is being brought up to its very best.
It’s been a little dry of late, though, so your ball will run a good distance – which is good, or bad, news depending on how straight you’ve been off the tee.
Just this week the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, which overlooks the course, was bought by the Carnoustie Golf Links Management Committee. This is a seismic event for our wee town. The new owners have promised long-term plans to make the best of the hotel and the course for the benefit of the surrounding area. We locals are waiting to see what will transpire.
The move has been described as part of the drive to secure Carnoustie’s place on the Open rota. I very much hope it succeeds!
Golf In Scotland In The Black & White Era is available from most book sources, but the quickest and safest option may be direct from the publisher.
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If you are attending The Open on Monday, Steve Finan and several other authors will be signing their books at the R&A World Golf Museum Monday evening. This will be soon after the afternoon Celebration of Champions.