Forgan Golf Clubs Works, c. 1880
Robert Forgan, seated, and his son, standing
Forgan of St Andrews is the oldest golf club factory in the world, dating back to the earliest years of what would later become the Royal and Ancient golf club, the sport’s traditional custodians. In 1819, its forerunner, the Society of St Andrews Golfers, appointed Allan Robertson as a ball-maker and Hugh Philip, a local carpenter, as its club-maker.
Using thorn, apple and pear woods for heads and ash for the shafts, Philip mastered his craft, revolutionising play with shapes that, literally, broke the mould. "Of club-makers no man has ever approached Hugh Philip," wrote James Balfour-Melville in his Reminiscences of Golf. "Even now to possess a club of his is a treasure like an old Cremona violin to a musician, or a Toledo blade to a swordsman. He was a quiet and thoroughly respectable man with exquisite taste, while he was simple in his manner." After Philip’s death in 1856, the tradition of Forgan’s continued to flourish amid healthy competition from nearby rivals Tom Morris and David Anderson & Sons, Patrick of Leven, and the ambitious AG Spalding of London, which set up a branch in Fife to house their newest venture.
Robert Forgan, Philip’s nephew and protégé, took over the company. Under his reign, imported hickory was dried under cover by the side of the 17th fairway at St Andrews. In each of the Black Sheds (since recreated on their original site as a formidable obstacle within the famous Road Hole), there were rectangular stacks of square-cut shafts, each containing as many as 8,000 rods apiece. After a full 12 months’ seasoning they were deemed ready to be rounded off by hand and offered for sale.
Demand was so high that Forgan took on Jamie Anderson as his apprentice. Anderson, an avid golfer, went on to win the Open three times, but work at the factory rarely stopped for a leisurely round. "The shop was just like a joiner’s shop in the country," wrote Robert’s Brother James in 1908. "There was no attempt at any ornamentation. There were no boxes for gentlemen to keep their clubs. All who left their clubs in the shop just put them on spars between the couples above our head."
One day the Prince of Wales came to call. By then the premises had relocated from Philip’s original workshop to an old fisherman’s house which was to become the epicenter of the company for decades. Saws and lathes had been introduced into the production process, enabling mass manufacturing. His Royal Highness was so taken with the unique set of clubs presented to him in 1864 that by 1902, the insignia of golf club makers to His Majesty King Edward was proudly displayed over Forgan’s door.
Sadly, Robert didn’t live to enjoy the tribute. The devout taskmaster died in 1900, aged 76, passing the company to the third of his five sons, Thomas, who built up the workforce to 40 in 1895, before his own premature death in 1906. The business was then passed into the hands of his two sons Lawrence and Robert.
They inherited the company during an era of change. Clubs with names like Driving Putter and the grandly-titled Baffing Spoon were obsolete, replaced instead on the fairways with clubs like Iron Niblick and Brassy, with strong shafts and rounder heads which more closely resemble today’s metal missile-launchers.
Forgan’s was a thriving business, but elsewhere in the region the economic situation was much grimmer. The fall in herring stocks hit many hard, and those displaced from the fishing industry needed to find new work. Some became the first caddies and professionals, missionaries dispatched to convert the golfing agnostics. Forgan’s hired agents to take orders from any country where golf was played. Closer to home, the family remained engaged in local affairs, making large donations to St Andrews Martyr’s Church, where a beautiful lancet known as Forgan’s Window is still preserved.
Despite seemingly robust health, the Second World War sounded the death knell for Robert Forgan and Sons’ family enterprise. "They couldn’t cope with the international market," Seeley explains, "particularly when American clubs flooded the market." Distracted by attempts to reproduce its once-unique gems en masse, the stricken company was eventually taken by over the American-owned Spalding. Under their auspices production resumed briefly in 1945.
In March 1963, however, the clatter and the ringing finally ceased. The workforce was paid off and the machinery sold on. Spalding concentrated its club-making in Belfast.
The disused factory was eventually turned into the original St Andrew’s Woollen Mill where visitors could enjoy tweed, free coffee and shortbread. Instead of caddies popping in to have their grip altered or a new wood knocked up, there were jumpers and scarves by the dozen, a homespun formula which, like its forerunner, would soon be replicated beyond the bounds of the old town. In May 1988, the building was bought by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Over the past year it has been extensively refurbished to create offices that will be ready in time for the R&A to oversee the 131st Open.
Forgan Golf Clubs Works, c. 1900
Finishing Room, Upper Floor
The famous old building has come home to the sport which made Forgan a byword for golfing excellence around the world. The exterior facade, listed under a preservation order, has been retained. And inside there are still remnants of its former pomp.
"In the long function room, the roof beams were once part of the workshop," points out the R&A’s projects officer, Lachlan Macintosh. "Now they’ve been turned into an architectural feature. Part of the original interior, between the ground and first level, is obscured behind the glass shop front, but if you look at the exterior, the arched windows overlooking the 18th have been preserved."
On Market Street, a golden sign on the pavement marking the entrance to Forgan’s old factory has faded away but there are plans to create a replica as a tribute to the company’s contribution to the great game of golf.
The brand has been re-ignited in 2008 with the launch of an online custom fitting system, the first of its kind from an established golf club manufacturer. Now golfers around the world are able to have clubs built to their exact specification using the highest quality clubs whilst the traditional standards of Robert Forgan are maintained. He would be truly proud.