The Worst Golf Course Ever
– Coldham Common –
A history of the Cambridge University Golf Club, 1869-1919
By Michael B Morrison
Bernard Darwin famously described Coldham Common in nineteenth century Cambridge as ‘the worst course I have ever seen, and many others would award it a like distinction’. It was flat, featureless and frequently waterlogged. There were no bunkers; the major hazards being some foul-smelling ditches, a rifle range and the local hooligans hired as caddies. If that was not bad enough, cattle-grazing took precedence on the common from May to September, so golf was confined to the winter months when the raw Siberian weather added to the challenge.
Dr Michael Morrison (DarwinCollege, Cambridge, 1978) has written what our President, Adrian Dixon, describes as “a fantastic read”, The Worst Golf Course Ever: Coldham Common. The book covers the first fifty years of CUGC history from the club’s original formation in 1869 until the First World War. At the heart of it are fascinating tales of the undergraduates playing golf in truly awful circumstances on the course they created at Coldham Common.
Like many things, golf at Cambridge started up in a small way, with an eight-hole course on Midsummer Common in 1868. A full round of eighteen was then laid out at Royston in 1869 and a university club was established with 17 founding members. This places it amongst the six oldest golf clubs in England.
Golf got started at Coldham in 1876 and despite the conditions it not only survived for a quarter of a century, it actually flourished. By the early 1890s, CUGC had become one of the largest golf clubs in England with around five hundred members! They built their own clubhouse (remnants of which still exist today), they had sometimes as many as three professionals in situ and had to extend the Coldham course from 9 to 18 holes to accommodate everyone.
We hear of regular competitions at Coldham Common for the Pirie Medal, the St Andrews Medal, the Barrow Medal and the major scratch prize, the Linskill Cup. The first CUGC fixtures against other clubs were played there and occasionally there were exhibition matches, one famously involving two Open Champions!
The book includes a biographical portrayal of the central figure within CUGC during this era, William T Linskill. He got the first Varsity match up and running in 1878 and despite never taking his degree he remained involved in the club for two decades. Linskill was also supremely eccentric, a larger than life character with an eclectic range of interests including musical theatre, high church and the telling of ghost stories. If you met him, you would never forget him.
However, golf at Coldham Common did not last. At the turn of the century, the club was forced to take some crucial decisions, one consequence of which is a legacy that survives to this day – the relationship between CUGC and Royal Worlington and Newmarket Golf Club. But, it was by no means certain at the time that this would be the outcome.
The book finishes with a contemporary tale about two iconic trophies associated with these earlier times, the previously-mentioned Linskill Cup and the Dunedin Cup, perhaps the most romantic of all. While writing the book, Dr Morrison realised that CUGC no longer retained these trophies and no-one knew where they were; it transpired that they had been missing for decades. Drawing on his research, he took up the challenge to find the missing cups. Detective work, persistence as well as sheer luck lead to their eventually recovery. Even then there were some interesting surprises in store.
The Worst Golf Course Ever: Coldham Common, a history of the Cambridge University Golf Club, 1869-1919 consists of 170 pages including around 40 illustrations and will be published in hardback and colour. It has been written on a noncommercial basis with all profits from sales to be donated to CUGC. Books can be ordered at £15 per copy (plus postage & packing) from the author (email: Mike_Charlotte@dial.pipex.com).