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Brush strokes: the art of golf

You can liken golf in the 21st century to a dog track where technology is the mechanised hare and equipment manufacturers are the greyhounds, sprinting at full pelt for the most infinitesimal benefits - and the gaudiest profits.

The exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery includes Charless Lees' The Golfers (1847) and The Golf Links, North Berwick by Sir John Lavery (circa 1921).
The exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery includes Charless Lees' The Golfers (1847) and The Golf Links, North Berwick by Sir John Lavery (circa 1921).

Look at the pages of golf magazines and your eye is marauded by images saturated with steel, graphite, lurid hues, digitally altered ideals of human and mechanistic perfection. And branding. Oh, the logos. It's tiresome, as though the playing of the game is an irrelevance; as if matching your clubs, clothing and choice of ball to those of your favourite professionals outweighs how well you perform.

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Thing is, it wasn't always thus. And it needn't be thus. Look at the images on these pages, a fraction of those gathered in an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in the year Scotland hosts the Ryder Cup, and ask yourself: do I recognise modern golf in these pictures? Which do you prefer - the simple palette of Sir John Lavery's elegant paintings of North Berwick, or the hyperreal colourburst of the Golf Channel, whether live coverage or commercials? Ultimately, it's a choice between the sincere and the synthetic.

If there's a message in these paintings and photographs, which stand far apart from each other in time, it's one all golfers will recognise: golf isn't about technology. Technique, yes; technology, no. In The Sabbath Breakers (after John Charles Dollman), the players attracting the minister's ire don't have a bag between them; the hole they're aiming at was probably, in truth, a rabbit hole. And in George Earl's Going North: King's Cross Station, London, an affluent family wait on the platform at the outset of their holiday, a set of clubs protected from harm in transit by no more than two leather bindings. Anyone who fell for golf as a child will know it's what you do with what you've got that counts.

Earl's painting was prescient in its portrayal of golf as an increasingly popular holiday activity as the 19th century melted into the 20th, a facet captured in Henry George Gawthorn's St Andrews holiday poster from 1927, where women and men have the time of their lives on the links while swimmers lounge on dunes and families play in surf. Were it not for the words on the poster you would think the location California or the Cote d'Azur.

Skip forward seven decades and the same enthralment to leisure golf - the sport as it is experienced by 99 per cent of its exponents - leaps from Glyn Satterley's photographs, whether it's looking for an elusive ball in the rough (yours or your partner's; golf is nothing if not a sport that fosters extreme levels of empathy) or avoiding the on-course cattle at Brora. It's in this encouragement to throw yourself wholeheartedly into the capricious arms of amateur golf that Scotland excels. Take up the opportunity during a summer holiday and the reward is greater still, being unconnected with official competition and thus liberated from the pressure of handicaps and rivalry.

Whether you go with the perspective of a club golfer, a fine art aficionado or a student of social history, you'll find an exhibition which for the most part pulses with the heartbeat of the common man or woman, a reminder that, beyond the elitism that's rife in certain circles of the game and the cacophony of technological advancement, golf is no more than hitting a ball with a stick under an open sky. When it gets more complicated than that … Well, it ceases to be play and starts to be work.

The writer and poet Andrew Greig captures this idea better than anyone in his book Preferred Lies, a chronicle of his convalescence from a grave illness through his re-embracement of golf after a long hiatus. In Orkney, he finally connects with the ball: "[It] flies up [the] brae like a slingshot, straight and true. I lift my bag and walk up the fairway with golden warmth coursing from my wrists to my heart. The course is alive, I'm alive, I have just hit a proper golf shot, and the first lark of the year is singing way up high." n

The Art Of Golf: The Story Of Scotland's National Sport is at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh from July 12 to October 26. Visit nationalgalleries.org. Admission £8/£6. The Scottish Open is at Royal Aberdeen this weekend, before The Open takes place at Hoylake, July 17-20.

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