Steve on Sunday
7 February 2021
Greetings my fellow surfers of the sea and web,
One does sincerely hope that you have taken full advantage of the recent openings of surf and turf, the turf in this case being the liquid service at bars, restaurants, taverns, shebeens and golf clubhouse 19th holes. I’m sure some of you have.
121 years ago on this date Kimberley was in isolation and had been since 14 October 1899. The town was basically ‘English’ and was controlled by that mighty mining company De Beers Consolidated Mines led by the similarly mighty Cecil Rhodes. Kimberley was surrounded by the Boer Republican forces of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and they, the Boers, believed that its capture was paramount to winning the war. The efforts put into this by the Boers does belie this sentence as they were quite comfortable to merely try and shell the citizens into submission without any infantry assault. The siege would fail.
They even brought in one of their four famed Long Tom siege guns to shell the diamond town, the shelling starting this very day in 1900, this gun firing its 94 pound shells up until relief of the town on 15 February.
It was also not a good day for families of 16 men (3 Boer, 13 British) killed in an obscure ‘little’ battle known as Koodoosberg Drift which took place between 4 and 8 February 1900, the heaviest day of fighting being this very day, 7 February. The date was Wednesday in 1900.
It was not a very good day for golfing enthusiasts, nor for Scotland, nor for St Andrews Golf Club and town, and most certainly not for Freddie Tait and his family who lived in Edinburgh and St Andrews, who all plunged into mourning.
Despite Tait being a regular soldier serving with the Black Watch, he was also a more than competent golfer who held his own in both the amateur and professional fields.
Born in 1870 he first played golf at the tender age of five, later saying that he “…took to it seriously when I was eight years old.” Like the other children at St Andrews he first played on the beaches with a wooden club, and by the age of seven – in 1877 – was allowed to play on the Old Course links.
His father, a University Professor, played golf virtually the entire day from dawn until dusk, and for Freddie, the golfing bug had bitten. It was from his father, and no doubt his elder brother Jack, that he learnt the rudiments of the game. And despite the fact that he had his own very distinct style, it would have been based on those with whom he played – his family, his friends, and his peers, but most importantly, the senior players he followed around the course.
Without going into a shot by shot commentary on his golfing career – as is the wont of many a weekend golfer – his career will be merely touched upon.
Tait had won the British Amateur Championship in 1896 and 1898 and had lost to John Ball Junior in a classic encounter in 1899. This particular game is still considered one of the classic games of all time and there have been many of those.
He was a very good looking and charismatic golfer, attracting crowds wherever he played, and his sense of humour with comments and chirps the entire 18 holes kept the crowds spellbound and in constant laughter. Reminiscent of Lee Trevino, remember him? The people loved Tait, both in Scotland and England.
He never practised despite what Gary Player has to say about practise makes perfect (which it indeed does), and many a drive into the rough, and it was very rough in those days invariably saw Tait either hole the ball or get it very close. He was an amazing golfer.
The famous Old Tom Morris considered him the only golfer he had ever watched that was akin to his son Young Tom, and that included the Great Triumvirate of Vardon, Taylor and Braid.
For those of you who play golf and who may even have played the Old Course, note the following. In the same year FG Tait joined the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (1890), he equalled the course record score of 77 set by Old Tom Morris, and in 1894 made the record his own with a stunning 72, remembering this record was set with the gutta percha ball and ‘old’ clubs. Amazing.
Tait had joined the army – and the army, like today, allows their soldiers to play sport – and in 1899 was with the Black Watch when they suffered heavy casualties at the battle of Magersfontein. Tait himself was wounded and had just rejoined the Black Watch when they fought the battle of Koodoosberg drift.
His death on 7 February certainly stunned the golfing world.
Within a few months of Tait’s death, fellow golfer James Low wrote FG Tait’s biography, the first ever biography on a golfer. Tait’s putter resides in the Kimberley Golf Club, having been left in his will to the club closest his place of death. In the SA Open, the Tait Trophy is awarded to the amateur golfer who performed the best. The well-known golfer and commentator from umtali, Denis Hutchinson, is a former winner of the Tait Trophy.
JH Taylor, one of the great Triumvirate handed over Tait’s putter to the Kimberley Golf Club during the British golfing team’s tour of South Africa in late 1936:
“The visit of the British team to Kimberley a week or two ago had for me,” Taylor wrote, “a special and poignant significance. Before I left home I was given an old wooden putter which belonged to the late Lieutenant Freddie Tait, of the Black Watch, who was killed at Koodoosberg Drift…I know the history of the putter and I can vouch for its authenticity. I was asked to offer it to the Kimberley Golf Club in remembrance of a great golfer and a very gallant soldier, Kimberley, I believe, being the closest club to the scene of Tait’s death. I am happy to say that the captain of the club received this unique treasure with a sentiment that touched me deeply.
“I knew Frederick Guthrie Tait very well indeed, and at the outset of my professional career often stayed with him. He was the outstanding amateur of the day, as the record of the Amateur Championship proves, and his match against John Ball in the final of that event at Prestwick will go down into golfing history as a classic encounter. I took it upon myself to suggest to the committee of the Kimberley club that the putter should be played for annually. I pointed out that this Freddie Tait putter competition would be unique as a golf prize and would tend to perpetuate the memory of one who left a definite imprint on the history of the royal and ancient game.”
In England and Scotland Tait is very well remembered. In South Africa too.
Perhaps it is best to end this very brief tribute to Tait with the following poem that was published on 7 February 1902. The poet is not known.
I thank you.
Frederick Guthrie Tait
1870 – 1900
Of golf and war two years have fled
Since, stricken, as the tidings sped,
We mourned your death, and whispering said,
“Hast heard the news? Fred Tait is dead!”
Two years of hateful war, that takes
The best and bravest, and unmakes
The man within us, ay, and breaks
Our faith in right and valour’s sakes.
Two years, and still the seasons run
Of English cold and Afric sun,
Of battles lost and battles won
On green and veldt; but yours are done,
Two years, but in our hearts we hie
To where, in dreamless sleep, you lie
Beneath the Southern Cross and sky,
And look upon your grave and sigh,