The Hole Story
Why is the golf hole 4 ¼ inches in diameter? Because the Rules of Golf state that it should be. But why not 2 ½ inches or some other size?
Present-day golfers tend to take the hole cup, for granted. We expect to find a nice neat hole, lined by a cup, to receive the results of our variable putting efforts. It wasn’t always so.
In the early days of golf, fore caddies would set off over the links in the general direction of where the first green might be traditionally located. He carried a flag largely to show the following golfers the general direction of play.
The caddies would then scoop sand out of the hole to tee up the ball within the required club length from the hole. Clearly the shape and depth of the hole would start to vary greatly.
As the game began to develop away from match play to stroke play so the need for a standard hole size began to emerge.
The minutes of Royal Aberdeen refer to the use of 6” holes. What caused to be the size of choice? The exact reasons for why that first tool cut holes at the now-standard diameter are lost to history. But it was almost certainly a completely arbitrary thing.
The earliest references to hole liners are 1825 at Montrose and in 1829 Royal Mussleburgh, who paid an account to a local Blacksmith, Robert Gay for “forming the hole, the sum of £1”.
Royal Mussleburgh display the oldest hole cutter which in existence in their clubhouse and it is interesting to note that it cuts a hole 4 ¼ inches in diameter which was confirmed as the official diameter in 1894 and is the size of the hole today. Just how the original blacksmith hit on this measurement is open to conjecture.
In 1874, 7th August, Crail Golfing Society minutes state” that iron cases be got for the holes on the links to prevent the holes from being destroyed.”
1875, 14th May, Crail Golfing Society minutes state “there was shown to the meeting one of the eight iron rings which had just been got for the golf holes”. It was agreed that they should be left in the holes during that part of the year when there is most play on the links.
This would have been a source of great debate at the time. Not only would the hole cups have to be manufactured but a hole cutter purchased and the course formalised. The less talented putters would no doubt have complained that they were to be disadvantaged, whilst the traditionalists would bemoan the unrelenting march of progress.
In The Field, in 1888 one of the correspondents wrote:
My desire is to see a rule determining the size of the golf hole on all links. On Luffness the holes are so large and the putting green so good that a fair player will generally hole out from any distance short of three yards, while at Sandwich they are so small that they add at least five strokes to the round.
It could be argued that the early adoption of hole cups helped set a culture of progress within the Society, which went on to contract Old Tom Morris to create a new layout for Balcomie, purchase the course, merge with the Ladies Club and build Craighead Links.