05 Aug 2020 | Feature stories | Industry news |

CLAYTON: One of the greats - and a mystery to match

by Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton David Davie Strath_image
Davie Strath (right) playing at North Berwick and his tombstone at Melbourne General Cemetery in the inner north.

David Strath was one of golf’s greatest pioneer players.

In the 1874 Open Championship, he tied for 18th. But in the other eight Opens in which he played, Strath was second twice, third twice, fifth twice and sixth once.

So good was he, the fearsome bunker guarding the front of the Eden Hole (the 11th) at St Andrews is forever know as Strath Bunker.

Maybe the Scotsman is the best man never to win a major championship?

Little more than a year after his fifth place in 1877, Strath would find himself in Melbourne, fleeing the spectre of a dreadful disease.

Strath, Davie to his mates, was a Scottish professional who was born in 1849 in St Andrews and lived in the extraordinary golfing town of North Berwick.

There he helped design one of the world’s great links and was the rival and friend of “Young” Tom Morris, the greatest player of their time.

Young Tom won the Open Championship four years in a row from 1868 to 1872 (there was no Championship in 1871) and the pair toured Scotland and as far south as Liverpool in England playing exhibition matches, sometimes in front of 10,000 people.

They were the golf’s first superstar players and are largely credited with popularising the game.

Strath was the runner-up to Morris in 1870 and 1872 Opens and, in 1876 he tied at St Andrews but refused to play off because of a rules dispute.

By all accounts, the 1876 Open was a shambles.

The course hadn’t been reserved for the elite field and they competed among the regular public players. Strath’s long approach to the 17th green hit a spectator on the green and there were protests he had somehow gained an advantage.

The dispute could not be settled, he was asked to take part in a playoff and the question would be decided when an official was available to adjudicate.

Strath refused, reasoning there was little point if he was going to have the crown taken away in the following days.

“Settle it now or I won’t be here in the morning,” was his not unreasonable request.

The Strath family of five brothers all succumbed to “consumption” – now known as tuberculosis – in the prime of their lives.

Andrew, the second eldest, was Open champion in 1865, although David was the family’s best golfer.

By the northern autumn of 1878, Davie was a sick man and his North Berwick doctors suggested he take the 84-day boat trip to Melbourne, a city recognised in Britain as the ideal place to recover from the disease.

Until late in 2011, the fate of Strath had been a mystery.

The Scots had never been able to determine what happened to their champion, just 29 when he left their shores.

Many assumed he had perished on the boat. Certainly, he never returned to Scotland despite buying a first-class return ticket on the Eurynome, the fastest vessel of its time.

Enter Noel Terry, a fine Melbourne golfer and the acknowledged expert in this country on ancient golf clubs.

A member at Royal Melbourne, he was investigating a club made by one of the great early clubmakers. David Conacher had migrated to Melbourne in 1854 – a time when there was no golf to play – and became a cabinetmaker.

Conacher was later assigned the task of working with T.J. Finlay in laying out the Melbourne Golf Club (later Royal Melbourne) in Caulfield, which opened in July, 1891. He died four months later, but not before becoming one of the first people to play the game in this country.

The link is that Conacher’s nephew, James, had been a great friend of Strath. They had gone to school together and James was the best man at his friend’s wedding before he emigrated to Australia.

Terry was fascinated by the history of the golf club he had found and the thought Conacher might have been the first professional golfer to come to Australia.

He contacted eminent Scottish golf historian David Malcolm, who told Terry of Strath and the Australian connection.

Essentially all Malcolm knew was that Strath had boarded a boat to Melbourne and was never again heard of in his homeland.

Terry started digging into the mystery of Strath and uncovered the astounding.

Strath had made it to Melbourne, but in a terribly weakened state and only 20 days later he died in a house next to the residence of Professor Halford, the founder of the medical school at Melbourne University on Royal Terrace in Carlton.

Halford had studied at university in St Andrews, as had the Australian doctor, Samuel Dougan Bird, who had been respected for his writings, including “On Australasian Climates and Their Influence in the Prevention and Arrest of Pulmonary Consumption”.

A Dr Makin was a North Berwick member who was an expert on consumption and likely it was Makin who organised for Strath to visit Melbourne, the climate of which Bird had described as perfect for the treatment of the disease.

Malcolm went to the London National Library to research every Scot who had come to Melbourne in 1878. For several weeks he trawled though newspapers of the time looking for a reference to Strath.

Eventually he found a report indicating Strath had died among friends. Terry’s previous assumption was that he must have died alone, far from home and his young family. So, there is at least some comfort there.

What seems extraordinary is that the London press report never reached Scotland.

When his ship landed at Port Melbourne, Strath was taken to Royal Terrace and Terry was able to determine that he had died in a house opposite what is now the Exhibition Building.

He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Presbyterian section of the Melbourne General Cemetery and the wonderful quality of the local records meant Terry was able to accurately locate the grave of one of golf’s early champions.

“It was a strange and very humbling feeling to be standing there,” Terry said of his extraordinary discovery.

A headstone, funded by the golf clubs of St Andrews and the Golf Society of Australia, now marks the grave.

Malcolm visited Melbourne in 2012 to speak at Royal Melbourne on the significance of Strath and the belated discovery of his fate.

“For the Scots, this is very big news,” Terry said. “Finally, they have an answer to a mystery that has been left unanswered for well over a century.”

Sadly, David Strath’s wife died just four years after her husband and their only son later became one of the first men killed in World War I.

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