All eyes in the golfing world are fixed on the UK this week as the 151st Open is played at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, Merseyside.
A range of names are synonymous with golf; Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Dame Laura Davies, Annika Sörenstam, pick your favourite. However, in Open week – arguably the most famous week in the whole sport – the RSE has taken the time to reflect on another name. PG Tait.
Peter Guthrie Tait’s name is weel-kent in mathematics and physics circles. Born in Dalkeith in 1831, he would have a distinguished career in mathematical physics, becoming a Fellow of the RSE in 1861. To borrow a term from the game of golf, he was a big hitter in scientific research.
However, what is arguably less well known is that as an avid golfer, he conducted the world’s first study into the flight of a golf ball. He even invented and used his own wooden-shafted iron with adjustable loft around 1890.
Never mind the fact that golf-club manufacture is massive business today, and drivers with a range of adjustable settings abound in golf bags across the world, Tait’s original now forms part of the PG Tait Trophy, a historic prize that staff of Scottish universities competed for from 1968 to around 2005.
His papers On the Path of a Rotating Spherical Projectile I and II, published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, would prove to be seminal. Not only that, but Tait’s work foreshadowed an explosion of data analytics in the game.
While terms like “touch” and “feel” are still used liberally in describing the game as a shorthand for the innumerable calculations every player makes without even realising, Tait sought to understand completely what was happening when the ball was in flight.
His research was some of the first to look at measuring projectile motion in any sport. He was interested in the fact that a golf ball stayed in the air for longer than would otherwise be expected, and he undertook a series of mathematical and physical experiments to understand what – beyond gravity and air resistance – was keeping the ball in the air longer, and therefore giving players more distance off the tee.
Tait was truly a pioneer in his study. At the time he was working, there was no real theory of fluid dynamics for the motion of spheres moving at speed. Between 1887 and 1896, and with the help of scientific experiments and observations, he developed a working theory that it was the “underspin” – called backspin today – that was producing additional aerodynamics and keeping the ball in the air, which he proved in the papers published by the Society over these years.
This would initially be thought controversial, as contemporary golfers took it as an implication that they were cheating by putting spin on the ball. Nowadays of course knowing how to use spin to shape a shot with a fade or a draw, or having the skill to spin the ball to stop it dead on the green, is vital to conquering the meticulously designed courses that the professionals play on today. Far from cheating, mastering the flight of the ball after it leaves the clubface is vital to mastering the game.
Followers of the game of golf – or indeed any sport – will be well aware of the explosion in data modelling in recent years. The more information, the better. Ball manufacturers, club makers, caddies, players, not to mention the paying public all understand that data can help them make better decisions on the course – even if they are still staunchly of the “grip it and rip it” school. A visit to almost any driving range will give any golfer of any ability a huge raft of data about their swing path and their ball flight. Clubhead speed, launch angle, spin rate, ball speed, the height of the apex of the ball’s path, the list is endless. For professionals, this information is part and parcel of their practice routine.
The love of the game stays in the family, it seems, as two of Tait’s seven children would also become notable players themselves, while Tait’s great-grandson James is a professional long-driver and golf writer.
Frederick Guthrie Tait would win The Amateur Championship twice. First in 1886 at Royal St George’s and again two years later at Royal Liverpool – the venue for The Open this year. Frederick was a soldier, and was killed in The Boer War at the age of 30. The Freddie Tait Cup is still awarded to the leading amateur of the South African Open each year since 1929. Among a host of golfing talent to have their names etched onto the trophy, Charl Schwartzel, Trevor Immelman and Ernie Els stand out. John Guthrie Tait, Freddie’s older brother, would reach the semi-final of The Amateur Championship in 1887, also at Hoylake.
So, when you are enjoying the coverage of The Open, spare a thought for one of the true pioneers of the game.
The RSE’s archive is open to the general public and can be accessed at the National Library of Scotland.
All papers published in the RSE’s journals are available online here: