The History of the Game Golf

July 27, 2018

The History of the Game Golf

(When and where did the Game Golf begin?)

What is the real meaning of golf? A common misconception is that the word “golf” is an acronym for “Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden”. This acronym is definitely not true (plus that is freaking silly), not even close. It is now accepted that the ‘golf’ is derived from an old word meaning ‘club’. The first documented mention of the word ‘golf’ is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned ‘ye golf’, in an attempt to encourage archery practice, which was being neglected.

From a Simple Pastime to a Full-Fledge Sport

(The History of Golf)

Every one of us knows that the game of golf originated in Scotland, right? Well, Yes and no. It’s definitely true that golf (as we all know it) was developed in Scotland. The Scots were playing golf in its very basic form (Such as taking a club, swing it at a ball, move the ball from starting point to finishing point in as few strokes as possible).

They would hit a pebble around a natural course of sand dunes, rabbit runs and tracks using a stick or primitive club, by at least the mid-15th Century. In fact, the earliest known reference to golf by that name comes from King James II of Scotland, who, in 1457, issued a ban on the playing of golf. The Scotland was preparing to defend itself against an English invasion.

The population’s enthusiastic pursuit of golf and soccer to the neglect of military training (archery primarily) caused the Scottish parliament of King James II to ban both sports. The game, the king complained, was keeping his archers from their practice. James III in 1471 and James IV in 1491 each re-issued the ban on golf.

The Golf’s status and popularity quickly spread throughout the 16th century due to its royal endorsement, who King Charles I popularized the game in England and Mary Queen of Scots, who was French, introduced the game to France while she studied there. Indeed the term ‘caddie stems from the name given to her helpers who were the French Military, who are also known in French as cadets or caddies.

The premier golf course of the time was Leith near Edinburgh. Indeed King Charles I was on the course when given the news of the Irish rebellion of 1641. Leith was also the scene of the first international golf match in 1682 when the Duke of York and George Patterson playing for Scotland beat two English noblemen. More information can be found here: Brief History of Golf.

So… Golf really did developed in Scotland…but the question is, where did it really originate?

The game of Golf continued to develop in Scotland over the decades and centuries, until 1744 when the first-known rules of golf were put down in writing in Edinburgh. Golf as it was then played would be easily recognized by any modern golfer. But can it be said that the Scots “invented” the game golf? Not quite, because there is a strong evidence that the Scots were influenced themselves by even earlier versions of the games that were similar in nature.

USGA Museum states that “While many Scots firmly maintain that golf evolved from a family of stick-and-ball games widely practiced throughout the British Isles during the Middle Ages, considerable evidence suggests that the game was derived from stick and ball games that were played in France, Germany and the Low Countries.”

The Dutch Influence

Part of the evidence for earlier and non-Scottish influence, in the origin of golf is the etymology of the word “golf” itself. “Golf” which is derived from the Old Scots terms “golve” or “goff,” which themselves evolved from the medieval Dutch term “kolf.” The medieval Dutch term “kolf” meant “club,” and the Dutch were playing games (mostly on ice) at least by the 14th Century in which balls were struck by sticks that were curved at the bottom until they were moved from point A to point B.

The Dutch and Scots were trading partners, and so, the fact that the word “golf” evolved after being transported by the Dutch to the Scots lends credence to the idea that the game itself may have been adapted by the Scots from the earlier Dutch game.

Something else that lends credence to that idea: Although the Scots played their game on parkland (rather than ice), they (or at least some of them) were using balls that they acquired in their trade from Holland.

Similar Games Go Back Even Earlier

The Dutch game was not the only similar game of the Middle Ages (and earlier). Going back even farther, the Romans brought their own stick and ball game into the British Isles, and the games that contain antecedents of golf were popular in France and Belgium long before Scotland got into the game.

So does that mean that the Dutch (or someone else other than the Scots) invented golf? No, it just means that the game golf grew out of multiple, similar stick and ball games that were played in different parts of Europe.

But we’re not trying to deny that the Scots have their own place in golf history. The Scots made a singular improvement to all the games that came before: They dug a hole in the ground and made getting the ball into that hole was the object of the game. As we said at the beginning, for golf as we all know it, we definitely have the Scots to thank.

The Simple Game became a Sport

The first club was formed by the gentlemen golfers of Leith in 1744 and it is to promote an annual competition with a silver golf club as the prize.

Duncan Forbes then drafted the club’s rules, which were:

A club house was then built in 1768 and later renamed as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (And was moved to toMusselburgh, Lothian in 1836)

The first reference to golf at the historic town of St Andrews was in 1552. The clergy allowed public access to the links a year later. In 1754 the St Andrews Society of Golfers was formed to compete in its own annual competition using Leith’s rules. Stroke play was introduced in 1759 and in 1764, the 18-hole course was constructed which has of course become a de-facto standard, and in 1895 the first women’s golf club in the world was formed. King William honored the club with the title ‘Royal & Ancient’ in 1834 and the new famous clubhouse was erected in 1854. Because of its fine course, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) became the premier golf club, the publication of rules, it’s royal patronage and it’s promotion of the game as a proper sport.

Of course, by this time golfers were using proper golf clubs and golf balls. Club heads were made from beech or the wood of fruit trees such as apple. Some club heads for were made from hand-forged iron. Shafts were usually ash or hazel. Balls were made from tightly compressed feathers wrapped in a stitched horse hide sphere. The sport was somewhat exclusive due to the expense of the handcrafted equipment. After 1826, persimmon and hickory were imported from the USA to make club heads and shafts respectively. By this time, these antiques are now highly prized by collectors.

Golf Debut Internationally

The British Empire was at its peak during the 19th century. Certainly the phrase “the sun never sets on the empire” was created to reflect Britain’s world-wide influence. Most of the early golf clubs outside the British Isles and America were formed throughout the Commonwealth. The first golf club formed outside Scotland was Royal Blackheath (near London) in 1766. However golf is believed to have been played there since 1608. The Bangalore in India was the first golf club that was formed outside Britain.

Many social and economic changes were brought by the Victorian Industrial Revolution and the growth of the railways gave birth to the mass tourism industry. For the first time, ordinary people could explore the country as day-trippers or weekend visitors. Golf clubs popped up all over the country and people could enjoy the challenge of playing a different one every weekend

Hitherto golf equipment was handcrafted and therefore expensive. Golf was therefore the preserve of the wealthy. Once metal golf club heads and shafts and guttapercha balls began rolling off the production lines in 1848, and the average person was able to afford to play golf. Both of these factors directly contributed to the phenomenal growth of golf.

Golf as a Professional Sport

The Prestwick Golf Club was formed in 1851, and the precursor to the British Open, the first major national championship, was played there for the first time in 1860 with Willie Park as winner.

The legend of Old Tom Morris was born when he won the event in 1862, 1864 and 1867. However his son, Young Tom Morris, was the first great champion winning the event having a record of four consecutive times from 1869.

Other illustrious winners were JH Taylor in 1894 and Harry Vardon in 1896. Together with James Braid, these three men were known as the Great TriumvirateBesides the few sponsored events such as the British Open, where most golf professionals made a living from competitions by betting against their opponent.

Professionals also earned a living from tuition, golf ball and golf club making and caddying. (hey, golf in the good old times use golf equipment that are sub-par compared to what we have right now in the modern times. So for the best equipment around, check out for quality gears available online).

The success of golf as an organized competitive sport in the United Kingdom was correlated abroad in India and the USA. Gate receipts were used as prize money for the first time in 1892 in Cambridge, England and the first international golf tournament was the Amateur Golf Championship of India and the East in 1893.

Golf has attracted the attention of the media and business sponsorship which raised its profile exceedingly and in 1897 the first monthly magazine, Golf, was published in the USA and became the Centre of the professional game due to the proliferation of commercially sponsored competitions. However the prestigious events were still those hosted in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, it was the amateurs rather than professionals, which were exalted by the public. Golf was then confirmed as a global sport when it was made an Olympic sport in 1900.

Emergence of the Modern Golf

The start of the 20th century brought with it several technological innovations. The first was the Haskell one piece rubber cored ball of 1900, which practically guaranteed an extra 20 yards. Grooved-faced irons were introduced in 1902. In 1905 William Taylor invented the first dimpled ball.

Arthur Knight introduced steel-shafted golf clubs in 1910 though hickory was widely used for another 25 years. Within the period of a decade, golfers could hit further and more accurately than ever before using golf equipment which was relatively cheaply mass-produced.

The Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America was formed in 1916 and initially consisted of a winter calendar. However by 1944 the tour was played throughout the year and consisted of 22 events.

The competition in England was suspended due to the broke out of the World War II in 1939. The War Ministry diverted all rubber and metal resources into the war effort and drafted men of fighting age into the services. The Americans followed suite when they entered the war in 1942.

The Ladies PGA was formed in 1951 (European version in 1988) and replaced the Women’s Professional Golf Association. The first Women’s Open was held in 1946 and won by Patty Berg.

Perhaps the greatest lady golfer of the time was Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson Zaharias. She won the US Women’s Amateur in 1946, the Women’s British Amateur in 1947 and the US Women’s Open in 1948, 1950 and 1954. If that wasn’t enough, she only took up golf after retiring from an athletics career which included three Olympic gold medals and world records. See also: The Woman Who Dominated Golf - Kathy Whitworth

After the war, in the exception of Ben Hogan, most professionals chose to compete exclusively in America because of the tremendous prize money on offer. In recognition of this fact, the R&A increased the prize money for the British Open which helped to bring the top players back to Europe.

The Modern Triumvirate was born in the guise of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the 1960s.

They dominated the games into 1970s winning nearly every major event around the world and competing in the prestigious international matches.

While the pre-war period might be considered as the age of women’s liberation both socially and golf wise, the 1960s brought with it the struggle against discrimination and in 1961, the PGA withdrew its ‘whites-only’ rule from its constitution.

Charlie Sifford became the first black golfer to contest a PGA event and Lee Elder the first to contest the Masters in 1975. However even in 1990, when the PGA introduced further measures to end racial discrimination, more clubs notably, Cypress Point, withdrew from the Tour. Perhaps Tiger Woods’ outstanding victory in the 1997 US Master has finally changed attitude.

Individual success was matched with team success when the Europeans, captained by Tony Jacklin, won the Ryder Cup in 1985 - ending a 28 year American dominance.

The Solheim Cup, the women’s version of the Ryder Cup, was launched in 1990 and by 1991; Europeans were at the top of the Sony World Rankings with Ian Woosnam hitting the top spot.

Today, it is the golf courses themselves that reflect the history of the game, with the US courses presented as beautifully sculptured and manicured landscaped parklands, unlike those in Britain, which are typically rough links courses with bunkers you can hide London Double Decker buses in!Some of the most famous golf courses in the world are still to be found in Scotland. Check this book also: Golf Course Design (amazon).

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