History of golf

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The MacDonald boys playing golf by 18th-century portrait painter Jeremiah Davison

The origins of golf are unclear and much debated. However, it is generally accepted that modern golf developed in Scotland during the Middle Ages. The game did not find international popularity until the late 19th century, when it spread into the rest of the United Kingdom and then to the British Empire and the United States.


A golf-like game is, apocryphally,[1][2] recorded as taking place on 26 February 1297, in Loenen aan de Vecht, where the Dutch played a game with a stick and leather ball. The winner was whoever hit the ball with the least number of strokes into a target several hundred yards away. Some scholars argue that this game of putting a small ball in a hole in the ground using golf clubs was also played in 17th-century Netherlands and that this predates the game in Scotland. There are also other reports of earlier accounts of a golf-like game from continental Europe.[3]

In the 1261 Middle-Dutch manuscript of the Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant's Boeck Merlijn mention is made of a ball game "mit ener coluen" (with a colf/kolf [club]). This is the earliest known mention in the Dutch language of the game of colf/kolf as played in the Low Countries.[4][5]

In 1360, the council of Brussels banned the game of colf: "... wie met colven tsolt es om twintich scell’ oft op hare overste cleet ..." (he who plays at colf pays a fine of 20 shillings or his overcoat will be confiscated).[6]

In 1387, the regent of the county of Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut, Albrecht of Bavaria, sealed a charter for the city of Brielle, in which it was forbidden to play any game for money. One of the exceptions to this ordinance was "den bal mitter colven te slaen buten der veste" (to play the ball with a club outside the town walls).[7] Two years later, in 1389, the regent Albrecht offered the citizens of Haarlem a field called ‘De Baen’ (the course) to be used exclusively for playing games – especially colf – because these were too dangerous within the city walls.[8]

In 1597 the crew of Willem Barentsz played "colf" during their stay at Nova Zembla, as recorded by Gerrit de Veer in his diary:

Den 3. April wast moy claer weder met een n.o. wint ende stil, doen maeckten wy een colf toe om daer mede te colven, om also onse leden wat radder te maeckten, daer wy allerley middelen toe zochten.[9]
(The 3rd of April the weather was nice and clear with a north-easterly wind and quiet, then we made a colf [club] to play colf with, and thus make our limbs more loose, for which we sought every means)

Early golf in Scotland

The modern game of golf is generally considered to be a Scottish invention. A spokesman for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, one of the oldest Scottish golf organisations, said "Stick and ball games have been around for many centuries, but golf as we know it today, played over 18 holes, clearly originated in Scotland."[10][11] The word golf, or in Scots gowf [gʌuf], is usually thought to be a Scots alteration of Dutch "colf" or "colve" meaning "stick, "club", "bat", itself related to the Proto-Germanic language *kulth- as found in Old Norse kolfr meaning "bell clapper", and the German Kolben meaning "mace or club".[12] The Dutch term Kolven refers to a related sport.

The first documented mention of golf in Scotland appears in a 1457 Act of the Scottish Parliament, an edict issued by King James II of Scotland prohibiting the playing of the games of gowf and football as these were a distraction from archery practice for military purposes.[13] Bans were again imposed in Acts of 1471 and 1491, with golf being described as "an unprofitable sport". Mary, Queen of Scots was accused by her political enemies of playing golf after her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered in 1567.[vague] George Buchanan subsequently wrote that she had been playing "sports that were clearly unsuitable to women". Golf was banned again by parliament under King James IV of Scotland, but golf clubs and balls were bought for him in 1502 when he was visiting Perth, and on subsequent occasions when he was in St Andrews and Edinburgh.[14]

An entry in the Town Council Minutes of Edinburgh for 19 April 1592 includes golf in a list of pursuits to be avoided on the Sabbath.[15]

The account book of lawyer Sir John Foulis of Ravelston records that he played golf at Musselburgh Links on 2 March 1672, and this has been accepted as proving that The Old Links, Musselburgh, is the oldest playing golf course in the world. There is also a story that Mary, Queen of Scots, played there in 1567.[16][17]

Instructions, golf club rules and competitions

Pub sign on the Golf Tavern on Bruntsfield Links, 2011

The earliest known instructions for playing golf have been found in the diary of Thomas Kincaid, a medical student who played on the course at Bruntsfield Links, near Edinburgh University, and at Leith Links. His notes include his views on an early handicap system. In his entry for 20 January 1687 he noted how "After dinner I went out to the Golve", and described his Golf stroke:[14]

I found that the only way of playing at the Golve is to stand as you do at fenceing with the small sword bending your legs a little and holding the muscles of your legs and back and armes exceeding bent or fixt or stiffe and not at all slackning them in the time you are bringing down the stroak (which you readily doe) ....[14]

The oldest surviving rules of golf were written in 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers, later renamed The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which played at Leith Links. Their "Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf, now preserved in the National Library of Scotland, became known as the Leith Rules and the document supports the club's claim to be the oldest golf club, though an almanac published about a century later is the first record of a rival claim that The Royal Burgess Golfing Society had been set up in 1735. The instructions in the Leith Rules formed the basis for all subsequent codes, for example requiring that "Your Tee must be upon the ground" and "You are not to change the Ball which you strike off the Tee".[14]

The 1744 competition for the Gentlemen Golfers’ Competition for the Silver Club, a trophy in the form of a silver golf club provided as sponsorship by Edinburgh Town Council, was won by surgeon John Rattray, who was required to attach to the trophy a silver ball engraved with his name, beginning a long tradition. Rattray joined the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and as a result was imprisoned in Inverness, but was saved from being hanged by the pleading of his fellow golfer Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session. Rattray was released in 1747, and won the Silver Club three times in total.[14]

The spread of golf

Early excursions

In 1603 James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England. His son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales and his courtiers played golf at Blackheath, London, from which the Royal Blackheath Golf Club traces its origins.[18] There is evidence that Scottish soldiers, expatriates and immigrants took the game to British colonies and elsewhere during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the early 1770s, the first African golf course was built on Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone, by British slave traders.[19] The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (1829)[20] and the club at Pau (1856)[21] in south western France are notable reminders of these excursions and are the oldest golf clubs outside of the British Isles and the oldest in continental Europe respectively. However, it was not until the late 19th century that Golf became more widely popular outside of its Scottish home.

The late 19th-century boom

In the 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands.[22] The railways came to St Andrews in 1852.[23] By the 1860s there were fast and regular services from London to Edinburgh. The royal enthusiasm for Scotland, the much improved transport links and the writings of Sir Walter Scott caused a boom for tourism in Scotland and a wider interest in Scottish history and culture outside of the country.[24][25][26] This period also coincided with the development of the Gutty; a golf ball made of Gutta Percha which was cheaper to mass-produce, more durable and more consistent in quality and performance than the feather-filled leather balls used previously.[27] Golf began to spread across the rest of the British Isles. In 1864 the golf course at the resort of Westward Ho! became the first new club in England since Blackheath,[28] and the following year London Scottish Golf Club was founded on Wimbledon Common. In 1880 England had 12 courses, rising to 50 in 1887 and over 1000 by 1914.[29] The game in England had progressed sufficiently by 1890 to produce its first Open Champion, John Ball. The game also spread further across the empire. By the 1880s golf clubs had been established in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Singapore followed in 1891. Courses were also established in several continental European resorts for the benefit of British visitors.

United States of America

Evidence of early golf in what is now the United States includes a 1739 record for a shipment of golf equipment to a William Wallace in Charleston, South Carolina,[30] an advertisement published in the Royal Gazette of New York City in 1779 for golf clubs and balls,[31] and the establishment of the South Carolina Golf Club in 1787 in Charleston.[32] However, as in England, it was not until the late 19th century that golf started to become firmly established.

Several clubs established in the 1880s can make claim to be the oldest extant in the country,[33][34] but what is not disputed is that as a result of two competing "National Amateur Championships" being played in 1894, delegates from the Newport Country Club, Saint Andrew's Golf Club, Yonkers, New York, The Country Club, Chicago Golf Club, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club met in New York City to form what was to become the United States Golf Association (USGA).[35] By 1910 there were 267 clubs.

During the Roaring Twenties the game expanded greatly in popularity and by 1932 there were over 1,100 golf clubs affiliated to the USGA. In 1922 Walter Hagen became the first native born American to win the British Open Championship. The expansion of the game was halted by the Great Depression and World War II, but continued in the post war years. By 1980 there were over 5,908 USGA affiliated clubs. That figure grew to over 10,600 by 2013.[36] Starting slowing in the 1920s, and growing through the 1990s, many residential golf course communities have been built.[37]


After the Meiji restoration of 1868 Japan made a concerted effort to modernise its economy and industry on western lines. Japanese came to Europe and America to establish trade links and study and acquire the latest developments in business, science and technology, and westerners came to Japan to help establish schools, factories, shipyards and banks.

In 1903 a group of British expatriates established the first golf club in Japan, at Kobe.[38] In 1913 the Tokyo Golf club at Komazawa was established for and by native Japanese who had encountered golf in the United States. In 1924 The Japan Golf Association was established by the seven clubs then in existence.[39] During the 1920s and early 30's several new courses were built, however the great depression and increasing anti-Western sentiment limited the growth of the game. By the time of the Japanese attacks against the USA and British Empire in 1941 there were 23 courses.[40] During the subsequent war most of the courses were requisitioned for military use or returned to agricultural production.[38]

In the postwar period, Japan's golf courses came under the control of the occupying forces. It was not until 1952 that courses started to be returned to Japanese control.[38] By 1956 there were 72 courses[40] and in 1957 Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono won the Canada Cup (now World Cup) in Japan, an event that is often cited as igniting the post-war golf boom.[41] Between 1960 and 1964 the number of golf courses in Japan increased from 195 to 424. By the early 1970s there were over 1,000 courses. The 1987 Resort Law that reduced protection on agricultural land and forest preserves created a further boom in course construction[40] and by 2009 there were over 2,400 courses.[42] The popularity of golf in Japan also caused many golf resorts to be created across the Pacific Rim.[43] The environmental effect of these recent golf booms is seen as a cause for concern by many.[40][43][44]


Hugh Edward Richardson introduced golf to Tibet, although he noted that the ball "tended to travel 'rather too far in the thin air'."[45]

Golf course evolution

Golf courses have not always had eighteen holes. The St Andrews Links occupy a narrow strip of land along the sea. As early as the 15th century, golfers at St Andrews established a trench through the undulating terrain, playing to holes whose locations were dictated by topography. The course that emerged featured eleven holes, laid out end to end from the clubhouse to the far end of the property. One played the holes out, turned around, and played the holes in, for a total of 22 holes. In 1764, several of the holes were deemed too short, and were therefore combined. The number was thereby reduced from 11 to nine, so that a complete round of the links comprised 18 holes. Due to the status of St Andrews as the golfing capital, all other courses followed suit and the 18 hole course remains the standard to the present day.

Equipment development

The evolution of golf can be explained by the development of the equipment used to play the game. Some of the most notable advancements in the game of golf have come from the development of the golf ball. The golf ball took on many different forms before the 1930s when the United States Golf Association (USGA) set standards for weight and size.[46] These standards were later followed by a USGA regulation stating that the initial velocity of any golf ball cannot exceed 250 feet per second. Since this time, the golf ball has continued to develop and impact the way the game is played.

Another notable factor in the evolution of golf has been the development of golf clubs. The earliest golf clubs were made of wood that was readily available in the area. Over the years, Hickory developed into the standard wood used for shafts and American Persimmon became the choice of wood for the club head due to its hardness and strength. As the golf ball developed and became more durable with the introduction of the "gutty" around 1850, the club head was also allowed to develop, and a variety of iron headed clubs entered the game. The introduction of steel shafts began in the late 1890s, but their adoption by the governing bodies of golf was slow. In the early 1970s, shaft technology shifted again with the use of graphite for its lightweight and strength characteristics. The first metal "wood" was developed in the early 1980s, and metal eventually completely replaced wood due to its strength and versatility.[47] The latest golf club technology employs the use of graphite shafts and lightweight titanium heads, which allows the club head to be made much larger than previously possible. The strength of these modern materials also allows the face of the club to be much thinner, which increases the spring-like effect of the club face on the ball, theoretically increasing the distance the ball travels. The USGA has recently limited the spring-like effect, also known as the Coefficient of Restitution (COR) to .83 and the maximum club head size to 460cc in an attempt to maintain the challenge of the game.[48]


The word golf was first mentioned in writing in 1457 on a Scottish statute on forbidden games as gouf,[49] possibly derived from the Scots word goulf (variously spelled) meaning "to strike or cuff". This word may, in turn, be derived from the Dutch word kolf, meaning "bat," or "club," and the Dutch sport of the same name. But there is an even earlier reference to the game of golf, and it is believed to have happened in 1452 when King James II banned the game because it kept his subjects from their archery practice.[50]

There is a persistent urban legend claiming that the term derives from an acronym "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden". This is a false etymology, as acronyms being used as words is a fairly modern phenomenon, making the expression a backronym.[51]

J. R. R. Tolkien, a professional philologist, nodded to the derivation from the Dutch word for club in his 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit. There he mentions (tongue-in-cheek) that the game of golf was invented when a club-wielding hobbit knocked the head off a goblin named Golfimbul, and the head sailed through the air and landed in a hole.


The history of golf is preserved and represented at several golf museums around the world, notably the British Golf Museum in the town of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland, which is the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the United States Golf Association Museum and Arnold Mongool Center for Golf History, located alongside the United States Golf Association headquarters in Far Hills, New Jersey.

The World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida also presents a history of the sport, as does the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame in Oakville, Ontario, and the American Golf Hall of Fame in Foxburg, Pennsylvania at the Foxburg Country Club.

See also


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  50. see article at About.
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