The Story of Golf. Past and Present

The Origin of Golf

Golf has been around in one form or another for a very long time. Its roots go back to the time of Julius Caesar. Although it was not the golf that is played today, it was a similar game. The Romans played by striking a feather-stuffed ball with club-shaped tree branches. 

Golf can also be traced back to the Song Dynasty in China in the years 960 to 1279. Again, the games of that time were not exactly the golf we know today. References of similar games can be found across many cultures. But the game as we know it today, has it's origin in Scotland.

On March 6, 1457, King of Scots James II forbade citizens to play soccer and golf. Supposedly, the Scots had been playing these games in the streets and churchyards instead of practicing their archery skills for the upcoming wars against England.

Here is an excerpt from 1457 Act of Parliament translated into today's vernacular:

Item, it is ordained and the decreed that the lords and barons both spiritual and temporal should organise archery displays four times in the year. And that football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped. And that a pair of targets should be made up at all parish churches and shooting should be practised each Sunday ... And concerning football and golf, we ordain that [those found playing these games] be punished by the local barons and, failing them, by the King's officers.”

What's fascinating (aside from a king condemning a sport) is that this is the first written mention of a game called golf. 

But what was this game? 

Historical records show that there were actually two forms of golf played in Scotland in the 1500s: Short Golf and Long Golf.

The former was played in the streets of the villages, where a ball was hit into a churchyard or down a street. The latter was played on large plots of land, where the balls were hit out in the open.

Although people largely ignored the ban, the game did not receive the royal seal of approval until 1502, when King James IV of Scotland became the world's first golf-playing monarch.

The same year, the signing of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland, meant the ban on golf being lifted.

After that, the popularity of the game quickly spread throughout 16th century Europe. King Charles I brought the game to England and Mary Queen of Scots (the first known female golfer) introduced the game to France when she studied there. Incidentally, the term 'caddie' derives from the name given to her French military aides, who were known as cadets.

The oldest golf courses in the world also date from this period: links courses. The term was derived from the Old English word hlinc, meaning rising ground or ridge, referring to sandy terrain along the coast. These links golf courses were located all over Scotland along the sea.


The sandy soil made the land unusable for agriculture but perfect for the game. For one thing, it drained remarkably well and kept the ground firm - ideal for a golf course. Also, back then, golf course architects had limited resources to move earth to reshape it for the course. 

A perfect example of a links course is the Old Course at St. Andrews, widely considered the oldest golf course in the world.

In fact, the first visual evidence of golf comes from a painting of St. Andrews in the 1740s. The photograph shows four golfers and their caddies.

Founded in 1754, the Old Course at St. Andrews, popularly known as the Grand Old Lady, is the oldest golf course in the world. 

It also hosted the first major professional golf tournament, the Open Championship, in 1873. Another premier golf course was at Leith, near Edinburgh.

Here the very first international golf match was hosted in 1682, when the Duke of York and George Patterson, representing Scotland, beat two English noblemen.

Many of the world's top golf courses today have adopted design elements from the landforms that occur naturally along the Scottish coast.

The Game of Golf Is Standardized

Golf during the first few centuries was mostly played in informal and very friendly games at match play in Scotland, and the links were public land. In the case of golf, it took many centuries for official rules to be formulated. 

The first step was taken In 1744, when the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (the world’s oldest golfing societies)  wrote down the first rules of the game, known as the Thirteen Articles. Over the next 100 years, those 13 rules were adopted by more than 30 clubs in the United Kingdom. 

The next major advance was made by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R &A), which issued the first consolidated rules in 1899. Back then known as the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, it was formed in 1754 by a group of 22 golfers who played there. The rules that the society adopted were almost identical to the Edinburgh Gentlemen Golfers’ rules.

Around thee same time, the United States Golf Association  (which had been founded 5 years earlier in New York City) adopted similar rules, making the two organizations the leading golf governing bodies. 

However, it would be another century before the two associations came together to formulate a single common set of rules that would apply around the world

Spreading Golf Around the World

Scottish immigrants played a crucial role in the history of golf and are responsible for exporting the game to other countries.

The oldest golf courses outside Britain are in nearby France, where the Royal Calcutta Golf Club was founded in 1829 and the Club of Pau in 1856.

By 1880, golf had spread to Ireland, many other parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, and South Africa.

Meanwhile, the game was also growing in popularity in Great Britain. By 1880, there were 10 golf courses in England, which rapidly grew to 1000 by 1914. This was largely due to the Industrial Revolution.

The creation and development of the Scottish railroad network allowed English tourists to travel by train to Scotland for golf during their holidays. This only intensified the interest in the game.


Golf in America 

There is evidence to suggest that golf was also popular in America by the 18th century.

Historical records, show that David Deas, a Leith native and slave trader, received one of the first documented shipments of golf equipment to the American colonies in 1739 - 432 balls and 96 clubs sent from Port Leith to Charlesto.  It doesn't come as  suprise that during this centuty most of the caddies were actually slaves.

And then there is the first golf newspaper advertisement, which appeared in James Rivington's Gazette in New York on April 21, 1779:

"To the GOLF PLAYERS: The Season for this pleasant and healthy Exercise now advancing, Gentlemen may be furnished with excellent CLUBS and the veritable Caledonian BALLS by enquiring at the Printer's."

Charles Blair MacDonald, who attended St. Andrews University and learned the game at St. Andrews Golf Links, is considered the father of American golf course architects. In 1893, MacDonald built the Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in the country.

Other key figures were John and Elizabeth Reed. John Reed founded St. Andrew's Club (one of the founding clubs of the USGA) in Yonkers, New York in 1888. Elizabeth Reed founded the Saegkill G.C. so that women could enjoy the game of golf. John Reed is credited with helping make golf an organized game in the United States.

The story goes that when he learned that fellow Scot Robert Lockhart was returning to Scotland on business, he asked him to bring back some golf clubs and balls. The following year, Reid and four other men formed a club and laid out a course in an apple orchard. There, the story goes, they hung their coats and a jug of good Scotch whiskey in a convenient apple tree and later became known as the "Apple Tree Gang".The club moved permanently in 1897 to an 18-hole golf course at Mount Hope in Westchester County, New York.

In 1894, the United States Golf Association was formed by St. Andrew's Club, The Country Club, Chicago Golf Club, Newport Golf Club, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club to become ambassadors for golf in the country. By 1910, it numbered 267 golf clubs.

The Four Men's Major Golf Tournaments

The game of golf officially became a sport when the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith established an annual competition in 1744. That same year, the group petitioned the Edinburgh City Council for a silver club to be awarded to the winner of a golf competition. This was the birth of professional golf.

As the game grew in popularity, more and more professional tournaments were held. The most prestigious tournaments became known as Major championships, often referred to simply as Majors.

The Majors originally consisted of two British tournaments, the Open Championship and the Amateur Championship, and two American tournaments, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. With the introduction of the Masters Tournament in 1934 and the rise of professional golf in the late 1940s and 1950s, the term "Major Championships" eventually came to be used for the Masters, the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship.

The Open Championship, often referred to as The Open or British Open, was founded in 1860. It was originally held annually at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. Later, the venue rotated between a select group of links golf courses on the coast of Great Britain. The Open Championship is always played on links golf courses. This is one of the main features that distinguishes it from the three major championships in the United States.

The PGA Championship, which was first held in 1916, was the brainchild of business magnate Rodman Wanamaker. At a luncheon at the Taplow Club in New York City on January 17, 1916, Wanamaker presented his vision of what golf could be to 35 of the top golf professionals of the time. They were so inspired that the following month, the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA of America) was founded. In addition to substantial prize money, the winner of the tournament receives a lifetime invitation to play in all future PGA championships, five year allowances for participation in the other three major tournaments, and points toward the PGA Player of the Year award.

The Masters Tournament was founded in 1934 by American golfer Bobby Jones. It was originally called the Augusta National Invitational Tournament and has since been held in the same format with four rounds of golf between Thursday and Sunday in early April. Today, it is considered the most prestigious of the majors as it is invitation only and is played each year at the private Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.

The US Open was first organized by the United States Golf Association (USGA) in 1898. This is the governing body of golf, making this tournament the defacto US national championship. It is considered the toughest major tournament and is played in very difficult conditions where accuracy off the tee is essential. The US Open has the highest average cut line and the highest average winning score of nearly 6 strokes. The fairways are often narrow and guarded by thick rough and the course is generally laid out quite long.

Golf Today

These four tournaments expanded the sport, as they grew more popular, the prizes became higher, the audience grew larger, and the equipment became more specialized. The level of play and skill also increased each year, and golfers such as Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods boosted the acclaim of the game in the recent past.

To date, only five golfers have won all four modern majors at any point in their careers, a feat often referred to as a career Grand Slam. These are Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

The players have become not only household names in the golf community, but are also internationally recognized sports superstars whose name recognition extends far beyond the sport.

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