How Golf Became One of The Best Paying Sports

Have you ever wondered how much golfers make? Well in 2014, Tiger Woods became the first athlete to break the "billion-dollar barrier." The quick answer is a lot! Seriously, golfers are among the highest-paid athletes in sports.

PGA Tour Championship data shows that average earnings for the 2020/2021 season were $1,485,055 per player, and for the 2021/2022 season, total prize money was a staggering $400 million. And that's before endorsement deals, which often exceed the sums earned on the golf course.

No wonder those at the very top are easily able to drive the fanciest cars, live in the biggest houses, and some even have private jets. But how did the sport become so lucrative?

That's the question we want to answer today. So let us start at the very beginning.

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 informal 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, the sports was not yet established and there were limited resources to move earth to reshape it for the course. So the less work that needed to be done the better.

The 1750s to 1850s: The Creation of Golf Clubs and Courses

Now that the game was widely accepted and popular, it needed a uniform set of rules. The first rules of the game, known as the Thirteen Articles, were drawn up at Muirfield in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, who later renamed themselves the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. These rules prevailed after they were adopted 10 years later by the Society of St. Andrews Golfers.

Founded in 1754, The Old Course at St. Andrews, popularly known as the Grand Old Lady, is considered the oldest golf course in the world. This society officially changed its name to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1834 with the approval of King Willian IV and assumed responsibility for the development and organization of golf tournaments in England.

In addition to these two, other golf clubs founded in Scotland during this period included the Edinburgh Burgess Golfing Society (1773), Musselburgh (1774), Bruntsfield Links Golf Club (1787) and the Glasgow Club (1787). The first golf club formed outside of Scotland was the Honourable Company of Golfers was founded at Blackheath in 1787.

By the early 1850s, golf was still largely restricted to the 35 clubs that had been formed in the past century. All were located within the United Kingdom. Up to that point, golf was mostly played in informal and friendly match-play games. There was practically no distinction between amateurs and professionals, and games were set up primarily on bets made between players and spectators.

But that was about to change.

The 1850s to 1900: Modern Golf Takes its Form

The second half of the 19th century is considered by many to be the time when the truly modern game started to take shape. The changes triggered mainly by several important factors.

Two of the most significant ones are:

  • The introduction of professional tournaments
  • The export of the game to other countries

The First Ever Major Championship

On October 17, 1860, eight Scottish professional golfers met at Prestwick Golf Club to compete in the first Open Championship. The eight professionals played three rounds on Prestwick's 12-hole course. The following year, the field was opened to both professionals and amateurs, hence the name "The Open Championship."

*This was the first known organized tournament in which professionals and amateurs played side by side for the same prize. However, for the first three years, there was no prize money. The reward was the Challenge Belt, which the winner was allowed to keep until the next Open Championship.

*In 1863, the first prize fund was introduced - £10 divided equally among the eight professionals. The first prize incentive was first awarded the next year, when Old Tom Morris earned £6 ($402 today) with his victory, 40% of the total purse of £15. Although the initial pot may seem puny, this was one of the most significant developments in the history of golf. For the first time, there was a monetary incentive to play golf. This tradition continues today, with prize money growing year after year. In 2021, a new record was set: Colin Morikawa became the first British Open player to go home with more than $2 million. But we may be jumping ahead of ourselves. Let us fill in the time gap a bit on how first-place prize money has grown 5000%.

The prize fund fluctuated considerably in the 1870s and 1880s, rarely exceeding £50. In the 1890s, however, there was a permanent increase, and from 1893 onwards exactly £100 was on offer for seven successive Opens.

When Tommy Armor won at Carnoustie in 1931, the total prize fund was £500 for the first time, with £100 going to the champion golfer. This was to be the case for all Opens up to and including the 1939 Championship. Through 1940 t0 1945 there was no championship due to World War  II.

The first Open after the War II offered a prize fund of £1,000, twice as much as had been paid out in the previous championship. But that was still a far cry from the megabuck pots we see today. The exponential acceleration of prize money was not to come until the 1960s, when the game started to take shape into what we know today. More on that later, but for now. Let us move on to the second point.

Golf Goes International

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. The game had finally gone international. But what of the US?

While golf flourished in Great Britain in the mid-1800s, it had barely taken off in the United States. The nation was busy rebuilding itself after the Civil War. When Americans did engage in sports, it was primarily horse racing, boxing, and in the latter half of the century, baseball. In fact, Golf caught on in Canada before it did in the United States. The first documented golf club in Canada was the Royal Montreal Golf Club, founded in November 1873.

It would be another fifteen years before the first golf course was built in the United States. In February 1888, a man named John Reid, an immigrated Scotsman, after ordering a set of golf clubs back at St. Andrews, gathered a small group of friends around him and laid out three holes in a cow pasture in Yonkers, New York, the first recorded golf course in the United States.

After playing through the summer, the group formed the St. Andrews Club of Yonkers, the first golf club in America, in November of the same year. In 1889, a group of Englishmen founded the Middlesboro Club in Kentucky, and by 1894, nine more golf courses had been established in the United States, with Chicago being the first site of a golf course on the East Coast. 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.

By the late 1800s, golf had increased in popularity in the United States that many players were calling for an organizing body. In December 1894, delegates from golf clubs in Yonkers, Brookline (Massachusetts), Newport (Rhode Island), Southampton (New York), and Chicago met to form the Amateur Golf Association of the United States, which later became the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), with Theodore Havemeyer (of the Newport Club) as its first president. Within a year, the association organized the first national Open and Amateur championships.

The First Golf Tournaments in The US

The first US Open was first held in 1898 by the United States Golf Association (USGA). The first prize was $150 ($5,406 today), slightly more than the British Open that same year.

At a luncheon at the Taplow Club in New York City on January 17, 1916, business magnate Rodman Wanamaker his vision of what golf could be to 35 golf professionals and enthusiasts. The following month, the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA of America) was founded. That same year, they held the first PGA Championship was held, and Wanamaker offered to donate money for a trophy and prize fund.

How big was the first PGA prize fund? More than three times the prize money of the 1916 U.S. Open, which was $900. The 1916 PGA Championship had a purse of a whopping $3,000 ($82,340 today).

And that was very high for the time. Even more, each of the 32 golfers in the inaugural PGA Championship was paid. Up to that point, in most golf tournaments of the time, only the top-placed players were paid. The 1916 PGA winner was Jim Barnes, and Barnes received $500 in prize money.

This marked another important milestone for golf as a tournament was sponsored by a wealthy benefactor, setting the foundation for today's partnerships between tournaments and corporations.

Another major U.S. tournament, the Masters, was founded in 1934 by American golfer Bobby Jones. Originally called the Augusta National Invitational Tournament, it is held at the private Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The total prize money for the inaugural tournament was $5,000, and the winner's share was $1,500 ($41,170 today).

The 1960s to Date: Prize Funds Grow Exponentially

Substantial prize money was introduced in the 1960s and 80s with the advent of golfing greats such as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus. They were dubbed "The Big Three" of golf in the 1960s and are credited for popularizing and commercializing the sport around the world.

The professional game continued to spread in Asia and Africa, as tournaments grew larger, spectator numbers increased, and equipment became more specialized. The level of play and skill increased year by year. For a game not previously known for making stars, the top golfers became household names. With the emergence of live broadcasts of sporting events, the popularity of golf also increased.

This was the "golden age" of golf and with it the potential for gigantic purses and revenues for golf organizations. The only problem was that golf is a sport that spans hundreds of acres of varied terrain and takes place in a different location every week, making the sport enormously expensive to televise.

The solution was to have someone else pay for the televising of the sport, as well as all the expenses associated with it, including donations to charities. Who is that someone else? Corporate sponsors!

These are companies that pay for the right to be title sponsors of an event or "marketing partners" of the Tour. Since then, all sorts of brands have sponsored the sport, as well as individual golfers.

From luxury watchmaker Rolex (currently the game's top sponsor) to global automaker BMW, golf equipment suppliers Callaway and Titleist, to almost every major bank and, more recently, even gambling companies, the list of sponsors has grown ever since.

By 1977, the total prize money for the British Open reached £100,000. The Masters was paying the winner $20,000 through the 1960s, and by 1980 that amount had doubled to $55,000.

With the next generation of golfers, such as Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, the game's popularity was boosted even more in the 1990s and 2000s.

By the time Greg Norman won his second Open at Royal St. George's in 1993, the championship prize money had a £1 million. By the early 21st century, the Masters winner was already taking home $1,000,000.

And then there's Tiger Woods, who has captivated the golf world ever since he won the Masters in his first major tournament as a professional in 1997. As mentioned in the introduction, Woods became the first athlete to reach a billion dollars in his career earnings.


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