According to the Collins Dictionary, “golf is a game in which you use long sticks called clubs to hit a small, hard ball into holes that are spread out over a large area of grassy land,” To be honest, it sounds easy enough and a lot of fun.
We know otherwise, though.
Peruse the internet, and you’ll find there are stacks of golfing articles on workouts, the best courses, and endless interview snippets with the pros. But after doing some careful research, I was surprised to find minimal information on the history of golf.
Being a history buff myself, I found it quite perplexing that we actually know very little about a game we love so much. So I’ve set out to change that and provide you, the reader, with a comprehensive history lesson on everything golf.
Let’s get started.
A Brief Introduction to Golf
When you take a look at the definition of golf, there are several variations. The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defines golf as “a game played outside on the grass, in which each player tries to hit a small ball into a series of nine or 18 small holes, using a long, thin stick.” That sounds about right.
Where the game of golf was established turns out to be quite tricky, and the origins of the game are even tougher to document. There is some evidence suggesting the game of golf was first conceived in the Netherlands before being played in Scotland.
In the modern era, golf seemed to come out of nowhere and burst onto the sporting stage, gaining popularity through players such as Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods in later years.
Not a lot is verified regarding the early golf courses; however, we know that links and seaside courses were the venue of choice in Scotland. Links courses would’ve been perfect back in the day because they offer tight cut grass, unlimited natural hazards, and required very little maintenance.
It wasn’t until much later on that we started playing on resort-style courses developed from moorland and parks. Fast-forward to today, and you can watch the pros teeing it up on beautifully manicured fairways and putting on greens that look like glass; they’re so smooth.
But although golf offers the chance to get out in the fresh air, exercise, and enjoy time with friends, it’s not for everyone. As we all know, golf can be incredibly frustrating, expensive, and can take years to hone your skills.
The Origins of Golf
One of the most heated debates among golf historians is the game’s origins. However, it’s commonly agreed upon that the game can be dated back to ancient Rome and the sport of Paganica.
Paganica required players to hit a small leather ball that was filled with feathers using a crooked stick made from wood. Historians believe that as the Romans increasingly dominated Europe, the game gradually gained exposure in other countries sometime in the 1st century before morphing into the game we know today.
Another belief is the origins of the game can be traced to China as far back as the Ming Dynasty, which ruled from 1368 to 1644. Here the game was cited as “a sport where you walk and strike a small ball with a stick; ” as you can see, not a lot has changed. The game is then thought to have spread to parts of Europe via the silk road in the middle ages.
Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, there is limited documentation on both these theories, leaving the game’s origins up in the air and still requiring deeper research and investigation.
The French also played a similar game to modern-day golf called “chambot,” which historians believe may have been associated with hurling, a sport played in Ireland, or even the Scottish game of “Shinty.” Chambot was exported throughout the low countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, before making its way to England, where the game was referred to as “pall-mall.”
In 1819 William Ousley, an English traveler, asserted that the game of golf could find its origins in Persia, where they played a sport called “chaugàn,” the progenitor of what we know as Polo.
In subsequent years, historians believed the game may also derive from another French sport called “chicane.” The rules and definitions were similar to golf and required players to hit a ball to the steps of a local church or garden in the least amount of strikes. You can also find references to Chicane in the novels authored by Charles Deuilin, where it was dubbed Chloe.
The dutch also played a game called Kolf. Van Hengel, a golf historian from the Netherlands, considers “kolf” to be an even earlier interpretation of the game. Kolf can be traced back to 1297, when the villagers of Loenen played the sport to celebrate the capture of the Count of Holland. But again, documentation is limited at best, leading many historians to dispute Van Hengel’s claim.
As best as historians can tell, golf as we know it probably came into existence sometime around the 1500s and may have been devised in a similar manner to domesticated sports like soccer or football. For example, early iterations of soccer saw the size of the pitch drastically reduced, which placed more emphasis on skill rather than physical prowess.
Norbert Elias, a sociologist from Germany, views golf’s existence as the result of “natural process” in which civilizations evolve and create new games and sports along the way.
Earliest Golfing Associations
One anecdote passed down through the generations is the founding of the historic Blackheath Golf Club, thought to have been established in 1608 by James I. Evidence suggests that King James undoubtedly played golf in the outskirts surrounding Blackheath. Still, it’s questionable whether a designated golfing organization actually existed.
Author of the Chronicle of Blackheath Golfers, W.E. Hughes, dates the founding of Blackheath as 1787, one hundred and seventy-nine years later than initially thought.
The oldest known golf club with indisputable documentation is the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. A group of gentlemen persuaded the local council to offer a “silver club” for a tournament in Leith annually. The world-renowned Muirfield, which has held several British Opens, is now the Honorable Club’s modern-day base.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, or the R&A, as most of us know it, was founded by a group of twenty-two golfers in 1754. After establishing the association, the men devised rules and regulations strikingly similar to the Edinburgh Golf Club.
The R&A and The Edinburgh Golf Club both played significant roles in the expansion of the game throughout Scotland. The R&A later took control of major tournaments and, in 1919, was regarded as the National Governing Body for golf in Britain and the majority of the Commonwealth.
In 1779 an advertisement was published in a New York magazine that was obviously targeted towards golfers. The ad read, ” TO GOLFERS: The Season for this agreeable and wholesome activity is soon advancing. Gentlemen may be equipped with exceptional clubs and balls by enquiring with the printer.”
In 1793 the Almanac of South Carolina and Georgia ran an advertisement stating that “a golf club has been founded.” The Charleston City Gazette also declared that in 1788 the delightful and refined game of Kolf was here.” However, several historians believe that the later ad could be referring to the game of kolf mentioned earlier and not the modern-day version of golf.
Golf in the United States
When it comes to the founding of golf in America, one man stands as its architect, a trailblazer named John Reid. In 1888 he founded the St Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, NY. Subsequently, Reid is now recognized as golf’s founding father in the U.S.
A fascinating story that came about after Reid learned his best friend and fellow countryman was heading back to Scotland on business. Reid asked his friend to return with golf clubs and some balls. In 1888 after his friend returned, Reid and another man John Upham tested the equipment on a three-hole course they had designed.
Later that fall, a group of gentlemen founded a club and moved from their three-hole course to one situated on an apple farm. Stories suggest they hung their jackets and whiskey on the branches of an apple tree, which is where their name “apple tree gang” arises. The men made one final move to Mount Hope, NY, where the club still exists today.
The Rhode Island Course was also founded in 1890, followed by the famous Shinnecock Hils in 1891. The Chicago Golf Club was also established in 1889 in Wheaton, a small spot in Illinois. A fun fact is the first recorded matchplay event took place in 1894 when the gentlemen from Shinnecock took on the men of the Tuxedo Golf Club.
In 1894 the Newport Golf Club hosted the first invitational, and later in the same year, the St Andrews Golf Club in N.Y. did likewise. Controversy followed as the events were billed as Championships although they were invitation only. Following the dispute, the United States Golf Association [USGA] was established in 1894.
The organization planned to organize top-tier events for the best amateur golfers in the nation. The U.S. Amateur and The Open Championships soon came to fruition. Inaugural board members included two men from each of the following clubs; St Andrews, Shinnecock Hills, The Chicago Golf Club, and Newport.
Well before clubs had been founded in the US, British merchants and emissaries took the game of golf with them internationally. In 1829 the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in India was founded, and less than 12 years later, the Bombay Golf Club was also established.
In 1890 the first golf club popped up in Thailand. The Royal Bangkok Golf Club remarkably used a 1000-year-old temple as its base. Not too far away, the Chinese also saw their first introduction to golf with the founding of the Shanghai Golf Club in 1896.
Japan, a nation of golf fanatics and home to the second most golf courses globally had its first course established in Kobe. The Tokyo Golf Club followed a few years later, in 1914. After the Second World War, the game in Japan was booming. However, golf became too expensive due to the lack of land and was only played by the wealthy.
In my native Australia, my home city of Adelaide established the first club in 1870, known as the Royal Adelaide Golf Club. A fun fact is that the club consistently features in the top 100 courses globally.
Golf was also played in Melbourne a few years earlier, in 1847, but was suspended because most men prioritized the Gold Rush over golf; I can’t blame them. In nearby New Zealand, The Christchurch Golf Club was founded in 1873
The South Africans were introduced to golf quite early, founding a club in Natal in 1884 called Maritzburg Golf Club. The Royal Cape Golf Club was established the following year in 1885 and is recognized as South Africa’s home of golf.
France lays claim to having the first golf course established in Europe when in 1856, a course was developed in Pau. The members of the club were Scots who resided at the base of the Pyrenees. In 1913 the Count of Gallifet was the first Frenchman to become a member when the club accepted his application.
In 1888 the celebrated and scenic Biarritz Golf club was born and was quickly followed by Cannes Golf Club two years later in 1891. The club was established by a member of the Russian Royal Family and the King of Cannes. In 1912 the French Golf Association was officially formed.
The German’s first foray into golf was their exposure to affluent British travelers who played the game at posh Spas and Resorts dotted throughout the country. Germany’s first club, The Berlin Golf Club, was founded in 1895 and was managed by the Association of Anglo-Saxons. In Hamburg, in 1907, the German Golf Federation was founded.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle designed neighboring Switzerland’s first golf course in 1895. Its thought that Sir Doyle was frequently aggravated because the cows were continually chewing on the flag pins.
Competition and Tournament Play
Great Britain and the United States Of America were the first two nations to compete against one another officially in 1922. The amateur competition was called the Walker Cup and is still played today. The Ryder Cup was first played in 1927 and is the professional version of the Walker Cup. The Curtis Cup, the women’s team event, was established in 1932.
The U.S. team proved to be dominant in the early years of the Ryder Cup, consistently outplaying the British team. However, in 1979 the governing bodies decided to change the format and, for the first time, allowed the British team to include members from Europe. The format change was a major success. Since the change in 1979, both teams have been pretty evenly split, with the U.S. team winning on six occasions and the European Team four times, with one tie in between.
With the advent of jet technology, global tours became the norm, opening play in the U.S. to international players who were previously isolated in their home countries or region. Players like Greg Norman from Australia, Gary Player of South Africa, and Seve Ballesteros of Spain were all making names for themselves on the PGA Tour, which was regarded as the pinnacle of golfing competition.
In 1971, The European PGA Tour was launched and since then has grown to become a force in the world of golf. The best players compete week in week out with millions of dollars up for grabs. Golf is now an international game, with major and minor tours on nearly every continent; the game is in a good place and looks set to see continued growth.
Golf was first included in the 1990 Paris Olympics, with the men competing over 36 holes while the ladies went for gold over just nine holes. In 1904 at the St Louis Olympics, the women’s event was dropped with a new men’s team event replacing it. However, that was also short-lived and was subsequently dropped for the next Olympics.
It wasn’t until the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro that golf was reinstated to the roster with a traditional stroke play event held over 72 holes.
The Seniors Tour, or the Champions Tour as it’s now known, was first established in the early to mid-80s. With age eligibility of over 50, the tour aimed to give players of past fame the opportunity for an extended career. The tour proved to be incredibly popular with the likes of the Golden Bear, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Gary Player once again competing against each other.
Crowds flocked to see their favorite players from the past and were amazed at just how high the level of play was. Since then, the Champions Tour has gone from strength to strength, with players regularly competing for millions of dollars each season.
As early as the 1920s, women were competing in golf tournaments, primarily in the United States and Britain. Players like Glenna Collet and Joyce Wethered were trailblazers and led the way for the other women to play what was, up until then, a male-dominated sport.
In 1944 the WPGA, or the Women’s Professional Golf Association, was officially launched, with top-tier players quickly emerging. Players such as Louise Sluggs, Patty Berg, and the legendary Mildred Zaharias all joined the tour; however, the tour disbanded in 1949.
In 1950 many of the same players mentioned above got together to form what we now call the Ladies Professional Golf Association or the LPGA. In the early days, prize money was so limited that the ladies undertook many of the procedural and maintenance tasks themselves. But with perseverance, sponsors stepped forward, and soon the ladies were competing for thousands of dollars.
In the 1980s and 90s, the LPGA saw continued growth on the backs of star players like Julie Inkster and the Brit, Laura Davies. Instead of playing for thousands in prize money as their predecessors had, players were teeing it up with the chance of winning millions each season.
Fast forward to the 2000s when the game saw three of the most dominant female players of all time. The Australian Karrie Webb, along with Sweden’s Annika Sorenstron and the South Korean, Pak Se Ri, took the game to a new level. With it, millions of young girls worldwide now have the dream of becoming professional golfers.