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History Of Golf – A Beginners Guide

August 2020

Out of all modern day popular sports, golf has, without doubt, the richest history and traditions associated with it.

Whilst the exact origins of golf is a hotly debated topic, it is generally accepted that it developed during the middle ages in Holland.

However, the game only became widely popular in the late 19th century when it grew throughout Britain and then into the United States.

A Brief History of Golf

Origins of Golf

history of golf holland
An 18th century portrait of the MacDonald boys playing golf by the painter Jeremiah Davison (Image: Wikimedia)

The earliest account of a golf-like game taking place is in the Netherlands on the 26 February 1297. In Loenen aan de Vecht, a game was supposedly played that involved a leather ball being hit by a players stick into a hole several hundred yards away. The winner of course was the player who could do this in the least amount of strokes.

The game during these days must have become somewhat popular for the ‘colf’ or ‘club’ as it was known then, was banned several times over the next two hundred years. Whilst the reason for the bans is unclear, there are several mentions of it being too dangerous to play within city walls.

In 1389, the regent of the county Holland designated a specific field outside the city of Haarlem for the use of ‘colf’. The field was given the name ‘De Baen’ (the course).

In 1597, Willem Barentsz and his crew played ‘colf’ during their visit to Nova Zembla. This visit was recorded by Gerrit de Veer in his diary in which he wrote “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”.

In December of 1650, settlers of Fort Orange near present day Albany, played the first ever round of ‘colf’ in America. According to scholars, the Dutch settlers played the game year-round, even on the ice during winter.

Golf in Scotland

history of golf scotland
Scotland’s 1903 International Golf Team (Image: Wikimedia)

While the origins are foggy and unclear, the modern day game is widely accepted to have originated in Scotland. One spokesperson from the famous course at St. Andrews once 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”.

The name of golf is generally thought to stem from the earlier Dutch version called ‘colf’ or ‘kolf’, a word for stick, bat or club.

The very first mention of the sport being played in Scotland is in 1457 as part of an Act of Scottish Parliament. King James decreed an edict that prohibited people from playing ‘gowf’ or futball as it distracted the people from their archery practise.

Bans were once again introduced in both 1471 and 1491 with the sport being described as ‘unprofitable’.

In fact, Mary, Queen of Scots accused her enemies of playing golf after her husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered in 1567.

The oldest golf course in the world is believed to be the lies course at Musselburgh. The account book of lawyer Sir John Foulis tells us that he played golf at Musselburgh Links during his visit to the town on the 2nd of March, 1672. It is also rumoured that Mary herself played a round there.

The Rules of Golf

history of golf rules
Four golfers at the Crescent City Golf Tournament in 1938 (Image: Wikimedia)

Medical student and keen golfer, Thomas Kincaid, is the first person to have ever taken notes on some of the rules of golf. Whilst not at all comprehensive, Thomas, in his notebook, described his thoughts on the handicap system and how to hit the ball to best advantage.

He wrote “After dinner I went out to the Golve, I found that the only way of playing at the Golve is to stand as you do at fencing 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)”.

The actual oldest surviving records of the rules of golf being written down was in 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers. The club, which was later renamed to The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, had a series of articles published on the subject of laws in golf that have now been preserved at the National Library of Scotland.

These rules became known as the Leith Rules and the club used them to support there claim of being the oldest golf club in the world. Whilst this is a somewhat debated subject, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers was certainly one of the earliest.

Interestingly, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers hosted an annual tournament in 1744 known as the ‘Silver Club’. This title was first won by the surgeon John Rattray who was later imprisoned as a result of joining the Jacobite Rising of 1745. However, Mr Rattray pleaded to his fellow golfer, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session, who acquired his release. Mr Rattray went on to win the cup several more times.

The Dissemination of Golf

history of golf origins

Whilst the exact spread of golf is unclear, it is know that when James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England in 1603, his son, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, played golf at blackheath in London.

Scholars have also found evidence to support the fact that Scottish soldiers during the 18th and early 19th century took the game of golf to the British colonies overseas. Examples include the golf club built on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone by slavers in the late 1770s, and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club built in 1829.

The oldest club in continental Europe is believed to be the club at Pau in south western France. Whist these clubs existed, it is generally accepted that golf as we know it today, did not become popular outside of Scotland until the Victorian times.

During the Victorian times Scotland and England became far more well connected which allowed the sport to trickle down through Britain. Albert and Victoria built their majestic home at Balmoral and the railways came to St. Andrews. In 1860, there was a direct line from London to Edinburgh and the positive descriptions of Scotland in Sir Walter Scott’s writings caused a tourist boom for the country.

Whilst all these things had a major effect on how many people came to play golf, the major element to popularise the game was the golf ball. Up until this period, golf balls had been made from natural feather and wrapped in leather, which was expensive. However, the tourist boom in Scotland coincided with the introduction of Gutta Percha – a much cheaper compound that was easily mass-produced.

From this point on golf began to spread through Britain at a fast rate. Wimbledon, Westward Ho and the Scottish London Golf Club all developed within years of each other and places as far abroad as New Zealand and Singapore had golf clubs by the end of the century. By 1890, England had already produced its first Open champion, John Ball.

Golf in America

history of golf america

Like England, America experienced what can only be described as a golfing boom during the late 19th century.

The earliest known record of modern-day golf in America comes from a 1739 record for a shipment of golf equipment to a William Wallace in Charleston, South Carolina. After this, the next mention comes in 1779 in the form of a gazette advert in New York in which golf clubs and balls are featured.

There are several golf courses in America that claim to be the oldest such as the South Carolina Golf Club and the Newport Country Club. In fact, during 1894 there were several competing “National Amateur Championships” which led to delegates from the oldest clubs in America coming together and forming the United States Golf Association (USGA).

During the early part of the 20th century, golf playing increased in America exponentially. In 1910 there were 267 official clubs and by 1932 there were over a 1,000. Walter Hagen, in 1922, became the first American-born golfer to win the British Open Championships. Only World War II and the Great Depression slowed golf’s relentless march. Still, by the 1980s there were over 5,000 golf clubs throughout the U.S and in todays times we have over 15,000.

Worldwide there is said to be over 35,000 golf courses with 45% of these being in America. Whilst America tops these figures, Scotland will always be considered the birth place of modern-day golf and many people still travel great distances to play on the old courses that dot the tiny country.

This article is part of our Golf for Beginner series.

You may also like: Guide to Golf Etiquette, Golf Dress Codes, Important Golf Terms

About the author 

Paul Bradshaw

Paul hit his first golf shot at the age of 5, and from that point on was immediately hooked. He went on to become one of the leading amateurs in South Africa, securing a full golf scholarship with the University of Arkansas Razorbacks. Turning professional in 2004, Paul played extensively on the Sunshine Tour and co-sanctioned European Tour events. Paul is our lead editor at Golf Assessor.

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