Golf is truly one of the great sports of the world, being played in almost every country to a greater or lesser extent, and being enthusiastically followed by millions more on television who have never themselves teed off or sunk a putt, but still can appreciate and love the game from the comfort of their armchair (feeling especially smug when the weather is not at its finest for the players).
But where did it all begin? And how did the simple idea of hitting a small ball into a hole with a misshapen stick capture such a following?
A variety of reasons form the answer to the second question, not least among them is that golf is surprisingly addictive. And this fact links nicely to the first question, because, in the very early days of the game, it was against the law!
We are in Scotland, in the mid 1450’s, and there is a fear of an imminent English invasion. So naturally, defenses are being put in place, and archery practice is more serious than usual. That is what the King of Scotland might have been expecting, at least. But no, there was no time for archery amongst the nobles and their soldiers, they were far too busy playing golf, or golfe, as it was then known.
To prevent the loss of his crown, and head, King James II and his parliament passed a decree to ban the game in 1457, and despite the protests of many, his successors King James III and James IV, both reaffirmed this law, in 1470 and 1491 respectively.
Times were to change however, or the story of golf might well have ended there and then, as a peace treaty signed between England and Scotland in 1502 coincided with James IV marriage to Henry VII of England’s, daughter Margaret.
The ban was now immediately lifted, and King James IV himself promptly had a set of clubs made for him in the Scottish town of Perth.
History will tell you this, what it will not tell you is what we can only speculate on: having himself been bitten by the golf bug, did James IV allow the game because of the threat of war disappearing, or did he make sure the threat of war disappeared because he wanted to play some golf?
We will never know. The treaty failed and he died in battle in 1513, but in those intervening years, at least, he was happy escaping from the affairs of state on the golf course.
So golf began in Scotland then? Well, yes and no. Golf as we know it did, and Scotland’s claims to be the `home of golf’ is fair, because although they developed it from other games played with stick and ball elsewhere, it was the Scots that introduced that mysterious thing unique to golf; the hole.
The Chinese claim it was their idea to originally play a game hitting a ball with a stick, as early as 300BC, but good evidence is lacking. The Romans have a better claim, as a street game using a ball made of leather and filled with feathers was played by boys in their Ancient Empire.
But for clues let’s look at the word `golf,’ or `golfe’ as it was. Across the North Sea from Britain lies Holland and Belgium, and the Flemish in what is now Belgium played a version of hockey as early as 1353 known as `chole.’ Similarly, in Holland itself a game known as `Het Kolven’ was played in the cold Dutch winter on frozen canals and lakes, with the wooden clubs either known as `kolb’ or `kolf.’ It seems more than likely that traders from Holland introduced this game into Scotland; golf began in Fife, on the grassy sand dunes of the scotch east coast remember, and though not remaining in its original form, it caught on amongst the locals as a variant.
And catch on it did, the next stage of this as the game began soon spreading out from Scotland. In 1513, the same year as James IV died, it was already popular in England, and we know this because it was mentioned in a letter from Queen Catherine (Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII) to Cardinal Wolsey. These three notables would be later involved in the greater drama of divorce and the Protestant Reformation, but back to the golf, and that most famous of all golfing venues - St. Andrews.
The Archbishop of St. Andrews issued a decree allowing the public to play in this place in 1553, but evidence suggests that some already had been a year earlier. The church was also sometimes ignored when it came to the question of Sunday, and limiting the public’s enthusiasm for golf on this holy day, causing the civil authorities in Edinburgh to back up the church by banning all Sunday golfing at the course of Leith in 1592.
Though not all churchmen disliked golf, though he may not have played on a Sunday, it is reputed that the famous Scottish reformer John Knox was the first to yell `fore!’ when his errant ball was heading towards a group of other players.
But golfers again were determined not to be stopped by something as trivial as their laws, whether secular or clerical, and in 1618 their right to play was established in both England and Scotland by Royal command. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, this was the same year as the feathery ball was introduced and began to replace those made of wood.
This expensive to buy innovation was made from goose feathers stuffed into a leather from cowhide or horsehide. The mixture was soaked, then dried, which simultaneously caused the feathers to expand and the leather to shrink, which made for a hard ball. These would rule until 1848 when the Gutta Percha golf ball (nicknamed the Guttie) would be invented by Reverend Paterson of St. Andrews from the rubbery sap of the tropical Gutta tree. These balls were cheaper and also repairable by heating and remolding them, though they did not have the distance of a handcrafted feathery ball.
The clubs were made of wood, with some players taking time to craft their own, though many chose not too, for lack of skill. This led to an industry of specialists catering to the needs of the noble (and wealthy) golfers.
Shafts were usually made from ash, with hazel an alternative. Club heads needed to be tough rather than flexible, so Beech and Holly were a favorite choice. These were connected to the shaft with a splint and bound tightly with leather. As well made as they were, the clubs did not last for long, and it is said that many players from the early centuries of the game broke two clubs per round. These woods, as well as apple would be favored until the early 19th century, when hickory (for shafts) and persimmon (for heads) were imported from North America.
So golf had Royalty on side again, and in 1641, King Charles I was said to be playing a round of golf here when he was told of a Catholic uprising in Ireland. He decided to continue playing, but perhaps he should have shown more concern for the lives of Protestants, as this rebellion was to prove to be the start of the English civil war, which he lost, and was subsequently executed by the Parliamentarians.
As well as that early claim to fame, Leith, the best course of the time, also held the first known international match. Here two players for Scotland, one of them the then Duke of York, who had his clubs carried by one Andrew Dickson who therefore became the first recorded caddy in history, had a home win against two visiting English noblemen in 1682.
So it should not come as a surprise that Leith was the scene of the founding of the first ever golf club in 1744, being called The Gentlemen Golfers of Leith. On April 2nd of the same year their first tournament began, to be held annually. The prize of a silver cup was won by a player named John Rattray who thus became the world’s first champion golfer.
This was 10 years before the Society of St. Andrews Golfers was formed in 1754, but for some reason Leith surrendered its position as the preeminent place to play golf to its new rival. This is ironic because the first competition held at St. Andrews was a copy of the Leith idea, also being contested for a silver cup and played under the same rules on the now famous Old Course. The Leith club would still be the first to have a clubhouse; this being built in 1768, but later changed their name to The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, and would eventually move home to the town of Musselburgh in 1836.
St. Andrews now took the helm, introducing the idea of stroke play in 1759 and reducing the course to 18 holes in 1764, which was to become the standard number.
As things became more organized and rules established golf spread its wings further afield, and more serious players formed clubs around Scotland and then the world over the next century. The first outside of Scotland was, obviously enough in England, at Blackheath in 1766, where golf already had over 150 years of history.
Golf had already crossed the Atlantic with early British settlers, and the earliest yet found reference to the game in colonial America is from Albany, New York, concerning the banning of the game from being played in the town’s streets in 1659. But it was further south, in Charleston, South Carolina where the first golf club is claimed for North America in 1786. Though there is some dispute as to what exactly stipulates a club. The competing claim to be the first on this continent is Royal Montreal in 1873. And three more all claim to be the first south of the Canadian border: Oakhurst in 1884, Foxberg in 1887, and St. Andrews of New York in 1888.
Elsewhere around the world a selection of golf clubs with the oldest of histories are not surprisingly in countries within the British Empire. As well as the Canadians mentioned above, some more are: Bangalore (India) in 1820, with Calcutta and Bombay also in India following in 1829 and 1842, and Royal Hong Kong in 1889. Golf reached down to the southern hemisphere as well with Cape Town (South Africa) being formed in 1885 and Adelaide, Australia in 1870.
Despite this, the center was still Scotland, and now born here was the idea of a national championship, with the forerunner of The British Open played at Prestwick Golf Club in the year 1860, and being won by Willie Park. But soon the name Tom Morris was set to dominate: First `Old’ Tom Morris winning in 1862, 1864 and 1867, then his son `Young’ Tom Morris who would do even better by winning four straight championships from 1869 - 1872. He was also the first ever player (in recorded games anyway) to hit a hole-in-one, this happened at the Open Championship in 1868.
Also from Scotland in the 1800’s came the astonishing idea that women might be able to play golf. They would not be the first, because Mary, Queen of Scots had been enthusiastic over the game and played from 1567 onwards, also introducing the game to mainland Europe. But she was a Queen after all, so couldn’t really be told she wasn’t allowed on the course.
Women had started playing against one another competitively around 1810 in Musselburgh, just outside of Edinburgh (where the original Leith club would move to 26 years later) but had been marginalized. In 1832 North Berwick Golf Club was founded, this was the first to allow ladies to play a fuller part in the everyday affairs of the club, though the gentlemen’s generosity did not extend to allowing the ladies entrance into tournaments.
It was at St. Andrews in 1895, by now long having the famous `Royal and Ancient’ title conferred upon it (from British King William IV in 1834) that the first ever women’s golf club came into being, to the mortification of some elderly members no doubt. In the U.S.A too, females were hitting balls, this was the same year that the U.S. Open and the U.S. Ladies Amateur Open were first held. Also one year after the founding of the United States Golf Association, the body that would regulate golf in the U.S. and Mexico, these two countries the only ones not under the control of the R&A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews).
At the turn of the twentieth century, golf was becoming a richer sport, rather than a sport for the rich.
There was more than a thousand golf clubs in the United States alone, and both sponsorship and prize money for competitions were on the up. The necessary golf equipment and clothing was also becoming increasingly affordable to buy.
Let’s now have a look at a timeline with a selection of information from golf’s glorious past as the last century began.
It’s fitting to leave our timeline here, with this astonishing acheivement by Tiger Woods, because he is the one that is now taking golf on to a new level of public awareness and inspiring a new generation of boys and girls around the world to take up the challenge of the wind, the course, and the ball.
Gordon Cherwoniak is a successful freelance writer providing tips and advice for consumers purchasing everything from personalized golf gifts, golf clubs to the popular Big Bertha Diablo Driver. His numerous articles offer money saving tips and valuable insight on a range of topics.