Like most sports played around the world, golf has roots that reach back to ancient times. Although other sports, such as baseball and soccer, can be traced back to the simplest games played with a stick and/or a ball, their most recognizable form as the sports people play today were only really developed within the past 200 years.
Golf is different in that its modern origins date back as far as the 1400s, when the sport truly began to be organized and played officially throughout the U.K. Due to its wide appeal to people from all walks of life, as well as advancements in equipment and golf training methods, golf has grown to become one of the most unique and cherished sports on Earth.
What makes golf the sport it is today? How did it go from being a game played by a small group of individuals in Scotland and England to expanding into one that is a worldwide treasure played by professionals and children alike? Where did it come from, who played it, and what did it take to open the game up for everyone?
Continue reading to learn more about the origins of golf, how it was developed and refined through the years, and what happened to turn the original sport we love into the modern version we play today.
The Origins of Golf
In its early forms, the game of golf vaguely resembled the sport as we know it today. At its very basic level in the 15th century, golf consisted of swinging a club at a ball and moving it from Point A to Point B in as few strokes as possible.
It is widely believed that Scotland is the birthplace of golf, but that is only somewhat the case. Although golf developed in Scotland and throughout the British Isles over the next few centuries, the sport likely originated from even earlier versions that were popular in France and Germany.
This is evidenced in the word “golf” itself, which can be traced back to the medieval Dutch term “kolf,” or club. In fact, in the 14th century, history suggests the Dutch were playing a stick-and-ball game on ice where they used clubs with curves at the bottom to move a ball from one spot to another.
In addition, other variations on the same concept were played in Belgium, and the Romans brought their version to the British Isles, as well. While the game may be related to the earlier Dutch version played on ice and in other countries throughout Europe, the earliest reference to golf by name came from King James II of Scotland in 1457.
King James said its name when he issued a ban on golf in the kingdom due to his belief that it was keeping his archers and other military personnel from focusing on their jobs. He eventually lifted the ban, but similar decrees were issued by his successors James III and James IV in 1471 and 1491, respectively.
It is clear that golf evolved from the stick-and-ball games played across the continent. However, it is also clear that the Scots deserve their place in golf history for introducing changes that shaped the sport.
Golf Through the Years
Golfers young and old know that Scotland, and St. Andrews Links in particular, is known as the home of golf. Putting in years of golf training in order to play a round at St. Andrews is the dream of many golfers around the world. However, how much do you know about what happened in Scotland that had such a profound impact on the sport’s future?
First off, legend holds that, if not for the Scots, golf would be a completely different game. Although earlier versions of the sport involved moving the ball from one place to another, the Scots are credited with digging holes in the ground and making it the object of the game to get the ball inside.
According to the National Library of Scotland, the first official rules of golf were recorded in March 1744 in Edinburgh, nearly 300 years after King James II first banned the game in the country.
In 1744, a group of prominent golfers in Scotland petitioned their town council to provide a silver club as the grand prize for a new annual golf tournament they wanted to stage. As a condition for furnishing the prize, the town council required that the golfers organize themselves.
The resulting group came to be known as the Company of Gentlemen Golfers and was the first organized golf club in the world. Prior to the start of their competition, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers drew up the “13 Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf” to govern the event. These regulations have been changed and adapted over the years, but they are generally believed to be the basis for the modern game we play today.
In the next decade, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers developed the “St. Andrews Code,” which drew on the articles and laws from the Company of Gentlemen Golfers. Over the years, clubs of golfers began to spring up throughout Scotland, before being founded in other areas in the U.K. and France.
As golf continued to spread from nation to nation, more people worked together to refine the sport and help it grow into something that anyone could play no matter where they lived. These continued developments to the rules, such as standardized scoring, and equipment, such as a golf ball that was affordable for the masses, paved the way for modern golf.
Modern Golf and the Game We Play Today
It wasn’t until the 19th century that golf began to take on its modern form. This was due in large part to new methods of production that made it easier and cheaper to make golf clubs and balls. In 1848, Rev. Adam Patterson introduced the “guttie,” a ball made from the sap of the Gutta tree. Not only was the guttie cheaper to produce and repair, it also allowed manufacturers to make balls from molds and begin mass production.
In the 1880s, companies began experimenting with patterns cut into the balls to help them achieve greater distances, because gutties did not travel as far as their predecessors. At the same time, the change in the material used for golf balls meant that golf clubs would also need to be strengthened. During this period, golfers began to use irons with more frequency, for approach shots, and to escape hazards on the course.
In the first half of the 19th century, golf was still informal, with virtually no distinction between professionals and amateurs. That changed in 1860 when the Open Championship (now known as the British Open) was created.
Nearly three decades later, golf made its way to the shores of the United States. According to Golf Digest, the first known exhibition of the sport took place on February 22, 1888 when John Reid and three friends played on three makeshift holes in a field in Yonkers, NY. Later that year, Reid and his friends formed the St. Andrew’s Golf Club.
Other additions to golf that come from the United States include the following:
- Driving Ranges
- Golf Carts
- Miniature Golf
Since that first round in Yonkers, golf has seen a number of enhancements, including using plastic and rubber for balls, and titanium for clubs, as well as the establishment of the PGA, LPGA, and golf academies around the world. Learn more about the origins of golf and how you can make the most of your golf training by contacting the International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA) today at (843) 686-1500.