What does ‘Golf’ stand for? Nothing, actually

St Andrews Golf

Let’s just cut right to the chase: the name of the outrageous sport of golf is not an acronym and, therefore, doesn’t stand for anything.

An apocryphal tale suggests that it was an acronym for ‘Gentleman only, ladies forbidden’, reinforcing the sport’s historic stipulations against women competing or even playing the sport.

One might be forgiven for believing this, considering that not a few golf clubs still forbid entry to ladies.

Of course, this isn’t true and golf’s prohibition on female players also doesn’t date back to the origins of the sport but rather has its roots in Victorian England.

Golf enters the English language from Middle Dutch via Scotland around the time the sport was first codified north of Hadrian’s Wall.

The term golf derives linguistically from the Dutch word ‘kolf’ or ‘kolve,’ meaning quite simply ‘club or bat’.

In late 14th or early 15th century Scottish vernacular, the Dutch term became ‘goff’ or ‘gouff,’ and only later in the 16th century, ‘golf.’

The language ties between Dutch and Scottish terminology are only one manifestation of what was a thriving trading economy between Dutch ports and ports on Scotland’s east coast from the 14th to the 17th century.

Some researchers believe that the Dutch sailors introduced the wintertime game of ‘kolf,’ played with a stick and ball on frozen canals, to the east coast of Scotland, where it was transported to the public linkslands and finally became the game we know today.

While the sport appears to have had its origins in a Dutch game, considerable alterations to its form would be needed before it became the sport of golf.

The original Dutch game was commonly played on frozen canals and was more akin to a hybrid between hockey and bowls. The game that would be adapted into golf persisted in the Netherlands and became an indoor sport called Kolf.

That sport was forced to move indoors when its players became a menace on Dutch streets while golf, being played across wide open linksland remained an outdoor game.

Golf is exceptional in modern sports for its lack of a defined playing field size, which is something that persisted even through efforts to codify the game.

The notion that a full round of golf constitutes playing 18 holes owes its existence to the Old Course at St Andrews, where in 1764 the R&A deemed that the full length of a standard round.

The course comprised 22 holes at the time, and all but the 11th and 22nd were played both going out and coming in by the members. On October 4, 1764, William St. Clair of Roslin, the captain of The Captain and Gentlemen Golfers, gave his approval for alterations to St. Andrews. He came to the conclusion that the initial four and last four holes on the course should be consolidated into four total holes (two in and two out) since they were all excessively short.

The standard of 18 holes was established because St. Andrews had that number of holes following the alterations.