Golf’s earliest origins

The origins of golf as we know it today clearly had it’s foundations in 15th Century Scotland, but various forms of golf were played in other lands hundreds of years before that.

Make no mistake, 18-hole golf with its tee boxes, fairways, bunkers, greens and target holes in the greens was a Scottish invention and nobody can take that away from this proud Celtic nation, but the claims that golf-like games were played elsewhere with sticks and balls can no longer be disputed.

Historical records indicate that as early as the 26th of February, 1297, a game using sticks and leather balls was being played in a City called Loenen aan de Vecht in the Netherlands. The winner was the player who needed the least number of hits to find a target several hundred yards away.

Called ‘colf’ or ‘colve’ meaning ‘stick’ or ‘club’, the shades of time have left it unclear as to the nature of the target of this game, but there are some who argue that by the 17th Century it was a hole in the ground.

There have also been unsubstantiated claims that two Scottish mercenaries returning from one of Europe’s many wars of the middle ages actually introduced the game to Scotland.

Be that as it may, latest historical evidence unearthed by Prof. Ling Hongling of Lanzhou University suggests that a game similar to modern-day golf was played in China during the Southern Tang Dynasty, 500 years before golf was first mentioned in Scotland.

Backed up by drawings of the game, Dongxuan records from the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) describe a game called ‘chuíwán’ that was played with 10 clubs including a cuanbang, pubang, and shaobang, which might be compared with a driver, a two-wood, and a three-wood.

These clubs are reported to have been inlaid with jade and gold, suggesting that ‘chuíwán’ was restricted to the most wealthy citizens of that period – a fact that in many respects continues to feature in modern golf although the sport is increasingly opening it’s doors to the less privileged members of society, especially in the USA where many of it’s public, municipal courses offer off-peak rounds of golf for as little as $5 $10 per round.

Back to chuíwán; Chinese archives include a reference to a Southern Tang official who asked his daughter to dig holes as a target and Ling suggests chuíwán may have been exported to Europe and then Scotland by Mongolian travellers in the late Middle Ages.

The modern game of golf, however, is generally considered as much of a Scottish product as Whiskey although it should be pointed out that not all Scottish golf was played over 18 holes.

The famed Old Course at St Andrews occupies a narrow strip of land along the sea. As early as the 15th century, golfers at St Andrews established a trench through the undulating terrain, playing to holes whose locations were dictated by topography. The course that emerged featured eleven holes, laid out end to end from the clubhouse to the far end of the property.

Golfers at the time played the 14 holes out, turned around, and played the same holes in, for a total of 22 holes.

In 1764, several of the holes were deemed too short, and were therefore combined which effectively reduced the ordinal 11 to nine and meant that a full round of golf now comprised 18 holes.

And because of St Andrews status as the golfing capital, all other courses followed suit and the 18 hole course remains the standard to the present day.

The R&A – one of the World’s oldest golf organizations who today control the sport in every country on the globe outside of the USA and Mexico were the USGA is the body in charge – have claimed that “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 word golf is widely believed to have come from the Dutch word “colf” or “colve” (as already mentioned) and the first documented evidence of golf in Scotland appeared in a 1457 Act of the Scottish Parliament.

An edict issued by king James II of Scotland prohibiting the playing of the games of gowf and football as these were a distraction from archery practice for military purposes.

Bans were again imposed in Acts of 1471 and 1491, with golf being described as “an unprofitable sport”.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was accused by her political enemies of playing golf after her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was murdered in 1567. George Buchanan subsequently wrote that she had been playing “sports that were clearly unsuitable to women”.

Golf was banned again by parliament under king James IV of Scotland, but golf clubs and balls were purchased for him in 1502 when the king was visiting Perth, and on subsequent occasions when he was in St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The account book of lawyer Sir John Foulis of Ravelston records that King James IV played golf at Musselburgh Links on 2 March 1672, and this has been accepted as definitive proof that The Old Links at Musselburgh, is the world’s oldest golf course still functioning – a fact enhanced, though not proved, by the story that Musselburgh was one of the courses played by Mary Queen of Scots in 1567.

The earliest known instruction on how to play golf was discovered in the diary of Thomas Kincaid, a medical student who played on the course at Bruntsfield Links, near Edinburgh University, and at the Leith Links. His notes include his views on an early handicap system.

In his entry dated 20 January 1687, he wrote: “After dinner I went out to the Golve”, and he then proceeded to describe his Golf stroke like this:

“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 oldest surviving rules of golf were written in 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers, later renamed The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who played their golf at the Leith Links.

Their “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf”, which have been preserved in the National Library of Scotland, became known as the ‘Leith Rules’ and the document supports the club’s claim to be the World’s oldest golf club, though an almanac published about a century later noted for the first time a rival claim that The Royal Burgess Golfing Society had been set up nearly 10 years earlier in 1735.

The “laws of playing golf as per the Leith Rules was to form the basis for all subsequent codes; for example they required – that “Your Tee must be upon the ground” and “You are not to change the Ball which you strike off the Tee”

The 1744 competition for the Gentlemen Golfers’ Competition for the Silver Club, a trophy in the form of a silver golf club provided as sponsorship by Edinburgh Town Council, was won by a surgeon, John Rattray, who was required to attach to the trophy a silver ball engraved with his name.

It began a long tradition which, for a while, looked as if it would bypass Rattray. who, after joining the ill-fated Jacobite Rising of 1745, was imprisoned in Inverness to await his death at the hands of the hangman.

It never materialised, however. He was saved from the gallows thanks to the pleadings of a fellow golfer Duncan Forbes of Culloden, Lord President of the Court of Session.

Rattray was released in 1747, and went on to win the Silver Club two more times.

Looking at England, we see that in 1603 James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England.

His son, Henry Frederick, the Prince of Wales, and his courtiers all played golf at Blackheath in London and it from this venue that the Royal Blackheath Golf Club, England’s oldest active club, can trace it’s origins

Outside of the British Isles there is evidence that Scottish soldiers, expatriates and immigrants took the game of golf to the British colonies and elsewhere during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (1829) and the club at Pau (1856) in south western France stand out as notable examples of this and today are considered to be the oldest golf clubs outside of the UK.However, it was not until the late 19th century that Golf truly became popular outside of Scotland.

In the 1850s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert built Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands at about the same time that the first railways came to St Andrews.

By the 1860s there were fast and regular services from London to Edinburgh and combined with the royal enthusiasm for Scotland, the much improved transport links and the writings of Sir Walter Scott, the social cocktail created a boom for tourism in Scotland and a wider interest in Scottish history and culture – and notably in golf.

This period also coincided with the development of the ‘Gutty’, a golf ball made of Gutta Percha which was cheaper to mass produce, more durable and more consistent in quality and performance than the its predecessor, the feather-filled leather balls known as ‘Featheries’.

Golf began to spread across the rest of the British Isles and in 1864 the golf course at the resort of Westward Ho! became the first new course in England since Blackheath.

In 1880 England had 12 courses, rising to 50 in 1887 and more than 1000 by 1914. Today there are more than 7,500 in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

By the 1880s golf clubs had been established in Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada and by 1890 it was so strongly entrenched in England, that the country was able to produce its first Open Champion, John Ball..

And the United States?

Evidence of early golf in the US includes an advertisement published in the Royal Gazette of New York City in 1779. It advertised golf clubs and golf balls.

Other evidence was a notice in the Georgia Gazette in 1796 of an upcoming annual general meeting for a Savannah Golf Club

Claims by various clubs to be America’s first continue to be debated, but what has never been disputed is the fact that in 1894 delegates from the Newport Country Club, the Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, New York, The Country Club, the Chicago Golf Club, and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club met in New York City to form what was to become the United States Golf Association (the USGA)

By 1910 there were 267 clubs in the USA and during the Roaring Twenties the game exploded to such an extend that by 1932 there were well over 1,100 golf clubs affiliated to the USGA.

In 1922 Walter Hagen became the first native-born American to win the (British) Open Championship. He was to initiate the long-time dominance of world golf by the Americans which has only began to be challenged during the past two or three decades

The expansion of the game in the USA was temporarily curtailed by the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, but it rebounded in the post war years and 1980 there were over 5,000 USGA affiliated clubs.