The history of Golf

A thoroughly Scottish invention

Games involving balls and sticks have been prevalent in practically every civilisation since the dawn of time. The Chinese were playing ch’ui wain (literally “hitting a ball”) as early as 300 BC, and the Dutch were still enjoying a game revolving around the same concept (albeit on ice this time) around 1800 years later. While many claim that, as a sport which certainly does involve hitting balls with ‘sticks’, Golf owes much to these predecessors, it should never be denied that Golf as we know it today evolved in Scotland.

It is generally accepted that a sport greatly resembling modern Golf was being played in the vicinity of St. Andrews as early as the 15th Century. In fact, James II became so exasperated by the fixation of some Scots with the game that he decided to ban it in 1457, believing that they ought instead to be preoccupied with the impending invasion of their motherland by English forces. Once his budding golfers returned their attention to archery in order to face the threat posed by England and the crisis had been resolved, however, James relaxed his restrictions. It is even rumoured the king found light relief himself in the sport. Once the approval of the king was secured, the sport swiftly became more popular.

It was not until 1744, however, that anything resembling a set of rules was codified. It was then that the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers decided to clarify the most important rules of the sport everyone was now calling Golf. These original rules reflect the spirit of the modern rules, and are reproduced below:

The Thirteen Rules of 1744

  • You must tee your ball within one club’s length of a hole.
  • Your tee must be on the ground.
  • You are not to change the ball you strike off the tee.
  • You are not to remove stones, bones or any break club for sake of playing your ball except upon the Fair Green and that only within a club’s length of your ball.
  • If your ball come along water, or any watery filth, you are at liberty to take out your ball and, bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any club and allow your adversary a stroke, for so getting out your ball.
  • If your balls be found anywhere touching one another you are to lift the first ball, till you play the last.
  • At holing, you are to play your ball honestly for the hole, and not play upon your adversary’s ball, not lying in your way to the hole.
  • If you should lose your ball, by its being taken up, or any other way you are to go back to the spot where you struck it last, and drop another ball, and allow your adversary a stroke for the misfortune.
  • No man at holing his ball is to be allowed to mark his way to the hole with his club or anything else.
  • If a ball be stopp’d by any person, horse, dog or anything else, the ball so stopp’d must be played where it lyes.
  • If you draw your club, in order to strike and proceed so far in the stroke as to be bringing down your club: if then your club shall break, in any way, it is to be accounted a stroke.
  • He whose ball lyes farthest from the hole is obliged to play first.
  • Neither trench, ditch or dyke, made for the presentation of the links, nor the scholar’s holes or the soldier’s lines shall be accounted a hazard. But the ball is to be taken out and tee’d and play’d with any iron club.

From Edinburgh to England

After The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers codified the first set of Golf rules in the mid eighteenth century, a number of people devoted a great deal of time to developing the sport further. The design of Golf balls, for example, was greatly improved during the nineteenth century. Balls had originally been made from wood but, by 1848, a much harder material known as gutta percha was being used. By the turn of the century, Coburn Haskell and Bertram Works had discovered that a core surrounded by elastic and coated in gutta percha made an even more efficient ball.

Golf competitions also became more commonplace in the years following the establishment of the rules. Clubs sprang up throughout Scotland and the first professional Golfers became well known across the country. In 1860, the first Open tournament was held at Prestwick, where a young Golfer named Willie Park emerged the victor.

It was also in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the popularity of Golf spread across the border to England. Clubs began to emerge and tournaments were established. Soon, the sport was almost as popular in England as in Scotland. The appeal of Golf was not confined to Britain alone. Records indicate that the first clubs began to emerge in Canada during the 1870s and the United States by the 1890s.