History of Golf



The biggest change in the game of golf has been the golf ball.


History of Golf

Ming Dynasty emperor Xuande (r. 1425–1435)

A golf-like game is recorded as taking place on 26 February 1297, in the Netherlands, in a city called Loenen aan de Vecht, where the Dutch played a game with a stick and leather ball. The winner was whoever hit the ball with the least number of strokes into a target several hundred yards away. Some scholars argue that this game of putting a small ball in a hole in the ground using golf clubs was also played in 17th-century Netherlands and that this predates the game in Scotland. There are also other reports of earlier accounts of a golf-like game from continental Europe.[2]

In April 2005, new evidence re-invigorated the debate concerning the origins of golf.[3]Recent evidence unearthed by Prof. Ling Hongling of Lanzhou University suggests that a game similar to modern-day golf was played in China since Southern Tang Dynasty, 500 years before golf was first mentioned in Scotland. [4]

D?ngxu?n Records (Chinese: ???) from the Song Dynasty (960–1279) describes a game called chuíwán (??) and also includes drawings of the game.[4] It was played with 10 clubs including a cuanbangpubang, and shaobang, which are comparable to a driver, two-wood, and three-wood. Clubs were inlaid with jade and gold, suggesting golf was for the wealthy. Chinese archive includes references to a Southern Tang official who asked his daughter to dig holes as a target.[4] Ling suggested golf was exported to Europe and then Scotland by Mongolian travellers in the late Middle Ages.[4]

A spokesman for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, one of the oldest Scotland golf organization, said “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.”[5][6]

However, the modern game of golf we understand today is generally considered to be a Scottish invention, as the game was mentioned in two 15th-century Acts of the Scottish Parliament, prohibiting the playing of the game of gowf because it was taking time from archery practice necessary for national defense. (Some scholars, however, suggest that this refers to another game which is much akin to shinty or hurling, or to modern field hockeyrather than golf as we know it.) The word golf may be a Scots alteration of Dutch “kolf” meaning “stick, “club” and “bat[7] (see: Kolven). All these earlier games may more accurately be viewed as ancestors of the modern game we understand as golf.

The modern game of golf originated and developed in Scotland: the first permanent golf course originated in Scotland, as well as membership in the first golf clubs. The very first written rules originated there, as did the establishment of the 18-hole course. The first formalized tournament structures developed and competitions were held between various Scottish cities. Before long, the modern game of golf had spread from Scotland to England and from there to the rest of the world. The oldest playing golf course in the world is The Old Links at Musselburgh Racecourse. Evidence has shown that golf was played on Musselburgh Links in 1672, although Mary, Queen of Scots reputedly played there in 1567.

Golf course evolution

Golf courses have not always had eighteen holes. The St Andrews Links occupy 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. One played the holes out, turned around, and played the holes in, for a total of 22 holes. In 1764, several of the holes were deemed too short, and were therefore combined. The number was thereby reduced from 11 to nine, so that a complete round of the links comprised 18 holes. Due to the status of St Andrews as the golfing capital, all other courses followed suit and the 18 hole course remains the standard to the present day.


The word golf was first mentioned in writing in 1457 on a Scottish statute on forbidden games as gouf,[11] possibly derived from the Scots word goulf (variously spelled) meaning “to strike or cuff”. This word may, in turn, be derived the Dutch word kolf, meaning “bat,” or “club,” and the Dutch sport of the same name. But there is an even earlier reference to the game of golf and it is believed to have happened in 1452 when King James II banned the game because it kept his subjects from their archery practice.[12]

There is a persistent urban legend claiming that the term derives from an acronym“Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden”. This is a false etymology as acronyms being used as words is a fairly modern phenomenon, making the expression a backronym.[13]


Throughout recorded history, every civilisation has played a game with a club and a ball. Pangea for example, as described by Roman scribes, would appear to be the father both of modern hockey and the Celtic games of Shinty and Hurling.

In one form or another, the variant games of present day golf were clearly enjoyed throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The game persisted over the centuries and the form that it took and rules that were applied varied as widely as the terrain the game was played over. In short, the game consisted of knocking a ball from one pre-designated place to another where the ball was to be struck off a predetermined object in the least number of blows. Games often extended from village to village.

That this game was ousted from the towns and onto the commons land beyond is one possible solution to the question of how it all began. Whatever the exact origins, it is known that by the 15th century, “kolf” as it was known in the Netherlands and “goff” as it was referred to in England, was a pastime enjoyed by Kings and Commoners alike. It’s kinship to the Great Game however, remains entirely questionable.

So widespread was the game of “Gowf”, as it was known in Scotland, that an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent the playing of the game on Sundays and thus preserve the skills of Archery. The citizens of Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Leith on Scotland’s East Coast were the principal “gowfing” miscreants and it was no coincidence that rolling sandy links land was commonplace here. On this very terrain, a game that started with a cleek and a ball took on a form that started an evolutionary process that continues to this day.

The question of how it all began may be of pressing concern to some but to the Scot, it is sufficient to know that the game was born on the links land of eastern Scotland. Here, the game has been nurtured for over five hundred years and from here, it has been raised to the great game played and loved by millions throughout the world.


This was the period when golf as we know it today came to be. It was in this time that many of today’s great golf clubs were founded and the leading players of the era started to gain renown. The great club-makers and ball-makers of the era began to emerge and the clubs produced by these skilled craftsmen were coveted to the extent that forgeries became commonplace.

Top players began to regularly gather for ‘meetings’ when medal and match-play rounds were organised, with distinctions made for the first time between amateur and professional players. Allan Robertson, of the famous ball-making family in St Andrews, is widely credited as being the first golf professional. But before Allan, his Grandfather Peter was described as a professional golfer and although history knows little of this man, his reputation survived him and his prowess was widely acknowledged. One epic contest in 1843 was between Allan Robertson and Willie Dunn, two of the best players of that time. The challenge was held over 20 rounds (2 rounds per day over 10 days) and it was Robertson who triumphed – two rounds up with one to play.

The Robertson dynasty in itself reflects the emergence of the great game. The family can be traced back to one Thomas Buddo, a ball-maker in St Andrews in 1610. His daughter married a Robertson and from this pair was bred the stock that led to Allan himself and along the line produced generations of ball-makers. At least four separate Robertson families employing over 25 hands were engaged in making balls in St Andrews during the mid 18th Century. Allan by the way, who died in 1859, became the first man to break 80 on what is now the Old Course in 1853.


If golf as we know it had its birth in the dim and distant past of the 17th century and its upbringing under the Robertson family on the links of St Andrews, then its adolescence occurred abruptly between 1848 and 1852. Three highly significant events occurred in St Andrews that were to turn the game from the parochial into the global. The first of these events was the discovery of the “gutta percha” based ball, known as the “gutty” by James Patterson in 1848. More importantly, the durability of this new ball in turn encouraged the development of iron-faced clubs and so continued the process of evolution.

Then in 1852 the railway came to St Andrews and with it the progenitors of the millions who have made the pilgrimage since. Now the links was played by all and sundry throughout the year and not simply restricted to the busy spring and autumn meetings. The R&A erected it’s now famous clubhouse in consequence of the railway, scores of ex-pat colonialists retired to the town and families took up residence so that their sons could attend the University, which was gradually assuming a stature comparable with Oxford and Cambridge. If the ‘gutty’ transformed the game, the railway certainly transformed the town of St Andrews.

The third event of this period, which comes in two parts, is surely one of the most important events in the long history of the game. Every individual who has made a living out of hitting a golf ball should hold April 20th 1851 as the nativity for that was the birth date of Young Tom Morris, one of the game’s greatest early exponents. Similarly, every green-keeper, designer or administrator should express some word of gratitude on the 1st of July for it was on that day in 1851 that Old Tom Morris left for Prestwick to create the first purpose built golf course on the links of Monkton parish.

It was in 1860 that the first Open Championship was held at Prestwick and was contested by eight leading professionals. The first winner was Willie Park for which he received a red Morocco leather belt with silver clasps as the first prize. The Open continued to be held at Prestwick for 11 years and the Morris’s dominated the early events. Old Tom had won the event four times by 1867 and Young Tom subsequently completed a quartet of wins, after which he was allowed to keep the Belt.

Young Tom Morris was raised on the links of Prestwick Golf Club and it was there that he honed a game that was as revolutionary as the new iron clubs that he had purpose made by Stewart in St Andrews. Irons that were previously resorted to for a bad lie were now used for driving, lofting, jiggering and putting.

Young Tom Morris also knew his worth and he demanded and obtained a good living from the flair that he brought to the game. In this sense he was the first true modern professional golfer. There may well have been greater players since Young Tom but if there has been, few have left a greater legacy to the game.

The Morris’s accrued an incredible record, with Old Tom winning the Open in 1861, ’62, ’64 and ’67, while Young Tom won in 1868, ’69, ’70 and 72. Across the Firth of Forth in Musselburgh another family came close to matching them when Willie Park Sr. and Jr. won the Open six times between them. Willie Sr. won the first Open in 1860 and again in ’63, ’66, ’67 and ’75. His brother Mungo Park won in 1874, while Willie Jr. won in ’87 and ’89. Old Tom and Willie Sr. won all but one Open (1865) prior to the emergence of Young Tom. Both were much-loved figures and were responsible for the standards of sportsmanship with which the game is synonymous today.


This era will always be remembered for the mark left on the game of golf by John Henry Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid. Known as the great triumvirate, they collected sixteen Open Championships between them and have left an indelible impression on the game of golf.

Harry Vardon hailed from the Channel Island of Jersey and Henry Taylor from Devon in England. The emergence of Vardon and Taylor before the end of the 19th century attests to the rapid spread and widespread play of the game. Both had already established themselves as Open Champions before they were joined by James Braid. The three between them collected 16 Open titles and 13 second-place finishes and almost completely excluded a host of great Scots players from the records of the game during that particular period of time.

John Henry Taylor won the first of his five Open titles in 1894 at St George’s in England, now Royal St George’s, while Harry Vardon pipped Taylor in a play off in 1896 to land the first of a record six titles. James Braid won his first of five Open Championships in 1901 to join Vardon and Taylor as the dominant forces of the day. Though also winning the French Open, unlike Vardon and Taylor, Braid never made the transatlantic crossing to enjoy the spoils of the newly emerged golfing scene in the USA.

While Vardon won the US Open of 1900 during a tour of America where he played in approximately 80 matches and winning 70 of them, Braid’s decision to remain at home was well rewarded as an exhibition match player. Braid also established himself in course design, building Gleneagles and Nairn to name but two of his many jewels.

What started as a trickle of Scots golfers to the US, became commonplace by the turn of the century when anyone who could swing a club on a Scots links was able to find a lucrative niche as a professional in the US. The early US Open Champions were all Scots born players who, as teachers and mentors produced players that would come to further transform the game. One notable such player was Willie Anderson from North Berwick in Scotland, who won the US Open four times including a present day record of three in a row from 1903 to 1905.


The First World War decimated Scottish golf. Every village war memorial attests to the numbers who fell in France and few clubs are without a memorial to some rising star, who played out his last match on the fields of Flanders. Some great players survived but the consequence of terror gutted their game. Those that came through unscathed were few in number, determined never to see the like again and often took the decision to play in America – golf’s promised land.

There was one notable exception in the mercurial George Duncan. Born near Aberdeen, George served his time as a carpenter before rejecting his trade and the offer of professional football with Aberdeen FC to become the professional at Stonehaven, before moving to the lucrative South and acclaim. He won the first post-war Open at Deal in 1920 when Sandy Herd at the age of 51 was runner-up. Duncan also played in the Ryder Cups of ’27 and ’29, captaining the side in 1931. Scottish golfers were sorely tried by the wave of first generation Americans that returned to assault the Championships after the War. These players transformed the game, bringing a flair and lifestyle that induced some disquiet in the home based players.

Though life in America did not suit all tastes, with the Dunne’s and Willie Park Jr. among those who went and returned, there were many more who did not make the return journey. Alistair Mackenzie and Donald Ross from Dornoch were just two who left an indelible mark on America as course architects. The Smiths from Carnoustie, Ben Sayers from North Berwick, Tommy Armour from Edinburgh, the Simpsons from Elie and many others from St Andrews all left lasting impressions in the States and left Scotland bereft of its best and dearest.

Jock Hutchison was the last St Andrews born player to win the Open, while Paul Lawrie was the last native Scot when he won at Carnoustie in 1999. After Jock’s win, the Open was dominated by the American, Walter Hagen who won the first of his four Open titles in 1922 at St George’s and followed up with victories in ’24, ’28 and ’29. Together with his compatriots Jim Barnes (1925), Gene Sarazen (1932) and the incomparable Bobby Jones who won in 1926 and ’27, this was an unprecedented period of Open Championship domination by US players.

The year 1922 saw 20 years old Gene Sarazen burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion, landing both the US Open and US PGA Championship, retaining the latter the following year after a play off with Walter Hagen. Hagen bounced right back after this setback and won the next four PGA Championships from 1924 to 1927. 1923 witnessed the mercurial talent of Bobby Jones winning the first of his four US Open titles and Jones followed this with victory in the Open at Royal Lytham in 1926, retaining it at St Andrews in 1927. The Ryder Cup was held for the first time in 1927, when the United States, captained by Walter Hagen, took on and comprehensively defeated their counterparts from Great Britain & Ireland.


If the First World War decimated Scottish golf, the second came close to gutting it completely. The First War took the players – the Second War took the golf courses.

The Scottish links lands border long sandy beaches, usually in remote places of low population density. As a result, it did not take a brilliant military mind to reason that the links beaches would make for ideal disembarkation sites and the courses equally perfect places for airborne landings. The huge concrete blocks that were erected to stop the movement of tanks from the beaches can still be seen today. The hallowed fairways of the Old Course were staked with massive wooden poles to prevent aircraft landings and Turnberry made the ultimate sacrifice when it was turned into a runway. Few courses remained unscathed – golf was not only suspended for the duration of the War, it was very nearly extinguished.

US golf became pre-eminent and though the Americans may not have been entirely responsible for winning the war, they did win the battle of post-war golf. One could argue that not having experienced the social and economic upheaval of Europe or the long interruption of play, they were infinitely better prepared for the resumption of golfing hostilities. Equally, the sheer numbers that were now playing golf in the US made pre-eminence statistically inevitable. Whatever the reason however, American golfers certainly came to the fore, following the War years.

The US domination of the Open Championship itself however, did not occur after the war as it had in the pre-war era of Hagan and Jones. Sceptics argue that the Americans did not play because doing so would have resulted in loss of earnings at home but history tells a different story. Though Sam Snead won the first post-war Open at St Andrews in 1946 and Ben Hogan was victorious in his only visit to Carnoustie in 1953; every other major figure in US golf had come and gone with notably less success. English players were dominant in the immediate post-war years, with Cotton, Burton, Faulkner and Daly (Irish) all winning.

It was the Colonials however, who were to do the real damage as far as the Open was concerned. Bobby Locke from the Transvaal, a first generation South African Irishman and Peter Thomson, an Australian of solid Scots stock were about to take the golfing world by storm. These two overwhelmed golf in a period of a few years when Locke won in 1947 and ’51 and Thomson in ’54, ’55, ’56, ’58 and again in ’65. Indeed, Thomson never finished worse than second from 1952 to 1958. Their achievements, although less impressive in the US, were nevertheless significant. Thomson beat Hogan on his home turf to take the Texas Open, while Locke was the leading money winner on the US tour. Both these players found their spiritual home on the Scottish links where their best golf was played. Locke was a near resident visitor throughout his life and Thomson now has his home in St Andrews, only a wedge away from the R&A.


The record books do not lie and Scottish Golf, though healthy at home, was faring ill abroad. The game had become truly global with players from Taiwan and Japan threatening for major honours. The Swedes were gathering amateur honours throughout Europe and there seemed no end to the talent emerging from Spain.

American Golf had come into maturity with a vengeance in the form of Arnold Palmer. Palmer played the game as it should be played – with verve and a swashbuckling style. Palmer was of course idolised in his own country but he found real appreciation in the discerning crowds that lined the links fairways of the Open Championship. Together with Tip Anderson, his St Andrews caddie, Palmer was lord of every links he surveyed.

In Palmers absence in 1964, Tip Anderson carried the bag of Tony Lema through the most testing gales on the Old Course. It was Lema’s win more than any other event that put paid to the excuse that the game had changed and that the new form of golf required only an accurate lofted shot to a soft pulpy green – a shot at which the Americans were clearly adept. The leader board of the ’64 Open showed that Jack Nicklaus and plenty more US stars could play the chip-and-run under the wind as well as any that had gone before and as well as any of the home bred players.

The reason for the Scottish golfing hiatus during this period may be simply statistical, as the game had grown to the extent that the numbers now playing in every developed country dwarfed the numbers playing in Scotland. There is no doubt that the game itself had changed with the new courses that were being built throughout the world. American architects led by Robert Trent Jones were building courses that were both long and difficult. Greens were soft and holding in contrast to the hard running greens of the links. The grassy fairways presented another type of problem as the ball sat up on the lush grasses and required club contact quite different to that on the tight lies of the links. Possibly of greater significance was the early adoption in the US of the ‘big ball’ – the 1.66-inch ball that required a different strike and made for greater control.

Great exponents of the game poured out of the US and the US Tour was becoming a multi-million dollar industry with even mediocre golfers, grossing millions of dollars not only through tournament play but also through commercial endorsements. Tip Anderson was still caddying at home in St Andrews when he attained celebrity status in the US without ever setting foot outside the British Isles, backing Palmer in a beer commercial. Television coverage ensured star-status for many players and the American College System, to their credit, acted as a virtual conveyor belt of talent.

Following the foundation of the European Tour and the opening of the Ryder Cup to European players, sponsorship grew and European golf blossomed into a money market comparable to that of the US tour. One final ingredient was required however – a star with the charisma of a Palmer and the appeal of a Nicklaus. And so as they say, a star was born. 1979 saw a smiling young genius becoming the first Spaniard to win the Open, with Jack Nicklaus coming second in the race for the Claret Jug for a record seventh time – Seve had arrived on the world scene.

The 1980′s began with Seve Ballesteros becoming the first European to win the Masters and at 23 years old, the then youngest champion. Nicklaus however, continued his remarkable career with his fifth double-major year, winning his fourth US Open and fifth PGA title. Seve won his second Masters title in 1983 and the following season, he collected his second Open Championship when finishing two strokes ahead of Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson, who was attempting to equal Harry Vardon’s record of six Open Championship successes.

Lee Trevino won his second US PGA Championship in 1984, made all the more special by the fact that only eight years previously, he was seriously injured having been struck by a lightning bolt. Germany’s Bernhard Langer turned the tables on Ballesteros in 1985, beating him in the Masters and gaining revenge for his two-shot defeat in the Open the previous year. 1985 also witnessed the first European success in the Ryder Cup and two years later the US team tasted defeat again but this time on home soil. The Masters of 1986 was perhaps the most thrilling of all. A fantastic late surge from the Golden Bear saw him win his sixth Masters title at the age of 46 – his 21st major victory in an as of yet unparalleled career.

The glory days of Scottish golf briefly returned in 1985 when Sandy Lyle triumphed in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s and the amiable Scot added a further major title at the Masters in 1988. Though Ballesteros won his third Open with a scintillating final round of 65, domination of the world game by Nick Faldo had already begun when he won his first major title at Muirfield in 1987, shooting par on every hole in his final round. Two years later, Faldo shot an amazing closing 65 to force a Masters play off with Scott Hoch, which he duly won on the second extra hole. Faldo’s best year came in 1990 when he became the only player since Nicklaus to defend his Masters title. Just a few months later, Faldo played the most devastating golf of his life in winning his second Open title at St Andrews and he duly added his third Open two years later, again at Muirfield.

Greg Norman’s second Open success came at Royal St George’s in 1993. His two-stroke victory over Faldo prompted the late, great Gene Sarazen to comment that this was the greatest championship of all time. Major champions have come and gone over the years, with O’ Meara, Olazabal, Stewart and Lawrie among those whose names are now etched on the most prized possessions in golf.

Not until 1994, did a player with the potential to match the greatness of past legends, come along. Speculation started when Tiger Woods won the US Amateur Championship, continued when he retained it the following year, grew when he became the youngest ever champion at the Masters and climaxed as he stormed to six wins out of six starts in the 1999/2000 season. Though Tiger may have a long way to go to be classed in the same league as Palmer and Nicklaus, there are not many who would bet against it.