Who Invented Golf: A Brief History of Golf

| , | February 19, 2024

The first official, written mention of golf that historians can find is probably from 1457. It was an Act of Parliament by King James II of Scotland that banned citizens from playing golf, football, and other sports. This is because they spent too much time playing and not enough time practicing archery. The defense of their country was at stake. From this hilarious anecdote, golf has undergone various changes to become the sport that it is today.

Who invented golf and When and Where Was Golf Invented?

The Golfers by Charles Lees

The origin place of golf could be anywhere from China to Laos to the Netherlands to ancient Egypt or Rome. It is one of many games, like hockey or bandy, that originated with simple stick and ball games. These classic games were common with people all over the world, for many centuries. However, the most likely place where the modern game of golf originated is either Holland or Scotland.

A game very similar to golf was played by the Dutch in the 13th century CE. In that early game, a person would use a stick to hit a leather ball toward a target. The person who managed to get the ball to the target in the fewest number of shots was the winner.

This game was originally called ‘colf’ and was a mix of two games that had been imported into Holland. These two games were called chole and jeu de mail. Dutch artwork from the time often depicts people playing ‘colf.’ It was a long game, just like modern golf is, and was played in streets and courtyards.

However, when we think of who invented golf, we generally think of the Scots. Golf as we know it with its 18-hole course and rules originated in Scotland. As we can see from James II’s edict, it was clearly an immensely popular game. The ban was lifted from golf in 1502 by King James IV when he himself became a golfer. This was the Treaty of Glasgow. The addition of holes in golf is what distinguishes it from other stick and ball games and was a Scottish invention.

The oldest recorded rules for golf were released in 1744. Called ‘Articles and Laws at Playing in Golf,’ this was released by The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The 18-hole golf course, which is now the standard, first came into being in 1764, introduced by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

An interesting fact is that chuiwan (meaning ‘hit ball’), played in ancient China in the 13th and 14th centuries, is very similar to the game of golf. There is even a book, published in 1282, called ‘Wan Jing’ (Manual of the Ball Game). It details some rules for a game that is very similar to golf, played on a lawn with holes. Historians hesitate to draw any connections between the two, however, saying that similar games have existed all over the world.

Where Does the Word ‘Golf’ Come From?

The old name for golf was ‘colf,’ ‘kolf,’ ‘kolve.’ That is how the Dutch referred to the sport. These all mean ‘club’ or ‘stick,’ derived from the proto-Germanic ‘kulth,’ Old Norse ‘kolfr,’ or German ‘kolben.’ 

When the game appeared in Scotland, the common 14th or 15th-century Scottish dialect turned it into ‘goff’ or ‘gouff.’ It was in the 16th century that the game began to actually be called ‘golf.’ King James II’s ban preceded this but it was not the common word for the game until the 16th century.

Some believe that ‘golf’ is a purely Scottish term and does not come from the Dutch at all. It is derived from the Scottish words ‘golfand’ or ‘golfing’ meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘to drive forward with violence.’ ‘To golf’ was a common phrase recorded in 18th-century dictionaries.

A modern misconception is that the word ‘golf’ is an acronym for ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.’ This, however, was a joke that only appeared in the 20th century and was not even true, given that women played golf long before that.

A group photo of Scotland’s 1903 international golf team

The Origins of Modern Golf

Golf developed gradually. At first, it was only a friendly sport that people played on the streets and in public courtyards. It was not organized in any fashion and did not even require holes. The days of sprawling courses were to come much later.

In the 16th century, when the rules of golf began to appear in writing, it became a more serious sport. There were various books on it, in both Latin and Dutch. These had rules like ‘in putting, the ball had to be struck and not simply pushed.’ But even then, golf was mostly a series of friendly and informal games.

Golf in this era was played on public land, on courses where sheep and other livestock were kept. Since this was before the invention of the lawn mower, the animals served as natural lawnmowers and kept the grass short and cropped. Historians state that people brought their goats with them to ready the field before a game. A cropped lawn is essential for golf, so we can safely say in this aspect the Scots really invented golf.

It was in the 18th century that the game took off beyond Scotland as well. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club founded the first golf course in St. Andrews, Fife. Known as the ‘Home of Golf,’ the St. Andrews old course was set up in 1754. At the time, it only had 12 holes. 10 of these holes were played twice, which made it a 22-hole golf course. Ten years later, the Club combined the first four holes in the course and the 18-hole golf course was born.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews

An International Sport

Golf first spread to England from Scotland in the 18th century. This was mostly because of the Industrial Revolution, the railways, and English tourists in Scotland. After that, it began to be recognized internationally, with increased travel between countries. The first golf courses outside of the British Isles were in France.

Early versions of golf were played in the United States as far back as the late 1600s. They gained much more popularity in the 1700s as Scottish immigrants and British soldiers rose in numbers. The South Carolina Golf Club was founded in 1787. With the War of 1812, the popularity of golf dimmed a little. It was only in 1894, a century later, that the United States Golf Association was established and the modern game of golf became so big.

Golf soon spread all over Europe and British colonies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, and South Africa. By the 20th century, it had become so popular that multiple championships and tournaments had been started around the world. Golf clubs were much in demand and were usually a mark of the elite.

Notable Golfers Around the World

John and Elizabeth Reed were the figures that truly popularized golf in the United States. They founded the St. Andrew’s Club in New York in 1888 and Elizabeth founded the Saegkill Golf Club for women nearby. Historians say John Reed is a pivotal figure in the history of golf because he truly brought the game from Scotland to America and established it there.

Samuel Ryder participated in the second informal match between the United States and Great Britain in 1926 in Wentworth. The British team won the match. Ryder decided that it would be a good idea to continue tournaments between America and Great Britain. He donated a trophy for what came to be known as the Ryder’s Cup. It was first played in 1927 and has continued since every alternate year.

There was also Bobby Jones who won the Grand Slam in 1930. The interesting fact about Jones is that he remained an amateur all of his career. He also co-founded Augusta National during his retirement.

Modern golfers like Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer have become famous names all around the world. Their names are not known only among the golfing community but by non-golfers as well. Their wins and games have catapulted them into superstardom.

Bobby Jones
Bobby Jones

History of Women in Golf

Women in golf are not an unusual or groundbreaking thing. There are records of women playing golf as far back as the 16th century. They have both participated in the sport and played a very important role in the development of the sport over the years.

As stated earlier, Elizabeth Reed was one of the people responsible for making golf so popular in the United States of America. And she established a women’s golf club in the late 1800s herself. Issete Miller was an excellent female golfer in the 1890s. She was responsible for inventing the handicapping system. The handicapping system helped level the playing field for inexperienced golfers so that they could play alongside those with more experience.

The United States Golf Association formed its Women’s Tournament Committee in 1917. The United States Women’s Open was held for the first time in 1946, at the Spokane Country Club in Seattle, Washington. In 1950, the Ladies Professional Golf Association was established.

Glenna Collete Vere was known as the Queen of American Golf in the 1920s. She won the Women’s Amateur Championship six times and dominated the golf landscape at the time. Men and women competed together for the first time in 1990, at the Invitational Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. It was a female competitor, Juli Inkster, who won by one stroke.

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