Golf's Long and Fascinating HistoryPublished on 07/23/2021 · 8 min readTravel back in time through Golf expert Ellen M.'s article and learn about golf's rich history as a way to feel more connected to the game.
- Photo courtesy of the National Library of Wales
According to the National Golf Foundation, golf has captured the interest of 101 million people around the world. This fascination with golf is not new. Many sports historians date the origin of golf back to the early 15th century in Scotland. Golf was so popular that it became a concern for the Scottish Parliament who believed it was a distraction from other important things like military training. This concern ultimately led to the banning of the game in 1457. The ban on golf was finally lifted by King James IV in 1502. His personal interest in golf was fortunate for his famous granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who is believed to be the first woman to play the game. In fact, every Stuart monarch of Scotland between 1502 and 1688 played the game, as claimed by Robert Clark in his book, Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game.
It was not just a game for royals, however. In 1527, Sir Robert Maule became the first commoner in Scotland to take up the game. He played on Barry Links, which is close to where Carnoustie is today. The National Library of Scotland has transcribed a page from golf enthusiast Thomas Kincaid's diary. The diary entry from 1687 explains how to play golf, and more specifically the basics for the golf swing and stance. Readers can visit this website to view the entire transcription.
The Royal and Ancient Game
It is hard to think of golf in Scotland, and not think of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The first evidence of golf being played at St. Andrews dates back to 1552, though the ‘Royal and Ancient’ title for the course was not conferred upon it until 1834. Most golf courses today have 18 holes, but the Old Course at St. Andrews initially had 22 holes. While the venue itself is a major piece of golf history, the people who played at St. Andrews have also contributed to the legendary status that it holds today. Previous champions like Bobby Jones and Sam Snead battled the infamous bunkers and crossed the Swilcan Bridge to help contribute to the history of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
Major Changes in Golf Equipment
Having a place to play golf is critical, but another crucial element of the game is the equipment. Golf equipment has changed a great deal since the early days of golf. One of the first golf balls, known as the ‘feathery ball’, was invented in 1618. While the name of this ball may not sound like something that would create amazing drives, the longest drive achieved with a feathery ball was 361 yards by Samuel Messieux at Elysian Fields in 1836. To put that in perspective, the average driving distance on the PGA tour today is 295 yards. Bryson DeChambeau currently has the longest average driving distance at 320.9 yards.
Despite the success that Messieux had with the feathery ball, it was later replaced by the gutta-percha ball or “guttie” in 1848. It was called the gutta ball because it was made from the sap of a gutta tree. The ball was considerably less expensive to make, which helped to grow the game. In 1898, a new rubber-core golf ball was invented by Coburn Haskell. While the rubber-core golf balls produced more distance for golfers, they also found that they were not as easy to control around the greens. The rubber-core golf ball inspired a variety of outer cover designs that ranged from mesh to bramble. Eventually, these early cover designs were replaced by the dimpled golf ball that was invented in 1908.
The changes in the design of the golf ball also impacted other elements of the game. Golf club designs were often updated or changed to better work with the current golf ball design that was being used at the time. The first golf clubs and golf balls were made out of wood. As the "feathery ball" came into fashion, the clubs were adjusted to work better with the new leather material of the golf balls. The gutta-percha golf ball also led to new developments in golf clubs. Due to the rubber material used in the design, the durability of the golf ball was greatly improved. The improved durability finally made it possible for golfers to play with irons. Another important addition to the golfer's set of clubs was the sand wedge, first introduced in 1900.
Other major developments in golf clubs involved the materials used to make shafts. Before steel shafts were approved by the R&A at St. Andrews in 1929, most golf clubs were made with hickory shafts. The modern game of golf has inspired many more innovations and technological advancements in golf shafts, golf balls, and golf club design.
Competitive golf began to emerge in the 1860s. On October 17, 1860, the first British Open Championship was held at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland. The Open became an annual tradition and has been played in England, Scotland, and Ireland. The only breaks in the championship occurred during World War I and World War II. Golf tournaments were also taking place in other places around the world. The inaugural U.S. Open Championship was held on October 4, 1895, at Newport Golf Club in Newport, Rhode Island.
Women also began holding their own golf tournaments. The first U.S. Women's Amateur Championship took place in 1895 at Meadow Brook Golf Club in Hempstead, New York. It was won by Lucy Barnes Brown. The success of women's golf in America led to the creation of the Women's Tournament Committee of the USGA in 1917.
Golf Clubs and Organizations Around the World
The game of golf also inspired the creation of several golf clubs and organizations around the world. In 1894 the United States Golf Association was founded in New York, NY, and the Professional Golfers' Association of America was established in 1916. The first PGA Championship was held the same year. However, a precursor to golf, kolf or colf, was played near present-day Albany, NY by Dutch colonists at Fort Orange in 1650.
Golf clubs and organizations helped to grow the game by not only increasing awareness about golf but also by establishing formal rules for the game. The Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, later known as the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, established the first rules of golf in 1744. The 13 articles included in this first code of rules for golf entitled, Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf, established the fundamentals for the game that is still played today by millions of golfers around the world. Professional tours like the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour follow some of the same rules that were included in the first 13 articles established by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith in 1744.
The concept of playing the ball where it lies was introduced in the articles, in addition to where players are required to tee off. The USGA initially followed the rules adopted by the R&A of St. Andrews. Golf rules were later adapted and updated to adjust for new developments in the game. For example, the number of clubs was limited to 14 in 1938. Before 1938 golfers had been using up to 30 clubs during a single round.
In addition to Europe and the United States, golf courses and golf clubs were also established in Asia in the early 19th century. The first golf course in South Asia, The Royal Calcutta Golf Club, was established in 1829 in Calcutta, India. It is the oldest golf course outside of the UK.
Alexander Dennistoun, originally from Scotland, was responsible for establishing the first golf club in Canada, the Royal Montreal Golf Club, in 1873. Just one year later, the Quebec Golf Club was founded. Other early golf clubs were also established in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa by the 1880s. The expansion and growth of golf around the world increased the number of people who played, followed, or took part in golf programs and associations.
Famous professional golfers from Bobby Jones to Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have impacted the game in ways that few others could. The record-breaking rounds of these professionals have inspired countless numbers of golfers to pick up the game and try their luck out on the course. One of the greatest achievements in golf is the Grand Slam.
A Grand Slam in men's golf requires winning all four championships (The Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open, and The Open Championship or "British Open") in the same year. Bobby Jones achieved a Grand Slam in 1930 and is the only golfer so far to do so.
The World Golf Hall of Fame
Today, golf enthusiasts can visit the World Golf Hall of Fame to learn about the stories of famous golfers throughout the history of the game. It is located in World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida. The World Golf Hall of Fame’s website also has many stories, podcasts, and videos that help tell the history of golf.
Become a Part of Golf History
Traveling back in time through the stories and experiences of famous golfers throughout history is a way to feel more connected to the game. Even if you have not played in a British Open or U.S. Open yourself, every golfer has experienced the challenge of trying to hit a golf ball where you want it to go. As more people take up the game, the story of golf and the game itself keeps changing and transforming. So, come be a part of golf history! If you're looking to get geared up to hit the green, reach out to a Golf expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.