The History of Golf

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Podcast Transcript

Every day, millions of people around the world hit the links to play a round of golf. The very best at the game are able to earn millions of dollars a year as professionals. 

However, this global recreational and competitive sport has origins that most people aren’t aware of, dating back even earlier than its generally recognized origin

Learn more about the history of golf and how it became the sport that it is today on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Golf is a sport that has a better-known origin story than most sports. 

If you think you know that the game of golf originated in Scotland, you aren’t wrong. However, there is much more to the story than that. 

To understand the true origins of golf before the modern game was developed in Scotland, we have to go back even further and cross the sea into continental Europe. 

In particular, we need to go to the Netherlands. 

Hitting a ball with a stick is a pretty simple activity that has been around for a very long time. The origin of hitting a ball with a stick is unknown, but there were many informal games that people played where they would either try to get a ball as close as possible to an object or try to reach an object in the fewest number of swings. 

This type of game, where you hit a ball to reach an object, was first formalized in the Netherlands. The first mention of such a game appeared in the 13th century, and the game was called “kolf,” spelled with a ‘c’ or a ‘k.’ 

As far as we can tell, the rules of kolf were pretty simple as it was just hitting a target hundreds of yards away in the fewest number of strokes. The target wasn’t necessarily a hole in the ground. It would have been something like a large rock, a tree, or the side of a barn. 

Kolf wasn’t played on a formal course. You could play kolf anywhere, including on a street or a field.

Not surprisingly, kolf resulted in a lot of broken windows. In 1326, kolf was banned in Brussels. Anyone caught playing kolf would be fined 20 shillings or have their overcoat confiscated.

In 1389, the city of Haarlem created a field solely for the purpose of playing kolf because it had become too dangerous to play within the walls of the city.

Kolf also developed into a team game, not simply an individual sport. 

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Europe had the Little Ice Age, which resulted in rivers and canals in the Netherlands freezing over in the winter. These ice fields proved to be a popular place to play kolf in the winter.

It resulted in the game-changing with specialized sticks and balls. Paintings and drawings from this period show people playing with sticks that either looked suspiciously like golf clubs or at least field hockey sticks. 

The balls at this time would have been made out of wood or leather. 

Dutch traders took the game with them as they traveled. Dutch settlers in Fort Orange, now Albany, New York, were reported to be playing the game in 1659, causing the same problems they did back in Europe. 

In the 18th century, kolf evolved in a totally different direction in the Netherlands than it did in Scotland. Klof actually became an indoor sport, and it is still played in a few small communities in the Netherlands today. The modern game involves having to hit a post on the opposite end of a court, then hit the post on the starting end, and then hitting the post on the opposite end again. 

There was an active amount of trade between the Netherlands and the southeastern coast of Scotland. It is believed that Dutch sailors brought the game of colf with them to Scotland, where it became popular. 

Colf also became golf at some point in Scotland. It may have just been an issue of translation, or it may have been a reference to an old Scottish word meaning “to strike”.

It isn’t known when colf arrived in Scotland, but in 1457, King James II of Scotland passed a law outlawing the playing of golf and football because it took away from archery practice.

Additional bans were passed in 1471 and 1491, but supposedly King James IV had golf clubs and balls given to him as a gift, so people must still have been playing it. 

In 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots, was accused of playing golf days after her husband was murdered, a time when she should have been in mourning.

While we know something called golf was being played in the 16th century and that it involved sticks and balls, we don’t know what the rules were exactly. 

In 1636, a schoolmaster from Aberdeen, Scotland, named David Wedderburn, published a Latin grammar textbook for children that made references to golf as well as mentioning the first golf hole. 

Many of the locations where Scots would play golf were in areas known as links. Today, links are associated with golf, but at the time, in Scotland, it was a word describing a rough grassy area between the land and the sea.

In 1672, Sir John Foulis of Edinburgh wrote in his diary that he played golf at the Musselburgh Links, which is evidence used to support its claim that its the world’s oldest golf course. 

In 1687, Thomas Kincaid, a medical student, wrote an instruction manual for playing golf.

The first set of rules for golf was published in 1744 for the Gentlemen Golfers’ Competition for the Silver Club, a competition sponsored by the city of Edinburgh which was to be played at the Leith Links.

There were thirteen rules, known as Leith’s Rules, that were listed for the competition. Over 30 different clubs around Scotland adopted those thirteen rules and became the basis for the modern game of golf. 

In 1754, the Saint Andrew’s Society of Golfers was formed to create its own annual competition using Leith’s Rules. In 1764, the Saint Andrews club created the world’s first eighteen-hole golf course, which is today the standard. That original 18-hole course is still playable today, and it’s known as the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Today, St. Andrews is still considered the spiritual home of golf. 

In the 19th century, golf began to spread outside of Scotland. Clubs and courses began to spread in England and then around the world. 

One of the biggest changes was to the ball. Golf balls 18th and early 19th centuries were leather stuff with feathers. However, balls transitioned to those made out of Gutta Percha, a natural latex found in trees in Southeast Asia.

These balls, known as guttys, were easier to produce, were more durable, and provided a more consistent performance. 

Some golfers began playing for money and were able to make a living at it.

In 1860, the Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland established an annual tournament for professional golfers, which was known simply as The Open Championship. Eight golfers competed in the inaugural event which was won by Willie Park Sr.

The event is still played today and is one of the four major tournaments in professional golf.

While golf was gaining in popularity throughout the 19th century, it exploded in popularity in the last two decades of the century. As people had more leisure time, more people played golf. In 1880 there were 12 golf courses in England. By 1900, there were 1,000.

In the United States, several clubs formed to organize competitions, several of which hosted their own national amateur championships. Several of these clubs came together in 1894 in New York City to form United States Golf Association (USGA). 

They hosted the first United States Open Championship in 1895. All of the winners of the tournament were either English or Scottish until 1911.

With the explosion of golf, there were still differing rules which were played all over. In 1899, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews issued a set of rules which were designed to be used by all golf courses around the world. The USGA then later largely adopted the St. Andrew’s rules, establishing these two organizations as the most important ones in setting the rules of golf.

In 1916, a group of club professionals in the United States came together to form the Professional Golfers Association or PGA. They hosted their own tournament that year, the PGA Championship, which is today one of the four major tournaments. 

It should be noted that the PGA and the PGA Championship are separate from the PGA Tour, which split off in 1968. The PGA Tour is for professional golfers, and the PGA is for club pros. 

One of the most significant figures in the history of golf emerged in the 1920s, Bobby Jones.  Technically, Jones was a lawyer and played as an amateur his entire career on a part-time basis. However, despite being an amature, he was by far the best player in the world. 

In 1930, he won all four of golf’s major tournaments at that time in a single year, the British Open, the British Amateur, the US Open, and the US Amateur.

Immediately after winning the grand slam, he retired from golf at the age of 28. He technically did turn professional, but only so he could make money from films and books. He never made a dime playing competitive golf.

He established the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, and in 1934 the club hosted their own competition called The Masters. Given its association with Jones, the tournament attracted all the top players immediately and quickly became known as the fourth of the major tournaments.

If you were to go back in time, about 100 years, the rules and courses would look very familiar. The biggest difference was the equipment. 

While the gutty was the most popular ball, there were no rules about size or weight. The USGA finally put rules in place regulating the size and weight of a golf ball to make a more level playing field.

Golf clubs were originally made completely out of wood. In the 19th century, wood was only used in the shaft, and the head of the club was made out of iron.

Clubs made entirely out of steel began appearing in the late 19th century.

In the 20th century, advances in materials science often found their way quickly into golf clubs and golf balls. Eventually, the rules of golf began to have very technical regulations for golf equipment that regulated how balls and clubs behaved, not just their weight and what they were made of. 

While golf has traditionally been a male sport, women golfers have existed since the game was first established. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, an Olympic gold medalist, became one of the world’s most famous golfers in the 1930s. 

The US Women’s Open was established in 1946, and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was established in 1950, one of the first professional sports leagues for women. 

Today golf is big business. It is both a major professional sport as well as being an activity enjoyed by amateurs around the world. 

It is estimated that there are over 40,000 golf courses around the world, with over 16,700 of them in the United States alone. 

Over 66 million people in the world play golf, enough that if they were their own country, it would be the 24th largest in the world. 

The global golf industry is over $100 billion dollars annually, which is more than the annual GDP of Venezuela. 

By any measure, golf has become one of the most popular sports and activities in the world, which isn’t too bad for something that started out with people hitting rocks with sticks. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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Thanks, Yun Li! I’m glad that your son enjoys the show. I seem to have a big following amost a certain group of nine year olds. 

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