The History of Golf, An Overview
Updated: Sep 14
By James W. E. Glenn
TLDR; Drunk scots were banned from whacking stuffed sacks in a field, so they started Gentlemen’s clubs and now it’s a worldwide sport.
Let’s get one thing clear right now. No, “GOLF” does not stand for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. There is nothing, anywhere, in the storied history of our great inclusive game that even hints towards validating this tired half-joke. Heathens. But, you’d be forgiven for indulging that 20th century trope.
Despite our love for this game and our intimate familiarity with all of its insatiable rewards and endless frustrations, many of us are innocently ignorant of the game’s rich, complex history and past. This is not to say that we don’t all know Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam (U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open and British Amateur -- henceforth known as THE Open Championships and THE Amateur Championships. *Groan*), Walter Hagen got food poisoning and used to wear shirts, ties, and cardigans, and most golfers pre-1950 wore knickerbockers (plus 4’s) and blazers. Most of us know the illustrious history of golfers, even if we can’t remember exactly how many Green Jackets help make up Nicklaus’ 18 Majors or what year Roberto Di Vicenzo tragically signed away his Masters victory. Yet, what do we know about the actual history of the game? Is St. Andrews called the Home of Golf because it is the oldest club, or was it because they played the first Open Championships there (spoiler, they didn’t)? When did people actually start playing golf, in as much as it at least resembles the golf we play today? How did the game evolve from knocking feather-stuffed leathers with wooden sticks into holes in a field, into Calamity Jane, hickory shafts, and wooden spoons then to asymmetrical driver soles and t1100 graphite? Let’s dig into what we can.
Very Early History
Though we know humans have an obsession with hitting things with other things (check out the Roman game Paganica), the earliest documented record of “golf,” resembling anything close to what we know today, is in 1457. King James II, in an Act of Parliament, banned “ye golf” because he felt it was a distraction from archery practice. Subsequent Kings, James III and James IV, upheld these bans in 1471 and 1491 respectively. Loyal subjects should be honing their skills to defend their country! Of course, like Nancy Pelosi’s hair-salon and Donald Trump’s gimme putts, rules only apply to some--that didn’t keep Scottish royalty from playing during this ban. We know that despite being an absolute degenerate evidenced by his golf ban, he was a gambler; King James IV lost “42 shillings to the Earl of Bothwell” in 1502 (Sporting Heritage Scotland). It should be noted, however, that the royalty banned golf everywhere but on the links, though of course access to these links was already restricted and a sign of things to come centuries later.
I know what you’re thinking, but Robin Hood was rumored to live around 1160, so unfortunately he didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor to get back on the golf course.
First Rules, Edinburgh Golfers, and the R&A
So we know that people were playing golf from the 15th century, which is one of the common historical “facts” known about St. Andrews from golfing enthusiasts who return from Scotland and want everyone to know just where they had been. But how did this game resemble what we play today? Were original courses 18 holes to begin with? 9? Was the cup size determined by some pre-calculus relationship to the circumference of a whiskey bottle? Were there rules or was it an absolute free-for-all?
Documentation of golf, and its rules in particular, between 1502 and 1744 is sparse. We pick back up with the first official recorded set of rules. In preparing for an open competition at Leith, the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh drew up a set of rules by which participants should abide. This is the earliest set of official, recorded rules ever found for the game. These Rules are as follows:
Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.
1. You must Tee your Ball within a Club's length of the Hole.
2. Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
3. You are not to change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
4. You are not to remove Stones, Bones or any Break Club, for the sake of playing your Ball, Except upon the fair Green and that only / within a Club's length of your Ball.
5. If your Ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & 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.
6. If your Balls be found any where touching one another, You are to lift the first Ball, till you play the last.
7. At Holling, you are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and not to play upon your Adversary's Ball, not lying in your way to the Hole.
8. If you should lose your Ball, by it's being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the Spot, where you struck last, & drop another Ball, And allow your adversary a Stroke for the misfortune.
9. No man at Holling his Ball, is to be allowed, to mark his way to the Hole with his Club, or anything else.
10. If a Ball be stopp'd by any Person, Horse, Dog or anything else, The Ball so stop'd must be play'd where it lyes.
11. If you draw your Club in Order to Strike, & proceed so far in the Stroke as to be e Accounted a Stroke.
12. He whose Ball lyes farthest from the Hole is obliged to play first.
13. Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke, made for the preservation 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 teed /and play'd with any Iron Club.
John Rattray, Capt
(Credit to ScottishGolfHistory.org)
The article on Rules of Golf will dive into these rules and their evolution into the Rules of Golf as we know them today, though it is clear to see both striking similarities and confounding differences (horses get no mention in the 2020 volume). These rules served their purpose well enough for the following fifty or so years, until a match in which disputes between the veritability of being “stymied” were called into question. The Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh realised their rules had not been universally adopted, and it required a tournament to be replayed in order for both players to adhere to a single set. How the issue of a stymie on the final hole of a tournament was the straw breaking the scottish camel’s back, and nothing else prior, remains a mystery to me.
The Role and Founding of Muirfield and The R&A
The Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh would go on to become the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, who played their golf at Leith Links. As the game gained popularity, and Leith began to attract more and more golfers, the HCEG officially moved to Musselburgh in 1836. Again, as the game gained popularity, more companies of golfers made the limited number of golf clubs their home (for example, even today the St. Andrews Links is home to several different “clubs,” only one of which being the Royal and Ancient). In 1891, the HCEG purchased an old horse-racing track, and Tom Morris laid out the 18-holes which would essentially become Muirfield Golf Club in 1892--hosting The Open Championship the very next year. Even today, Muirfield carries on trudging through old traditions; members are to play singles or foursomes (alternate shot) match play unless stipulated that strokeplay is allowed.
Where the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers played at and ran golf clubs in and around Edinburgh, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club set up in St. Andrews. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the R&A and HCEG shared a substantial number of members, prompting the eventual passing of authority. Though known for its work governing and developing golf everywhere except the United States and Mexico, the R&A only assumed responsibilities for the Rules from the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1897. They published the first standardised, national set of rules in 1899. Furthermore, the R&A only took over the responsibility for administering and running the Open and Amateur Championships in 1919--prior to that, the host club of the competition bore the responsibility.
The Open Championship
A history of the Open is necessary at this juncture, because this is the tournament that changed golf. Golf was, until 1860, a game reserved for the privileged and the wealthy--despite the fact it originated in fields as a game upon which drunken inn patrons would gamble. The Open Championship is the oldest continually running event in the world, and the first that broke this “gentlemen” barrier. On October 17th, 1860, The first Open Championship was played at Prestwick Golf Club; the first tournament specifically designed for professionals. In that time, professionals were the men (and women!) who made clubs, balls, kept the greens, gave lessons to members, and frequently did all of those things. For example, Old Tom Morris even designed golf courses. The venue, Prestwick, is a beautiful, and at times quirky, links on the west coast of Scotland. Today, the links at Prestwick preserve the spirit of the original layout despite having refined the routing over the past 160 years.
That first Open was won by Willie Park of Musselburgh, who beat seven other professionals over 36 holes in one day. He received no prize money, as in 1860 the winner of the Open won the Challenge Belt. In fact, prize money was such that even these esteemed professionals would often caddy for the wealthier gentlemen members in the days before the Open to continue earning their living. The Challenge Belt was donated by a local Earl who had an obsession with medieval pageantry; it had a large silver buckle, reminiscent of the trophies won by archers and jousters in their tournaments. The winner was allowed to hold the “Challenge Belt” for a year, (costing $30 at the time and $4,000 today) to be brought back the following year and played for until one competitor won three consecutive titles at which point the belt became property of the champion.
Shortly after Willie Park, Old Tom Morris and Tom Morris, Jr. made their claim by winning four Opens apiece, with Tom Morris, Jr. winning in 1868, 1869, and 1870. Thus, only ten years from its inception, there was a three-peat winner (eat your heart out, Koepka). The Open was actually not held in 1871, because Tom Morris Jr. was enjoying his new belt and the organisers had no prize. Prestwick, Musselburgh, and St. Andrews agreed between them to donate $10 a piece for the Claret Jug, and subsequently rotate the Open Championship between their three venues. St. George’s and Royal Liverpool were added to the rotation in 1892, and at the same time decided on a standardised format of 72-holes over two days. In 1925, Prestwick was dropped from the rotation as the venue was unable to cope with the growing game, and instead replaced by Carnasty. The other famous courses in the Open rota were added during this time, with notables like Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s hosting in 1926. Prestwick has not hosted an Open Championship since, as the layout is considered too quirky and potentially dangerous with several tee shots playing blind.
Today, as you know, the format is standardised 72-holes over four days with a 36-hole cut. Prestwick, Prince’s, Royal Cinque Ports, and Musselburgh were dropped from the Open rota long ago, but still hold a tremendous amount of history and eer. Nevertheless, there is something tangible in the air on these courses, difficult to describe but felt on the back of the neck, with ghostly remnants of bygone glory wherein being a golf professional was neither very lucrative or prestigious--where victory, as Hogan would say years later, was dug from the dirt.
Coming to America
The first 30 Champion Golfers of the Year were Scottish, perhaps because golf had not yet spread its global wings. This changed in 1893, where outside of Chicago the first 18-hole course was laid in the United States. Though the first golf club in North America was the Royal Montreal Club, established in 1873, it was the Chicago Golf Club that inspired the birth of the United States Golf Association shortly after. In 1894 the USGA came into being and has governed the rules of amateur game and major U.S. championships ever since.
However, though the Chicago Golf Club was only established in 1893, records show at least some form of golf might have been played in the colonies much earlier. Shipping records indicate that 96 golf clubs and 492 balls were sent to Charleston, S.C., from Leith in 1743. The South Carolina Golf Club was established in 1786, and The Savannah Golf Club in 1795, but there are little to no records whatsoever of details of golf actually being played during this time. Furthermore, having freshly won our Independence and eager for another chance to put Britain in its place, the War of 1812 killed the popularity and interest in golf until the late 19th century. Golf was seen as decidedly British and therefore fell strongly out of favour in the U.S., like how I imagine tea in Boston. However, the explosion of popularity after the establishment of the USGA was incredible--by 1900, only seven years after the laying of Chicago Golf Club, there were already more clubs in the United States than all of Britain.
The PGA formed in 1916, and with golf now firmly back in favour and catching on once more, the creation of the PGA Tour shortly afterwards led to a dearth of American players going abroad--the days of Francis Ouimet, Walter Hagen, and Bobby Jones travelling overseas for glory were replaced by fatter checks, a regular tour, more respect, and a better lifestyle in the States. It wasn’t until the 1940’s with Ben Hogan that Americans began regularly returning to the British Isles for competition.
Golf Then and Now
The game of golf certainly experienced some incredible growth, and changes--both to equipment, structure, and rules--from 1744 through to the 1930s. However, since the 1930s golf has remained relatively stable, at least with regards to the rules. Standard courses are either 9 or 18 holes. Players are allowed 14 clubs in their bag. Golf balls and clubs are regulated. We play most major amateur and professional events over 72-holes, with lower tiered events staggered at either 18, 36, 54, or 72 holes (all multiples of 18). Surely, today, players hit the ball farther and exhibit more routine skill beyond likely the scope of what Tom Morris, Willie Park, Harry Vardon, and even Bobby Jones would have envisioned. However I doubt Bobby Jones would have been unable to imagine a player able to drive the ball 340 yards, having already seen the automobile replace the horse. Golf is certainly more of a sport than a game, especially at the professional level. One could argue that the R&A and the USGA now exist to maintain the integrity and the purity of the game in the face of rampant technological innovation. They endeavour ensure conformity as the game grows at a relentless pace. Some of these changes are inevitable, just as athletes improve with all things, and a separate article will address whether obsession with maintaining the purity of past measures of performance is in fact in the games best interest.
Exclusivity, Elitism, and Handicapping
One area that golf consistently suffers a “bad rap,” is the elitist and exclusive nature of the game. Augusta National won’t even let you 10 feet down Magnolia Lane if you aren’t a member, and Pine Valley keeps its location hidden better than the security codes at Fort Knox. Women were only admitted in 2013 at Muirfield because the R&A threatened to pull it from the Open rota. So many more examples exist, sadly, and the elitist traditions we battle, or embrace, today had to come from somewhere. The root of this exclusivity stems from our favourite obsession; handicaps. Bear with me as I explain this in an excerpt from my Ph.D. thesis.
Over time, the Industrial Revolution in England produced a newly-wealthy middle and upper class that needed some means of social demarcation in this new societal hierarchy; like how Bourdieu (1978) and Dunning and Sheard (1976) note the private schools appropriated Rugby Union, these individuals appropriated golf. Golf became a marker for social status and exclusivity (Green, 1987). These new middle and upper classes instituted dress codes, asset of behaviours they deemed acceptable (i.e. etiquette), and, perhaps most importantly, a system of handicapping. The handicapping system in effect stripped away much of the necessity for skill in order to play and achieve recognition in golf, allowing these new elite players to completely disregard anyone more physically proficient at the sport (Green, 1987; Ceron-Anaya, 2010). The act of playing golf then became an exercise in self-actualisation, working to better oneself and improve the ‘handicap.’ With the removal of the necessary elements of skill, golf thus became a networking pastime hidden away in exclusionary elitist establishments. Private clubs, charging high entry and membership fees, were created to prohibit anyone without the requisite economic, cultural, and social capital accessing these networks (Humphreys, 2011) and “ensure a certain calibre of member” (Belk, 2000: 10). The fact that these clubs excluded the lower class from actually participating in golf was likely secondary. Golf as a networking pastime, hidden away behind English aristocracy rather than as the exercise in fun, skill, and gambling prowess as the Scottish intended, perpetuated the contentious power relations of disadvantage that golf has become known for (Green, 1987; Rankin et al., 2017; Gladwell, 2017). It is critically important to note that the game of golf itself and its rules for play, not membership to any club, do not exclude or include anyone in particular; they privilege no-one (McGinnis et al., 2005).
There we have it, an overview of the history of golf. If you were wanting more information on the history of golf equipment, or the rules of golf, don’t worry. The evolution of equipment and the rules will be covered by subsequent articles in this series. Furthermore, another article will cover the evolution and history of golf championships and its champions--from the aforementioned Willie Park, Sr., Old Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones through to Tiger Woods, Long-Bomb Phil, and Brooksy Leaderboard Koepka. Stay tuned!