What is the history of golf?

Everything from the balls to the clubs to the rules have evolved over the years.

Golf, or something very like it, has been around for a long time. The sport and its progenitors were depicted in Flemish woodcuts, mentioned in the novels of Emile Zola and even cropped up in the edicts of kings [source: McGrath]. Yet, its origins remain as foggy as a morning tee time on the Forth estuary.

Whether you regard golf as the epitome of Zen mind or, as Mark Twain put it, "a good walk spoiled," you've probably wondered where and how such a peculiar pastime originated. Who would devise a sport that "consists of putting little balls into little holes with instruments very ill adapted to [the] purpose," as one Oxford tutor noted? And furthermore, who thought that an expanse of hummocky, pitted grassland would make an ideal setting for it?


The Scots, that's who.

Actually, the origins of golf are not quite that cut-and-dried. People across Europe have knocked balls around with sticks and clubs for centuries in various games, some of which have contributed to golf's lore and language. Exactly how much they added to the sport remains hotly debated among scholars, but a few matters seem settled. The word "golf," for example, is believed to come from the medieval Dutch word kolf, meaning "club;" and "tee" most likely derives from tuitje, a small mound upon which a ball was placed in the Belgian game chole (a kind of long-distance croquet).

None of these other games is quite the same as the golf we know, however. For that, we have to thank Scotland, where they've been smacking balls for at least 700 years.

Read on as we go down the rabbit hole to find golf's origins.


The Evolution of Golf

Golf differed from other contemporary stick-and-ball games in two ways: One, it was played over an irregular expanse of rugged landscape. And two, it entailed hitting the ball into holes. Its history extends back to the 12th century Scottish monarch David I, who set aside swaths of worthless linksland (rough landscapes of sand, grass and water where rivers meet the sea) for public use, beginning with a sleepy fishing village called St. Andrews. These land allotments continued for centuries, expanding to incorporate the Clyde and Forth estuaries and areas beyond.

Before golf could really take off, however, it required a social class with leisure time to play and sufficient disposable income to afford equipment. The late 18th century brought both. The Industrial Revolution's moneyed captains of industry used the links for both recreation and networking. Gradually, golf grew popular enough to support greenskeepers and to move the manufacture of balls and clubs out of cottage kitchens and into factories.


In 1774, the Company of Edinburgh Golfers established the first golf society and published the first 13 rules of play. A decade later, St. Andrews established its own club, which today is the rulemaking body for all golfers outside of North America. Modern tournament play began more than a century later in the Scottish town of Prestwick, south of Glasgow, on Oct. 17, 1860. A year later, the competition was "opened" to amateurs and the Open Championship (British Open) was born.

Numerous people shaped golf in the years since, but one person, Tom Morris, stands out for both his skill as a player and his wide influence on the game. Morris began as caddie to the great Allan Robertson, later serving as professional and greenskeeper at Prestwick, where he won the first Open, and at St. Andrews. He went on to design courses across all of Scotland, devising the modern system of two loops of nine holes, which requires golfers to play under shifting wind conditions.

By the end of Morris' life in the early 20th century, golf had assumed its familiar form. Courses now sported 18 standardized holes amid man-made hazards and kept greens. Balls, once leather bags stuffed with feathers, were now resilient dimpled spheres that could be controlled and spun. (Although they would eventually change even more -- from rubber cores to solid, for example.) Clubs became more specialized, enabling better play on a range of lies, and the mashie, niblic and rut iron -- progenitor of today's standard irons -- took their place in the golf bag alongside their historical hickory cousins.

But who were the game's greatest? We'll take a look at those athletes on the next page.


Historic Golf Stats

Golf breaks down greatness via a variety of statistics, most of them concerned with consistency, low scores and tour and tournament victories. Here are some standout stats:

PGA Tour


The Professional Golfers' Association was founded in 1916 by professionals and amateurs led by department store mogul Rodman Wanamaker, who thought it would increase golf equipment sales. Now the world's largest working sports organization, it's responsible for the PGA Championship, the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, the Senior PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

The 11 golfers with the most PGA Tour wins are Sam Snead (82 wins), Jack Nicklaus (73), Tiger Woods (71), Ben Hogan (64), Arnold Palmer (62), Byron Nelson (52), Billy Casper (51), Walter Hagen (45), Cary Middlecoff (40), Gene Sarazen (39), and Tom Watson (39).

PGA Championship

Nicklaus and Hagen are tied for the most PGA Championship wins, at five each, but Hagen edges out Nicklaus for consecutive wins, at five to four.

The Masters

The Masters Tournament was begun by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1934 at Augusta National Golf Club and is still held there annually.

Most Victories:

6 -- Jack Nicklaus (1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975, 1986)

4 -- Arnold Palmer (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964)

4 -- Tiger Woods (1997, 2001, 2002, 2005)

3 -- Jimmy Demaret (1940, 1947, 1950)

3 -- Sam Snead (1949, 1952, 1954)

3 -- Gary Player (1961, 1974, 1978)

3 -- Nick Faldo (1989, 1990, 1996)

3 -- Phil Mickelson (2004, 2006, 2010)

Mickelson made 12 attempts prior to winning the Masters. Tiger Woods has won the Masters with the widest margin, at 12 strokes.

U.S. Open Championship

U.S. Open Championship

The United States Golf Association held the first U.S. Open on Oct. 4, 1895, at the Newport Golf and Country Club in Rhode Island. As Americans began to increasingly dominate the game, the U.S. Open developed into an important world golf championship.

Most Victories:

4 -- Willie Anderson (1901, 1903, 1904, 1905)

4 -- Robert T. Jones, Jr. (1923, 1926, 1929, 1930)

4 -- Ben Hogan (1948, 1950, 1951, 1953)

4 -- Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, 1980)

3 -- Hale Irwin (1974, 1979, 1990)

3 -- Tiger Woods (2000, 2002, 2008)

The Open Championship (British Open)

The Open celebrates its 150th anniversary on the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2010. It has been played in various rotations at 14 different courses.

Most Victories:

6 -- Harry Vardon (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, 1914)

5 -- James Braid (1901, 1905, 1906, 1908, 1910)

5 -- John Henry Taylor (1894, 1895, 1900, 1909, 1913)

5 -- Peter Thomson (1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1965)

5 -- Tom Watson (1975, 1977, 1980, 1982, 1983)

4 -- Tom Morris Sr. (1861, 1862, 1864, 1867)

4 -- Tom Morris Jr. (1868, 1869, 1870, 1872)

4 -- Willie Park Sr. (1860, 1863, 1866, 1875)

4 -- Walter Hagen (1922, 1924, 1928, 1929)

4 -- Bobby Locke (1949, 1950, 1952, 1957)

In the next section, we'll look at some of the traditions that lend golf its unique personality.


Historic Golf Traditions

Over its long history, golf has accumulated its own rich language and a wide variety of traditions.

Courtesies and Etiquette


Many golf traditions revolve around courtesy and they lend golf its distinctive feel. These include playing quickly, replacing divots, raking bunker footprints, calling penalties on oneself and keeping silent during a swing. Safety is paramount as well, and a golfer hitting an errant shot is expected to shout "fore," meaning "look out ahead."

Tournaments maintain their own particular courtesies. The reigning champion of the Masters, for example, hosts a dinner for competitors just before the next Masters tournament begins. The winner also traditionally donates a club to be put on display in the Augusta National clubhouse.


Awards for winning golf tournaments have varied considerably. Early on, golfers won silver clubs or silver balls. The first Open trophy, a "challenge belt" of silver and Moroccan leather, was replaced in 1873 by the first Claret Jug trophy (it resembled a 19th century wine server), which remains the award to this day. Each Open winner keeps the silver trophy for one year before exchanging it for a replica.

The Masters has awarded its famous green jacket to victors since 1949, in keeping with the traditional attire of Augusta National members. (Masters winners receive a one-year membership at the club.) Since 1954, the tournament has also awarded players crystal vessels for special performances, including a vase for the low round, a bowl for a hole-in-one and two goblets for an eagle.


We've discussed the origins of general terms like "tee," "club," and even "golf," and we'll learn more about the origins of "caddy" in a moment; but certain terms are unique to particular tournaments. Take the Masters (or, as tournament officials call it, "the tournament"), where spectators are "patrons," the back nine is known as the "second nine," and the rough is called the "second cut." The Augusta National 11th, 12th and 13th holes, crucial for winning the tournament, are appropriately nicknamed "Amen Corner."

In this next section, we'll see if GOLF really stands for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden."


Women in Golf

Although Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, reportedly golfed, Mary Queen of Scots is the woman most famously associated with early golf history. Mary is also credited with introducing the term "caddy" to the golf lexicon: When she played in France, she was assisted by young men called cadets (pronounced "kuh-DAYZ").

Women are not much mentioned in golf history for the subsequent 200 years. Scottish fishwives played a tournament at Musselburgh in 1810 for a prize of a "creel and a skull," and British women began forming clubs in the 1860s, establishing the St. Andrews Ladies Golf Club in 1867. In 1893, Issette Pearson spearheaded the formation of the Ladies Golf Union in Britain, which established the first women's golf tournament that same year. Across the pond, in 1894, women in Morristown, N.J., formed the first woman-run (but not women-only) golf club in America, offering a Tiffany silver cup as the grand prize for that year's tournament. The United States Golf Association held the first professional level women's tournament two years later.


The LGU tournament was carried by 18-year-old Margaret Scott, daughter of an earl who owned his own golf course. Margaret had already won tournaments against male golfers at Cheltenham (in an era before women's tees) and her talent and poise changed many minds about women on the links.

Many standout woman golfers followed. Early greats included the Hezlet family, consisting of the talented Mary Linzee "May" Hezlet, her two sisters and their mother, who played into her late seventies; prodigy Beatrix Holt, who at 16 years old won three straight national women's championships after only playing for two years prior; and the dominant Dorothy Campbell, who won 10 British, Canadian and American championships.

Turning to recent women greats, no discussion would be complete without mentioning Annika Sorenstam, a consistent player who holds low-score records in numerous categories and is second only to Mickey Wright for official tournament wins in one season (11 vs. 13). Wright, who held that record in two separate years, is also tied with Babe Zaharias and Pat Bradley for the most majors wins in one season, at three apiece. At the age of 26, Wright was also the youngest woman ever to reach 30 wins. Patty Berg holds the record for the most career majors won, at 15.

Today, the Ladies Professional Golf Association, founded in 1950, is one of the longest-running women's professional sports associations in the world, boasting more than 460 LPGA Tour members, approximately 230 of which are active competitors. Women's golf is here to stay, yet women still struggle to enter men's tournaments.

Let's look at some other groups that struggle for equal access to the links.


Minorities in Golf

Golf has a tradition of minority play dating back at least to the second U.S. Open, when John Shippen, an African-American who had helped build the club where the tournament was held, tied for fifth place. Prior to the match, a number of professionals threatened to withdraw if Shippen played, but USGA President Theodore Havemeyer told them to leave if they wanted to -- Shippen would play.

When he won the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, William A. Wright cemented his place in sports history as the first African-American to win a USGA championship. More black professionals came forward in the 1960s and 1970s, with Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe emerging in the 1980s and early '90s as the black professionals who competed most regularly. Peete, who had to overcome the handicap of a left arm that would not fully extend, developed such consistency in his swing that others nicknamed him "Xerox." Thorpe, a former football player, became the first black man to lead any round of the U.S. Open. In 24 years on the PGA Tour, he logged $1.5 million in official PGA earnings. Today, Tiger Woods is arguably one of the greatest golfers in history, already having won 14 masters tournaments, to say nothing of his three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs and three straight U.S. Amateur Championships.


Women minorities have had a somewhat more difficult journey into golf. Ann Gregory, who played in numerous USGA championships and who lost the 1971 Senior Women's Amateur by only one stroke, began her career in 1956, shortly after the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was followed by Althea Gibson, Eoline Thornton and Renee Powell, who also serves on the USGA committee.

Among Hispanics, Nancy Lopez stands out as the youngest woman inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, and few could forget "Super Mex" Lee Trevino, ranked as the 14th-greatest golfer of all time by Golf Digest magazine, or Juan "Chi-Chi" Rodriguez, who won 30 tournaments, including 22 on the Champions Tour. Of course, golf is an international sport, and as such has many great players who are not minorities in their home country. For example, Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican golfer who retired at 28, was ranked No. 1 in the world during her final three years and racked up 27 wins during her final six years.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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