What is the history of golf?

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.