The great Robin Williams once described golf as “knocking a ball into a gopher hole.” If you haven’t watched his full rant about golf in his old HBO comedy special, you’re missing out (warning, it’s not kid friendly).
If you think about it, he’s not wrong though. For centuries, people around the world have been doing their best to get that ball in the gopher holes in as few of shots as possible.
Golf dates back to the British Isles for what we consider modern game. While historians say that golf began hundreds of years before in similar ball games.
But before titanium drivers, speed training, country club life, and American golf prize money, there’s a lot behind this great game called golf. Keep reading to learn more about the origins of golf and learn how it’s become one of the most popular sports in the world.
History of Golf
Golf has come a long way over the years. While now it’s common to see players hit 300+ yard bombs and shoot -25 in four rounds of competitive golf, this wasn’t always the case.
If you didn’t know, the origins of golf are widely debated. So, when was golf first invented?
Some golf historians claim a golf-like game was created in 1297 called apocryphally. This Dutch game was played with a stick and leather ball with the goal to get it in the hole in the fewest strokes possible.
While other scholars reference that clubs were used in the 17th-century Netherlands. Others describe a game called “kolf” popping up in the United States in the 1650s. This version of the game was played on fields in spring, summer, and fall while it took place on ice in the winters.
But the modern version of the sport we all know and love is said to be a Scottish invention.
According to Historic-UK, “The first reference to golf at its now recognised historic home town of St Andrews, was in 1552. It was not until 1754 however that the St Andrews Society of Golfers was formed to compete in its own annual competition using Leith’s rules. The first ever 18-hole course was constructed at St Andrews in 1764, establishing the now recognised standard for the game.”
But even before that golf was getting its start as early as the 15th century. The same Historic UK article mentioned that people would attempt to hit a pebble over sand dunes using a bent stick or club. It became so popular that King James II had to ban the sport altogether as people were ignoring their archery practice that is required for military training.
However, the ban was largely ignored (proving that golfers will always golf) and King William IV honored the oldest golf club as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1834. This is the British version of the USGA (United States Golf Association) – the governing body of golf in the United States.
Other places around the world adopted golf in the late 1760s as well including Bangalore, India in 1820. Over the next century golf courses started popping up in Ireland, Cape Town, New York, and Royal Hong Kong. Some of the oldest courses outside the UK include:
- Newport Club
- Tokyo Golf Club
- Chicago Golf Club
- South Carolina Golf Club
- Royal Calcutta Golf Club
- Royal Montreal Golf Club
While golf was becoming more popular, the sport really took off in the late 1860s thanks to the industrial revolution. Railways made it easier to access different towns and golf courses started popping up everywhere. Not to mention they were able to start mass-producing golf clubs and equipment so it was more affordable for the everyday person.
18 Hole Design
Did you know that golf was originally a 22 hole sport?
The links at St. Andrews during the 15th century had a total of 11 holes for the customary route. Players would play them and then play them again on the way back for a total of 22 holes.
But in 1764 it was decided that some of the holes were too short and combined them to make nine holes. A complete round became 18 holes, making the first golf course St. Andrews.
Previously golf courses could range from 6-20+ holes but now 18 holes is the worldwide standard. Later, the R&A became the rule-making body in the late 1890s.
Golf course maintenance has evolved a lot too. According to this Golf.com article, “These courses were often where livestock such as sheep and goats were kept as well, as these animals served as that generation’s agronomists and lawn mowers.’[The townspeople] would just go play golf and bring their goat with them and let them go mow the grass.”
Imagine taking your goat out to the golf course to act as your caddy and greenskeeper. Wow, times have changed!
Rules of Golf
One thing that separates golf from other sports is the insane amount of rules. But it’s the rules and integrity of upholding them that make this sport unlike any other.
According to a History article, “In 1744, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers wrote down the first rules of the game, known as the Thirteen Articles, for their tournament at the Leith Links in Edinburgh. Over the next 100 years, those 13 rules were adopted by more than 30 clubs.”
The R&A later standardized the rules of golf in 1899 alongside the USGA in America. To this day the rules of golf are quite different from other sports and one part that makes it harder for new players to learn the game. If you’re new to the game, make sure to read our simple rules of golf.
Aside from the rules that govern golf, there are a lot of terms to describe different aspects of the sport. Terms like eagle, birdie, bogey, shank, yip, chunk, are just a few common examples. Read more about the golf scoring names here.
The faster you can learn the lingo of golf, the more you can talk the talk when playing with other golfers. Click here to learn more about some of the most commonly used golf terms.
Another aspect of the game that has evolved throughout history is the attire worn during golf. In the past, golfers would wear long pants (known as knicker bottoms), button down shirts, and ties. Some would even wear sports coats as well.
A Golf Week article chronicled how golfers used to dress saying, “These golfers distinguished themselves by putting together formal outfits that featured “plus fours” or knickers with 4 inches of additional length; patterned, long golf socks; and two-tone “spectator” shoes. They continued the tradition of wearing a shirt and tie, over which they placed a knitted cardigan or “Norfolk” jacket on cooler days.”
Golfers started dressing more casually in the 1930s during a heat wave where players needed to wear more lightweight clothing. In the 1940s, men started wearing short-sleeved knitted shirts and lightweight slacks.
Needless to say, times have changed greatly as most players couldn’t imagine trying to swing a driver with a shirt and tie on. Now, the common golf attire are pants (or shorts for amateur golfers) and a button down collared shirt. Some municipal golf courses might not require polo shirts but most golf clubs do (especially private country clubs).
Golfers on the PGA Tour must wear slacks during competition but can wear shorts in practice rounds. While players on the LIV golf series can now wear shorts in competition, a first in the professional golf world.
Types of Golf Courses
If you’ve watched the Open Championship, you know that golf course designs just like attire have changed greatly over the years. Modern day golf courses in the United States look nothing like the original designs in Scotland.
The first golf club and many others are known as links golf courses. These are built into the terrain and often feature pot bunkers, tall fescue grass, and big but slower greens. While modern day parkland golf courses are longer, have different grass/sand, and much faster greens.
This is another aspect of golf that makes it unlike any other sport. The terrain and weather vary from day to day unlike soccer, baseball, football, hockey.
History of Golf Clubs
While golf courses have changed dramatically, golf clubs and equipment have too. In the beginning, golfers used hand-crafted wooden clubs made from beech wood. The shafts were made of hazel or ash and are night and day different from what we see today.
Not only were the golf clubs wildly different but the golf balls were too. At the time balls were made of compressed feathers wrapped in a stitched horse hide. Needless to say, it is a little different from a Titleist ProV1.
Modern golf equipment is much easier to hit than the first iron clubs and golf ball making it much more inviting to everyday players. While it’s still one of the most expensive games played, it’s worth every penny. Playing golf is a great way to enjoy being outside with friends, family, and meeting like-minded people.
Caddies in Golf
Let’s not forget about another crucial part of golf history – caddies (also known as “cads” or “cawdy”). A caddy is someone who helps you during the round by cleaning your golf clubs, reading greens, and carrying your bag. The history of caddies dates back to the early 1800s in Edinburgh and are still a part of the game today (despite golf carts).
Sadly, caddies in the United States have a dark history too. According to this Wikipedia page, “During and even after the Jim Crow era of enforced racial segregation in the United States, many clubs particularly in the Southern United States permitted only blacks to serve as caddies. At the time, the vast majority of such clubs restricted membership exclusively to whites, while blacks were not allowed to play on such courses.”
Thankfully, things have changed as caddies are still a crucial part of the game. Some golf courses (like Augusta National) used to not allow outside caddies and you could only hire ones at the course. But that started to change in the 1980s when purses became larger and players preferred working with the same caddy each week.
Now, traditional caddies now walk the course and are responsible for cleaning clubs, washing balls, locating balls, and helping with club selection among other responsibilities. For professional golfers, having the right caddy on the bag can make the difference between winning and losing.
While fore-caddying is when caddies walk the course while players ride in carts. Fore caddying is more about locating golf balls, reading greens, and raking bunkers. Caddies are there to make the round more enjoyable for golfers but can help with advice about the golf course too.
If you’ve never used a caddy, you are missing out. They make golf even more enjoyable and can help you save a ton of shots on courses you’ve never played. Since they loop the golf course multiple times per week, they know where to aim and how greens break better than anyone.
Golf in the United States (American Golf)
Golf became more popular in the United States just before the 1900s and the USGA was established to govern the game in the 1894. By the year 1900 there were more than 1,000 golf courses in the United States; quickly the U.S. became the center of golf.
John Reed helped bring the game to America as he founded the St. Andrews Club in Yonkers, NY and it is one of the original courses of the USGA. While Elizabeth Reed founded Sage Hill Golf Club for women at a nearby location.
Golf continued to grow after the USGA created the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur Championship, and U.S. Women’s amateur championship. All of which are still played today among other tournaments (like the U.S. Mid-Am Championship) that amateur golfers strive to win.
According to Wikipedia, “In 1922 Walter Hagen became the first native born American to win the British Open Championship. The expansion of the game was halted by the Great Depression and World War II, but continued in the post-war years. By 1980 there were over 5,908 USGA affiliated clubs. That figure grew to over 10,600 by 2013.”
Bobby Jones, who remained an amateur despite his incredible talents, was also a driving force in growing the game in the United States. He won the Grand Slam in 1930 and is the co-founder of Augusta National.
Other players that have helped grow the game over the past century include Ben Hogan, Walter Hagen, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nikcalus, and of course, Tiger Woods.
PGA Tour (Professional Golfers Association)
Professional golf is another reason the game has continued to grow over the last 100 years. The PGA Tour is the flagship Tour of the United States with the best players in the world and also runs:
- The Champions Tour (50 and older)
- PGA Tour Canada, Latinoamerica, and China
- Korn Ferry Tour (players who have not yet qualified for the PGA Tour – formerly known as the Web.com Tour)
While the LPGA Tour is a separate entity for women golfers. There is also the Ladies Golf Union (LGU) which was the governing body for womens’ events in Great Britain and Ireland.
The PGA Tour does not host major tournaments (those are run separately) but does run weekly professional events such as the Players Championship and countless others. These events are televised and feature the best golfer in the world competing for millions of dollars each week.
Want to join the greats of the game and become a pro golfer? Click here to learn more about how to become a professional golfer now.
Another aspect that makes this game so great are the major championships . The four majors of golf are the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship, and Open Championship (formerly known as the British Open). Winning all four events is known as the career grand slam of golf.
Each major championship requires excellent golf to win on Sunday afternoon. Here is a quick breakdown of the four championships:
- The Masters: The first major of the year is always at the same site – Augusta National. It’s one of the most celebrated golf courses in the world and also extremely private. Every April the best players in the world try to win the title and slip on the green jacket.
- PGA Championship: The second major (which used to be the 4th major) is the PGA Championship. The venue changes each year and is the only major to not allow amateur golfers into the field.
- U.S. Open: The U.S. Open is the third major and often the hardest test of golf. The course venues change but players can always expect extremely long courses, thick rough, and hard, challenging green complexes. They hold qualifiers each year so even everyday golfers can try to compete with the best golfers in the world every June.
- Open Championship: The final major is the Open which takes places on iconic courses such as St. Andrews. This link style major is very different from the others due to the weather and course design.
Tiger Woods won all four in a row (but not in a calendar year) and it’s referred to as the “Tiger Slam.” It’s a feat that we will most likely never see again in the history of golf.
If you want to learn more about the history of the game of golf, make sure to visit one of these incredible museums.
- World Golf hall of Fame
- Jack Nicklaus Museum
- Canadian Golf Hall of Fame
- The R&A World Golf Museum
- United States Golf Association Museum
FAQs About Golf History
Do you have more questions about how this great game got started? If so, keep reading to learn more how the sport became so popular in today’s world.
What is the brief history of golf? Where was golf invented?
Ball and stick games were played for centuries before the invention of modern day golf. The oldest recorded rules of the game date back to 1744. According to The College of Golf, “The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers published “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf.”
This ancient piece of golf history, which now remains in the National Library of Scotland, gave fame to the Muirfield club being the longest surviving club in the history of golf.”
Golf got its start in Scotland, then grew to other areas of the world including the United States. The industrial revolution helped the game grow tremendously as it was easier to travel and manufacture golf equipment at scale.
When was golf originally invented?
Golf origins have been debated by scholars for centuries. Early ball and stick games similar to golf can be traced back to the 11th century in China and other locations. While a similar version of golf was even played in the United States in the 1600s.
But the modern version of golf with 18 holes and wooden clubs got its start in Scotland. It’s the home of golf with St. Andrews being the original golf course. It’s hard to believe that St. Andrews is still relevant today and regularly hosts big tournaments including the Open Championship.
Who invented golf?
Golf isn’t credited with one person as the mastermind behind the sport. But one thing that all golfers will appreciate is that the sport has been banned by several leaders throughout history.
The Scottish Parliament thought of golf as a distraction as soldiers would often play instead of train for the military. Despite all the bans, golf continued to flourish and become the sport we all know and love.
Did the Chinese invent golf?
Maybe, but there is a large amount of speculation in the golf world.
According to the same History article from above, “A 2006 exhibit in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum laid out what its curators said is evidence that people in ancient China played a version of golf (called chuiwan—or “hit ball”) as long ago as 1368.
The museum displayed an enlargement of a part of a Ming Dynasty scroll “The Autumn Banquet” showing participants of an imperial court hitting a ball toward a hole in the grass.”
However, the former director of the United States Golf Association Golf Museum and Library Rand Jerris doesn’t agree that golf was created in China. In the same article, Jerris argues that every culture has had various ball and stick games over the years. But says that the Chinese version of golf wasn’t played outside, over a large landscape thus making it a different sport.
Where is golf the most popular?
Thanks to technology and superstars like Tiger Woods, golf is a prominent sport around the world. Some of the most popular places are the United States, China, United Kingdom, Japan, South Africa, Australia, and more. Almost anywhere you travel, you can find a golf course to tee it up on.
Golf is growing too. According to a recent R&A Sports Marketing Survey there are approximately 66.6 million golfers in the world. This is an increase of about 5 million in the last 5 years.
Why is golf called golf?
The word doesn’t stand for anything despite many people thinking the acronym is “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden.” According to the USGA, “The word ‘golf’ is not an acronym for anything. Rather, it derives linguistically from the Dutch word ‘kolf’ or ‘kolve,’ meaning quite simply ‘club. ‘ In the Scottish dialect of the late 14th or early 15th century, the Dutch term became ‘goff’ or ‘gouff,’ and only later in the 16th century ‘golf.”
What is the oldest golf course in the world?
The oldest golf course is the Old Course at St. Andrews. It’s commonly referred to as the home of golf and still one of the most iconic courses in the world. If you need a bucket list golf trip, this is no doubt one of the most important stops.
Final Thoughts on Where Golf Originated
Golf has been around for centuries (or longer) and hopefully will continue to thrive for a few more centuries. While 2020 was a challenging year for the entire world, golf is one of the few things that survived and grew over the pandemic. Since more and more people wanted to be outside, people decided to take up golf.
What’s great is that the modern game isn’t just for gentlemen golfers anymore but women, juniors, and all types of people who enjoy a challenging sport. Play more of this crazy Scottish sport to create your own golf history and see how good you can get.
Don’t forget, the game is simple… just knock a ball in a gopher hole. Have fun and enjoy this great game! If you want more, there’s 50+ facts about golf here.