Since the Middle Ages, people have played ball and stick games throughout Europe and beyond. Early examples included tennis, cricket and croquet. Continental games similar to golf, such as jeu de mail, crosse and colf, differed by using above-ground targets. But on Scotland’s east coast, a specific form of the game took root from at least the 1400s, with the aim to get a ball into a hole in the ground.
The coastal landscape of eastern Scotland proved ideal for golf and would forever shape the game. The sandy grassland and dunes connecting sea and land – the links – had natural rough and hazards, sandy hollows and rabbit holes. The hardy coastal turf stayed in good condition for winter playing, helped by a mild climate.
In 1457, King James II of Scotland banned golf and football in an Act of Parliament, believing they were distracting his subjects from their archery practice. This is the earliest written mention of golf. Despite banning it for their subjects, we know Scottish royals played themselves. In 1502, James IV lost 42 shillings in a bet on a match against the Earl of Bothwell. Not only nobles disapproved. From the 1560s, town councils and the church banned golf, especially on the Sabbath, punishable by fines or even imprisonment. Golf had clearly spread throughout Scotland and was played by all social classes.
Social attitudes in the 18th century led to philosophical, literary, political and sporting societies being formed. The aim of these societies was for like-minded gentlemen to indulge their favourite activity. Many Scottish towns also had traditions of yearly contests in archery, shooting and horse racing. These early events shaped the golf competitions we know today.
The earliest known golf competition – the Annual Challenge for the Edinburgh Silver Club – was held in 1744 by “the Gentlemen Golfers”. With their first competition, the Edinburgh golfers also recorded the earliest rules of golf. These became the basis for other societies including St Andrews. But rules still varied widely. In the 1780s, players in Aberdeen had 22 rules while those in Crail had only six. Like the rules, the number of holes on a course varied. Leith and Bruntsfield were normally five-hole courses, while St Andrews originally had 11 to form a 22-hole round.
Golfers followed customs probably familiar to them from other sports. They wore military-style uniforms and betted on matches. After the matches, societies held business meetings followed by long meals, held in local taverns. Golf and socialising went together. Some societies fined members if they played but didn’t dine or had non-alcoholic drinks like tea!
Golf probably travelled to England from Scotland with the court of King James VI of Scotland when he became James I of England in 1603. He established his court at the Royal Palace at Greenwich, London, and reputedly played golf at nearby Blackheath.
In the 18th century, golf was played informally throughout the British Empire by military men, civil servants and merchants. In 1829, the first golf club outside Britain was founded at Calcutta, India, and by the 1870s there were clubs in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
The first European golf club was founded in 1856 at Pau in France, a popular resort for European aristocracy, and the next thirty-two years later at Antwerp in Belgium. The game then began to spread throughout Europe in the 1890s.
Golf was first played in the American colonies in the 18th century but died out early in the 19th century. In the 1880s it was reintroduced and took root at the Saint Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, New York, founded by John Reid of Dunfermline in 1888. It rapidly spread throughout the United States; by the end of the century there were around 1,000 golf clubs.
In 1860, Prestwick Golf Club decided to hold a tournament for professionals; men who earned their living as club and ballmakers, greenkeepers or by giving lessons to members. What is now recognised as the first Open Championship was held on 17th October 1860 and won by Willie Park of Musselburgh, who defeated seven fellow professionals over 36 holes in a single day.
For almost 30 years, The Open was won only by Scots, many of them golf’s greatest champions. Tom Morris Senior and his son Tommy Morris won four Opens each, with Tommy still holding the record of youngest Open Champion, aged 17.
By the turn of the century, The Open was dominated by three great professionals; James Braid, JH Taylor and Harry Vardon. Known as the Great Triumvirate, they won 16 of the 21 Opens between 1894 and 1914, which included a still-unsurpassed six Open victories by Vardon.
Challengers since include five-time winners Peter Thomson and Tom Watson, who just missed his chance of a sixth Open victory at Turnberry in 2009, aged 59. Each true legend of the game, from Arnold Palmer to Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, has held aloft the famous Claret Jug.
The first Olympic Games of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896. Golf made its debut in 1900 at the Paris Games. “It was very important to bring golf to light” claimed the official report, “this is such an interesting and healthy game, aimed at all social classes, and men and women”. Golf was one of the few sports women were permitted to compete in; the others were croquet, sailing and tennis. Twelve competitors from the USA, Britain, France and Greece took part in the men’s Olympic competition.
Following the 1904 St. Louis Games, where seventy-two Americans and three Canadians contested the golf competition, London hosted the 1908 Olympic Games. Debate raged in the press, however, as to whether golf should be included or who should run it. Despite advanced arrangements, the British Olympic Association cancelled the golfing events two days before they were due to begin. It appeared that many British golfers had incorrectly filled in their entry forms.
Golf returned to the Olympic Games at Rio in 2016. Following a thrilling final round, Britain’s Justin Rose was crowned the first Olympic golf gold medallist for 112 years, while seven-time Major champion Inbee Park of South Korea claimed the women’s title.