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The rules of the game were formally written down in 1744, but people had already been playing for centuries.
On March 6, 1457, King James II, who was the King of Scots from 1437 until his death in 1460, in an Act of Parliament banned citizens from playing football and golf. Scotsmen had allegedly been playing these games in the streets and churchyards, instead of practicing archery skills for their mandatory military training.
“No part of the country should football, golf, or other such pointless sports be practiced but, for the common good and for the defense of the country,” stated the ban.
This ban is the first written mention of a game called golf. But what was this game? “There is both text and visual evidence that there was a game that we would call golf,” says Rand Jerris, a prominent golf historian and the former Director of The USGA Golf Museum and Library. “One was played over large pieces of property striking balls out in the open. The other was actually a game that was played through the streets of a village or a town where they were hitting a ball into a churchyard or down a street. So historians have differentiated between what they call short golf and long golf that was played in Scotland in the 1500s.”
What Jerris and other golf historians are sure of is that there is enough evidence to prove that by the mid-1500s there was a game being played with multiple clubs over long distances to a hole in the ground. Historians have discovered a Latin grammar book from the era that used golf to teach Latin. Vocabula, which was published in 1636 by Aberdeen, Scotland schoolmaster David Wedderburn, includes the earliest descriptions of the game, including the first mention of a golf hole.
“All the things that we know to be true about the early game—the character of the game and the type of equipment that was used—is because golf is being invoked in a Latin grammar book for schoolchildren,” Jerris said.
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.
There wasn’t an attempt to create a standardized set of rules until the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R &A) delivered the first consolidated rules code in 1899. During this same period the United States Golf Association was being formed in New York City. The USGA’s rules converged significantly with those from the R&A, consolidating those two entities as the two main governing bodies of the game.
According to Jerris, there was a movement beginning in the 1880s to create governing bodies for sports. The golf community resisted one set of rules. Competitive rules changed from course to course. “It’s not until the 1890s that you have in golf the momentum and the impetus behind forming a governing body to bring unification to the game,” Jerris says.
A group playing golf at the course at St Andrews in Scotland, late 19th century.
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Since 1552, golf has been played at St. Andrews, Scotland. It was here at the St. Andrews Golf Links that the R&A was formed and where the 18-hole round was established. “There are no texts from the 1500s that point to the significance of St. Andrews, but by the time there are texts describing golf courses it’s really clear that it is considered the ultimate example of what a golf course should be,” Jerris says.
The first visual evidence of golf is of a painting of St. Andrews, dating from the 1740s. The photo shows four golfers and two caddies. The Old Course at St. Andrews, which is widely considered the oldest course in the world, is the quintessential Links course, which means that it sits on sandy coastland.
“Every golf course in the world is an imitation of landforms that naturally occur on the Scottish coast,” Jerris says. “Many of the great American courses like Oakmont and Winged Foot borrowed elements of the Scottish landscape, reorganizing them and kind of recreating them on an American landscape where they in most cases naturally had no business being there.”
The Ming Emperor Xuande playing chuiwan, found in the Collection of Palace Museum, Beijing.
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St. Andrews may be known as the “home of golf,” but in the early 2000s, Chinese historians claimed their ancestors were playing the game long before the Scots.
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 as 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.
The exhibit also featured a book, “Wan Jing,” (“Manual of the Ball Game”), published in 1282. The book laid out rules for a game that resembled the game of golf.
“With these documents we can say chuiwan is quite similar to golf,” Tom K.C. Ming, chief curator of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum told the New York Times. “There’s a green, there’s a hole. When we saw the equipment, we were quite surprised at how similar it is.”
Jerris is skeptical of the conclusions drawn by the exhibit. “Every culture has had a stick and ball game,” he says. “The question is what elements of that stick and ball game need to be in place for it to be called golf. They had a game in an enclosed court where they were striking a ball towards the target. Sometimes it was a hole in the ground, sometimes it wasn’t. Generally in the pictures it was a single club. So if one part of your definition of golf is that they have to be using multiple clubs that are specialized for a specific stroke, then you wouldn’t call it golf.
“If it’s played over a large landscape, you know where there are multiple holes, each presenting different challenges, then you can’t really call what they were doing golf.”
A leisurely game of golf at St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, New York, c. 1894.
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America’s origins in golf, meanwhile, are closely linked with Scotland. In August 1743, David Deas, a 21-years old Leith native and slave trader, received one of the first documented shipments of golf equipment in the American colonies—432 balls and 96 clubs sent from the Port Leith to Charleston. Deas had grown up playing the game on the Leith Links, a five-hole course, where the first rules of golf were established. When Harleston Green was established by the South Carolina Golf Club in 1841 in a Charleston park as the first American golf club, slaves were used as caddies.
However, the first reference to golf in America came much earlier in 1659 through a Dutch ordinance in Fort Orange, New York, which later became Albany. The playing of the sport was banned in the streets because it caused “great damage to the windows of the houses, and also exposes people to the danger of being injured and is contrary to the freedom of the public streets.”
Charles Blair MacDonald, who attended St. Andrews University and learned the game at the St. Andrews Golf Links, is considered the father of American golf course architects. In 1893, MacDonald built the Chicago Golf Club, which was the country’s first 18-hole course.
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