Early History of Golf

Early History Of Golf

When and where did golf originate? This is a long and complicated answer, with a lot of different sources mentioning similar games throughout the years. It can be hard to to pinpoint the exact origin.

With such a rich history, golf is one of the oldest sports still played today.

It’s fair to say that the game of golf or games that were similar stretch back hundreds of years.

In this blog post I’ll be giving you a brief overview of how golf came to be and how people came to play it.

Who Actually Invented Golf?

When you think about the game of golf, the concept is simple. You hit a small object with a club towards a hole.

This simplicity of game meant there were similar versions of it going back as far as far as the 11th century in China.

In the 13th century in Europe with records from 1297. Players would hit a leather ball with a stick towards a hole several hundred yards away.

The winner being the person that could do it in the fewest hits.

Mentions of other games similar to golf in Asia and parts of Africa as well.

The answer to who invented it and the origins of golf are really open to anyone. It’s good to see people have been wanting to hit a ball with stick or club for a very long time. It wasn’t until the 15th century we got a similar version of the game of golf as we know it today.

Jeremiah Davison - The MacDonald Boys Playing Golf - 18th Century
Jeremiah Davison – The MacDonald Boys Playing Golf – 18th Century

Golf History

The general consensus is that the modern-day version of golf, with 18 holes originates from Scotland.

Early golf or versions of it appeared to be played year round by the Dutch. A lot of paintings showed people taking part in golf like games. Long before golf being mentioned in Scotland.

Whatever the case may be. I think it is fair to say the history of golf is a rich one touching on many different parts of the world. A lot of what we know and believe to be fact come down to when golf is mentioned in writing over the years.

For most people the modern-day version of golf originated on the eastern coast of Scotland in the 1500s. This early game would involve players attempting to hit a pebble over sand dunes and around tracks with a bent stick or club.

Lemuel Francis Abbott's - The Portrait of Henry Callender 1790 - 1798
Lemuel Francis Abbott’s – The Portrait of Henry Callender 1790 – 1798

Modern Day History of Golf

First off why is it called golf? Is golf an acronym?

You may have heard people say it stands for Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden. Well, this isn’t the case at all.

In fact women have been playing golf for a long time. It’s said that Mary, Queen of Scots was playing in 1567 when she should have been mourning the murder of her husband Lord Darnley.

David Allan  - William Inglis, Surgeon and Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
David Allan – William Inglis, Surgeon and Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers

The evolution of the word golf.

It came from the Dutch game of Kolf.

  • The medieval Dutch word “kolf” or “kolve” meant “club.” It is believed that word passed to the Scots, whose old Scots dialect transformed the word into “golve,” “gowl,” or “gouf.”
  • By the 16th century, the word “golf” had emerged.

Being Banned Due to Distraction

The first written record of golf was in 1457 when James II banned the game due to it being an unwelcome distraction to learning archery.

While this doesn’t sound like the worse thing in the world, the reason it was so problematic is it led people to neglect their military training. Something that was important when Scotland was preparing to defend itself from another invasion. Another sport that got banned at the same time was football.

A lot of people ignored the ban.

The ban in golf was lifted 45 years later by James IV when he became a keen golfer himself.

It makes me wonder how popular it was in those 45 years. Who played it and what, if any penalties there were if you were caught playing a banned sport. I couldn’t find any golf history talking about this period.

How did Golf Reach Scotland?

With Scotland being considered the birthplace of golf by many, how did it get there?

Did someone just decide to hit something around with a stick and more people joined in? Probably not.

The more likely scenario is that the idea of golf was passed on by passing traders from Europe.

The First Golf Competition

St Andrews is usually given the title of the birthplace of golf in Scotland. While it was referenced in 1552. It wasn’t until 1754 that the St Andrews Society of Golfers was formed and they started their own annual competition.

Charles Lees - The Golfers 1847
Charles Lees – The Golfers 1847

The First 18 Hole Golf Course

In 1764 the first 18 hole golf course was made at St Andrews. This was a reduction from the 22 that was being used beforehand. This set the standard for modern golf courses and has been followed ever since.

The Spread of Golf

The spread of golf increased when it was easier for people to travel. Once trains were more popular the sport made it’s way to England. Further afield it appeared at different times.

We’ll cover the history of golf in America in a future blog post.

Brief Timeline of Golf’s History

11th Century

Early ball and stick games

Games involving sticks and balls in China

11th Century
13th Century

Ball and stick games in Europe

Mentions of early golf like games mentioned

13th Century

Golf banned in Scotland

Golf is banned to preserve the skills of archery


Ban on golf lifted

James IV makes first recorded golf purchase


First evidence of golf at St Andrews


Mary, Queen of Scots seen playing golf


Golfing society formed

The Royal Burgess Golfing Society Formed


First golf club formed

The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is formed


First codified Rules of Golf are published.

These are published by the St. Andrews Golfers


18 Hole golf course created

22 hole course at St. Andrews turned into 18 hole course


First club outside of Scotland formed

The Blackheath Club in London is created


In Conclusion

While there is a lot of occurances of golf like games early in history. It’s fair to say the impact on the sport once it was played in Scotland was great.

With such a rich past it’s easy to see how it is so popular.

Current estimates state that over 60 million people play golf worldwide.

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