While the definitive history of golf has yet to be uncovered, the game has existed in one form or another since at least medieval times, when games were played with balls and clubs. The game itself grew out of a ball and club game on the fjord of the Firth of Forth in Scotland.
According to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the game of golf was invented in Scotland. While ball and club games were played in other places, like the Netherlands and China, among others, the golf game we recognize today with 18 holes almost surely originated in Scotland. In fact, there is 1457 documentation of the existence of golf in the form of an Act of Scottish Parliament wherein James II of Scotland banned the playing of “gowf” and football because they were distracting soldiers from practicing archery, which was needed for military tactics.
Golf was banned in Parliamentary Acts of 1471 and 1491 because golf was deemed unprofitable, and Mary Queen of Scots was frowned upon for playing golf right after the murder of her husband in 1567. Golf was not considered a suitable pastime for women at that time, so it was scandalous that she played at all, but particularly scandalous that she would play after the murder of her husband. Since one conspiracy theory speculates that Mary herself was responsible for her husband’s (who was also her first cousin) death, it may not be surprising that she was nonplussed enough to play a round of golf.
Later, James VI of Scotland would ban golf, but was given balls and clubs on three different occasions by people trying to convince him that the game was fun. James eventually became king of England, and it is thought that his son and attendants played at Blackheath in London.
A lawyer, Sir John Foulis, has ledgers that record games of golf played at Musselburgh Links in 1672 – the same course where Mary Queen of Scots supposedly played in 1567, and the oldest golf course in the world.
Thomas Kincaid, medical student and avid golfer, was the first to write instructions for playing the game. He played Brutsfield Links and Leith Links, and in his notes we find the first mention of a handicap system, and descriptions of his golf swing. This diary dates back to 1687. The oldest specific rules for the game were written for the Company of Gentleman Golfers in the year 1744. The club, which later became The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, played at Leith and the society still exists today. One group, called The Royal Burgess Golfing Society, claimed that they were formed in 1735, but the Edinburgh Golfers are generally known as the first group of golfers, who also established the rules.
Emigrants from Scotland to the British Colonies introduced the game of golf, and as early as 1779 there exist advertisements in the Royal Gazette of New York City for golf clubs and golf balls. Additionally, there is documentation of a golf club in Savannah, Georgia from a 1796 issue of the Georgia Gazette.
The 1850s saw a keen interest in Scotland emerge in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who built a castle (Balmoral) in Scotland and were instrumental in the railway being built between Edinburgh and London. When this happened, tourism to Scotland increased greatly, and English people became interested in Scottish life and culture. Golf, of course, was a big part of that and this time period saw a spread of golf courses across the British Isles. By 1880 England had 12 golf courses, and by 1914 it had over 1000. Also by the 1880’s golf groups emerged in South Africa, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
Tracking back to 1868, the Meji restoration in Japan saw the country striving to become more modern, and Japanese people traveled to America and Europe to set up trade and learn about new business, science, and cultural trends. In turn, people from Europe and America traveled to Japan to help set up banks, schools, factories, and shipyards. By 1903, British people living in Japan developed their own golfing club in Kobe, and in 1913 Japanese natives founded the Tokyo Golf Club.
As golf maintains its popularity, so the industry grows. What used to be old, wooden clubs are now made from graphite and titanium. What used to be a wooden ball was then made of leather, and then balls were made from dried sap. Today golf balls are made from urethane blends or surlyn, and are designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. You can even choose the type of ball you want, depending on your golfing style. It’s safe to say, golf will be popular for many years to come.
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