Song Dynasty Chinese and the medieval Dutch played “golf-like” games, but “golf” originated in Scotland. The first written evidence comes from a 1457 Act of Scottish parliament, prohibiting the people from playing “gowf” instead of practising archery.
Golf has always been a compulsive distraction, and one that can cause participants to lose their heads – In 1567 Mary Queen of Scots was implicated in the murder of her husband when seen playing golf rather than grieving, and Charles I insisted on finishing his game after being told (on course) of the Irish rebellion in 1641.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers produced the first rules in 1744. An, unintentionally, ironic demonstration of how unlucky golfers tend to be, there were 13.
The first professional match took place in 1819, but it wasn’t until 1860 that Lord Eglinton and Colonel James Ogilvie Fairlie organised a tournament at Prestwick that would be the first Open Championship.
By then players used “guttie” balls rather than traditional “featheries.” The first great professional Allan Robertson, a legendary featherie maker, was so incensed on seeing his apprentice Tom Morris using a guttie at St Andrews in 1851 he sacked him on the spot.
Old Tom, as he was later known, won four Opens between 1861 and 1867 (using a guttie.) His son, Young Tom, won four straight from 1868 before dying, aged just 24.
The British dominated the early years of international competition with the “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, James Braid and J.H. Taylor to the fore at the turn of the 20th century.
Walter Hagen won the 1914 U.S, Open and ushered in a near century of U.S. control. As players adapted their games to accommodate the rubber-cored ball (from 1901,) steel shafts (legal from 1929 in Britain,) the sand wedge (conceived by Gene Sarazen in 1932,) golfers from America led the way.
Hagen then Jones, Sarazen, Nelson, Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson and Woods – each generation has seen a player from the USA at the very pinnacle of the game.
The first televised tournament was the 1947 U.S. Open and golf on TV boomed in the 1960s. In this age of global communication, the world watches the Open, Masters, Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup et al. We’ve seen golf shots on the moon, “Caddyshack,” the ill-timed drives of U.S. presidents, the on (and off) course exploits of Tiger Woods and the emergence of phenoms inspired by his brilliance.
From a rudimentary stick and ball game endured by a few hardy souls on the links of Scotland, golf has evolved into a sport played by over 60 million people worldwide, with a multi-billion pound supporting industry.