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The origins of golf are quite unclear and much debated. There are historical records dating back 12 centuries ago from the Netherlands and central Europe to parts of Africa and even China describing games played with a stick and a ball (or stones). In the 1500s the Dutch mentioned “kolf” in a number of written texts, which was a club and ball game, often played on canal ice in winter. Games with sticks and balls have been played by urchins in the streets and alleys of crowded New York City since the 1800s, but that probably wasn’t golf. The modern game of golf is generally considered to be established in Scotland. The word “golf,” or in Scots “gawf” or goff,” is said to be their alternative of Dutch “colf” or “colve,” meaning stick or club.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England. His son, the Prince of Wales, and his courtiers played actual golf at Blackheath in London, from which the Royal Blackheath Golf Club traces its origins. There is evidence that Scottish soldiers, expatriates and immigrants took the game to British colonies and elsewhere during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The oldest surviving rules of golf were written in 1744 for the Company of Gentleman Golfers, later renamed the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which played at Leith Links. Their “Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf” became known as the “Leith Rules,” and formed the basis for all subsequent codes. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (now the R&A) was formed in St. Andrews in 1754 and was regarded as golf’s only major governing body until the USGA was established in 1894.
From its earliest days in Scotland golf quickly gained popularity from locals who had the time to the highest levels of royalty. It seems that James II of Scotland tried unsuccessfully to ban golf during the middle part of the fifteenth Century, claiming it interrupted archery practice, as Scotland was preparing to defend itself against an English invasion. Then in 1560, Mary Queen of Scots herself was embroiled in quite a bit of gossip when she caused a scandal playing on the links at St. Andrews just 12 days after her husband’s funeral. The deepest and also well-documented relationship between the game and Scotland begins with St. Andrews, which is officially and universally considered to be the home of the modern game of golf. Today, St. Andrews Golf Club offers seven courses, but the original one is the Old Course, on which the Open Championship is played.
The origins of golf in America are, of course, closely linked with Scotland. Evidence of early golf in pre-USA dates to 1739 and 1741, when two Scotsman received a shipment by boat of golf balls and clubs sent to Charleston, South Carolina. It’s uncertain where they played. The establishment of the South Carolina Golf Club in Charleston was in 1787. There were golf courses built and played – mostly nine holes – but it wasn’t until 1893 that Charles Blair MacDonald, who attended St. Andrews University and learned the game at St. Andrews, built the Chicago Golf Club, which was our country’s first 18-hole course. MacDonald is considered the father of golf course architects. Today there are over 14,000 golf course facilities with over 16,000 golf courses in the USA, with an estimated 24 million golfers.
If you would like to get a true sense of what the early days of golf were like in the home of golf in St. Andrews buy a copy of Tommy’s Honor by Kevin Cook. It is the story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, “golf’s founding father and son.” (There is a movie by the same name.) From 1861 to 1872 they won eight Open Championships between the two.