GOLF’S INCEPTION A
By Nick Poppa, originally published
in the Ohio Golfer Magazine
Historians concede that the origin of golf is
not conclusive. Researchers tend to
categorize their findings into two phases.
One, there’s this centuries-old pastime
consisting of the striking of a small, hard object with a stick of sorts, toward
a designated spot by two or more individuals in an open outdoor area.
Two, there were the more formalized recreational
and competitive activities with clubs and balls over specific courses with
primitively designated tees and greens.
Golf’s precise origin can be traced to the first
category, by students of the game, to disputable beginnings. Judge for yourself.
Roman soldiers, in Caesar’s
time, played “Paganica” using curved wooden sticks to hit feather-filled leather
balls. The soldiers overran
and occupied parts of England and Scotland until the Fourth Century. It is believed the invaders; game of
Paganica rubbed off on the natives and became the pattern later for golf in
Scotland, England, Belguim,
France and Holldand.
Scottish historians generally
agree on 1100 as the year their “golf” was born and became their
“invention.” Robert Browning in his
“History of Golf” maintains the “Scots” devised (golf’s) essential features…the
combination of hitting for distance with the final nicety of approach to an
exiguous mark, and the independent progress of each player with his own ball,
free from interference by his adversary…
A game similar to Paganica
was played during the reign of Edward III and was called “Cambuca.” It was banned in 1363 along with all
games so that men would have more time to practicie archery for military
France had a game called “jeu de mail” that was also known as
“touchstone.” It was played in open
country within a designated area.
The player who took the fewest strokes to reach the target about ½ maile
along a road was the winner.
Art gallery archives contain
a print of Araucanos Indians playing “El Sueca” in
Chile with clubs and balls back in the 16th
Yet still another contention
is that golf began its history in Holland in the 13th Century in Loenen where they had
four hotels. Dutch artists of the
17th and 18th Centuries depicted scenes, both on ice and
land, of players hitting balls toward targets in a game they called “het
kolven.” Dutch “kolf” has often
been mentioned in historical references.
As far back as five centuries
ago, golf was popular in Scotland. Sometimes
twoo much so. King James II, in
1457, was concerned about the defense of his country. He wanted more time to be spent
practicing archery and issued this edict: “….that fute-ball and golfe be utterly
cryed downe, and not be used…” Golf
was considered a threat to national security. Compulsory archery practice was being
ignored by golfers who became absorbed in a new pastime.
The ban continued for about
50 years when, in 1503, King James IV married a daughter of King Henry VII and
signed a treaty of peace with England. Golfers
were allowed to resume. That also
included King James, an avid golfer.
This union between
Scotland and England helped introduce golf to the latter. In 1513, Queen Catherine of Aragon wrote
that she…”regretted that she would not often be hearing from her husband, King
Henry VIII, but that all his subjects be very glad, I thank God, to be busy with
Golfe for they take it for a pastime…”
Almost a century passed before King James VI of
Scotland succeeded to the throne of
England as King James I and brought serious golf to
Mary Queen of Scots was a
golf addict. It spelled her
doom. Either because she was
seeking solace, or did not care (after the murder of her husband in 1567), she
was seen playing golf a few days later. “A poor view” was taken of her golfing
at such a time, according to historians.
British royalty supported
golf. Early House of Stuart
monarchs all played. King James VII
of Scotland and King James II of
England were often on the links at Leith. King
James VI was probably the first real promoter of “junior” golf. He considered golf “great recreation for
the young.” He encouraged his two
sons, Prince Henry and Prince Charles, to golf. Later when the latter became King
Charles I, he was in a match at Leith. Word
reached him of an Irish Rebellion.
Immediately, he left.
Evidently he was losing at the time and some accused him of leaving in a
hurry”…to save his half-crown (the bet) rather than his crown.” Apparently his last golf round was at
Shield Field outside the walls of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he was a prisoner.
Royal participation in golf
trailed off after the passing of the Stuarts, although Bonnie Prince Charlie was
seen practicing while exiled in Italy just before the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. Royal patronage bounced back in 1833
when King William IV bestowed the designation “Royal” on the Perth Golfing
Society. The next year, he accepted
the invitation to be the patron and subsequently designated “The Royal and
Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.”
It was about this time when
golf’s transition from isolated individual encounters in Phase One to “club”
atmospheres in Phase Two. Take your
pick as to where and when the first “golf club” was
Royal Blackheath, instituted
in 1608, lays claim to being the oldest golf club in the world. Evidence is lacking of any such club
until well into the 1700s.
Seniority is claimed by the
Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which boasts of a 1744 start. For a few years prior to that, it was
recorded that…”gentlemen of honor, skillful in the ancient and healthful
exercise of Golf” had been playing on the five-hole links at
Leith. To obtain
formal recognition, they appealed to the Edinburgh Town Council, who gave them a
silver club to use as an annual prize.
They formed the Company, kept minutes from the day forward and compiled
the oldest continuous record of any golf club in the world. Twenty years later, in 1764, Club rules
were enacted, and competition was limited to members only.
Historians have concluded
that most of the early golf clubs were founded by Masons and the date of their
beginning preceded only by a few years their formation as golf clubs. Records show that the foundation stone
for Golf House at St.
Andrews was laid by William St.
Clair, Grandmaster Mason of Scotland.
All members on hand were Masons and Full Masonic honors were
observed. The Royal Burges Society
of Edinburgh was formed in 1735, however there were no recorded
minutes. Minutes are missing in
several other beginnings, which indicated that Masonic Affairs were secret and
records were destroyed when the societies accepted golfers into their
organization even though they were not Masons.
There were only 10 golf clubs
in the late 1700s. In 1818, the Old
Mancester Blub was founded. It was
the oldest golf club outside Scotland, after Blackheath.
The Calcutta Club was formed
in India in 1829 and the Bombay Club in 1842. The Calcutta Club conducted the Amateur
Championship of India, which became the oldest national championship outside the
Golf reached the west coast
of Scotland at Prestwick in 1851.
Earlier, golf was played in Great
linksland along the eastern costs of Scotland. Links
were formed when the sea receded and left wild, undulating wastes of sand. The land had little agricultural
use. It was usually remote from
towns and provided the weather conditions that eventually provided challenges to
the hardy pastime. One observer put
it, “grass and hazards were already there; the ground had natural movement and
fashioning…a course needed no great imagination or labor…From the beginning,
links provided classic settings…greatest courses lie on such land…” There were bunkers in abundance, many
resulting from the digging for shells.
Slightly raised areas were suitable for teeing grounds and greens. The Old Course at
Andrews came about
“naturally.” Nature was its only
architect. Its design did not
require the hand of man and this great links golf course has survived the test
of centuries except for an occasional alteration as equipment became more
sophisticated and efficient.
At St. Andrews, the Old Course had 22 holes – 11 out, 11 back. In 1764, William St. Clair used 121
strokes for a round. It was then
decided to convert the first four holes to two. The same fairways and greens were used
going out and back, the round thus was cut to 18-holes as is the case with most
courses today. At 64 years of age,
St. Clair then scored a 99 over the 19-holes. Breaking of 100 was an extraordinary
accomplishment. In 1767, James
Durham won the Silver Club at St. Andrews with 94 – a score that held up for 86 years, probably
the longest-standing record of all time.
J.C. Stewart broke it in 1853 when he won the King William IV Medal with
In 1856, the first golf club
on the European continent was formed at Pau,
The oldest seaside course
outside Scotland, called the Royal North Devon Course, opened in 1864 at
At one time, golf almost
Holland, it vanished for more than 300 years Golf declined in
the 1500s. But after years of
sporadic warfare, in 1603 the crown heads of
Scotland and England were united, and King James VI moved his palace to
went along and the growth of golf resumed.
Holland’s further claim to golf’s origination is evidenced by
the discovery of a wooden ball about 2-inches in diameter in the mud of
Amsterdam harbour where it was buried under a pile driven into
silt to support a building. Also
uncovered were metal club heads at a city dump.
Which brings to the fore the
story of clubs and balls used by golf’s pioneers. Records show that the first clubs made
specifically for golf were by a bow-maker in Perth who was hired to make clubs for King James IV. The oldest clubs probably are preserved
Scotland. A set of
six wooden clubs and two irons was found in Hull, along with a 1741 Yorkshire news clipping which described them. Clubs were not numbered as now. One of the oldest wooden sets at
Andrews includes a “play club,”
“long spoon,” “mid-spoon,” “short spoon,” “Baffling spoon,” “driving putter” and
“putter.” Irons developed later and
were called “cleeks,” “track irons” (for hitting balls out of railway lines),
“rut irons” and “play clubs.”
Steel-shafted clubs were
tried before World War I but the Royal and Ancient Rules Committee frowned upon
them as being too radical a departure from the original wooden shafts. Only after April, 1924, did the USGA
permit metal shafts in all its competitions. However, Bobby Jones and many others
continued to use wooden shafts and in 1930 he scored his Grand Slam with
handmade hickory shafts. In May,
1930, the R&A finally fell in line and approved steel
Golf balls have undergone an
even more spectacular transition.
First there were stones and rocks, then round wooden objects before
someone stuffed feathers into leather spheres back in the dark ages of
golf. Leather usually was untanned
bull’s hide stuffed with about a top that filled with feathers. On dry days, a feather carried upwards
to 200 years but it cut easily. It
was the standard golf ball until the 1840s. By 1848, the feathery was doomed by the
“gutta-percha” – a rubbery substance, hand-molded into a round sphere the size
of today’s ball. It outdistanced
the feathery, cost about a fourth less, rolled more truly on greens, but did not
fly as well until dimples were developed.
Cleveland man, Coburn Haskell, is credited with revolutionizing
the dame. He came up with a ball
that was made up of thing rubber windings around a solid core. Its popularity soared mostly because it
flew about 25 years farther and putted more accurately. It sealed the doom of the gutta-percha
in 1901 when Walter Travis used the Haskell to win the U.S. Amateur
Willie Dunn was the first
professional golfer in England at Blackheath in 1851.
To understand how historical
references can be deceptive, court records at
Fort Orange in Albany refer to fines being levied fro “playing golf in the
streets” as early as 1657. But can
you call this street game “golf”.
During the Revolutionary War,
it was reported that Scottish Officers played golf In America. Before the end of the 18th
Century, there were golf clubs in South Carolina and Savannah, Ga. Historians
question the existence of “golf” among members who might have used the name of
golf for their dining clubs simply for the sake of
In 1888, a Scotsman, John
Reid, set up a three-hole golf course in a cow pasture near
NY, with several friends. It was called St. Andrews. He was
not an enthusiastic pioneer because he opposed moving to a more spacious site
and he object to any increase in club membership. However, in four years, membership
increased to 13, the course expanded to six holes and later had to be relocated
in a nearby apple orchard where the golfers became known as the “Apple Tree
Gang.” In its present location at
Hope it became an 18-hole course.
It was on
Island where American golf
received its greatest impetus.
Fabled Scottish Pro Willie Dunn was engaged to build a 12-hole course at
Shinnecock Hills*. An imposing
clubhouse was designed by noted architect, Stanford White. In 1891, Shinnecock became the first
U.S. golf club to have a clubhouse; first to be
incorporated, and first to have a waiting list. And it is reputed to be the first
American golf course that actually looked like a golf course.
Subsequent research attributes the design of Shinnecock to Willie Davis,
who was the professional at Royal Montreal in 1881, making him the first
professional to come to North