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Golf's Inception



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 Europe 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 defense.


·               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 Century.


·               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 England.


·               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 organized.


·               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 British Isles.


·               Golf reached the west coast of Scotland at Prestwick in 1851.  Earlier, golf was played in Great Britain on 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 St. 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 a 90.


·               In 1856, the first golf club on the European continent was formed at Pau, France.


·               The oldest seaside course outside Scotland, called the Royal North Devon Course, opened in 1864 at Westward Ho.


·               At one time, golf almost disappeared.  In 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 London.  Golfing 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 at Troon, 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 St. 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 shafts.


·               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.


·               A 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 Championship.


·               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 tradition.


·               In 1888, a Scotsman, John Reid, set up a three-hole golf course in a cow pasture near Yonkers, 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 Mt. Hope it became an 18-hole course.


·               It was on Long 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.


*Note:  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 America.


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