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From the “Old Course” to the World

The History of Golf

Hushed crowds several rows deep line the greens of one of the world’s pre-eminent golf courses. The golfer, sporting clearly branded apparel, drops down to her stomach to size up the topography of the perfectly manicured green. She practices a couple of strokes before stepping up to the ball. The sound of the club face striking the ball pops lightly but audibly, sending the ball on its journey across the green. Murmuring in the crowd swells with anticipation, and a few scream directives at the ball just as it begins to break. When the ball drops into the cup, the crowd erupts, sending waves of cheers across the course. The popularity golf enjoys today owes a lot not only to exhibitions and campaigns from throughout the twentieth century, but also to a handful of professional men and women who achieved celebrity status both within their sport and in a way that transcended the game. It’s a far cry from the simpler game of yore, but while the size and technology has changed, the focused repose of a player stepping up to the ball remains forever the same. And the success or failure of the subsequent hit is determined only by a player’s own skill and the technology in his or her hands.

The Early History of Golf

Before being organized around a strict set of rules and regulations, the game of golf was as varied as the people who played it. The earliest known versions of golf were played, possibly simultaneously, by the Scots and the Dutch. A game played with a club (kolf or colf in Dutch) called kolfspel has been traced to several cities in Holland dating to the fifteenth century, but one historian sees evidence of the game as early as the end of the thirteenth century. Kolfspel was typically played on ice with wooden clubs and balls and, despite the similarities, is not the direct antecedent in name or in play to modern golf (McCord).

In the West, a variety of games roughly resembling golf may date back to before the time of Christ. Ball-and-stick games were performed as fertility rituals by early Persians and resembled such modern-day sports as polo, cricket, baseball, handball or tennis and, last but not least, golf (Barkow). In the East, evidence has been uncovered of a game called chuiwan (from words meaning “to hit” and “ball”) that was played with a set of 10 clubs. Lanzhou University’s Professor Ling Hongling dates the game of the nobility to A.D. 945 and suggests Mongolian travelers transported the game into medieval Europe. There are other claims to the game ranging from archeological evidence to illustrations in books, but the Scots maintain that the first extant modern game took place in Scotland, being the first version to use holes instead of targets (Harrell).

It is not, however, clear whether that was the precise game being played in the earliest known reference, a 1350 stained glass image of a golfer in the Gloucester Cathedral. Dutch ball makers were certainly exporting their products to Scotland in the fourteenth century, and the most common theory has the Scots adapting the game to their unique land (McCord). The long stretches of space where arable land connects to the sea became the site of the first golf “courses.” Scots refer to that “undulating sandy ground near the shore” as “links” (Dictionary.com). Modern golf courses, also called links, simulate the natural obstacles of mixed terrain that challenged the first golfers.

Milestones in the History of Golf

It would be several centuries before the game evolved into the more formally organized, technologically superior version of the sport the world plays today. There are, however, a few milestones recorded in the history of golf that that lend legitimacy to the development of golf as a competitive sport.

In 1457, the game was briefly banned by King James II because it took time away from the critical practice of archery that was important for national defense. James VI introduced the sport into England in the early seventeenth century, though organized golf clubs would follow only 150 years later, a decade or so after the publication of the first official rules of the game. The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers attempted to standardize a game that varied by club and allowed for localized resolution of disputed rules. The 1754 “Articles and Laws in Playing the Golf” were a list of 13 rules originally adopted at the Leith Links and went on to become the official governing regulations of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at Saint Andrews—the “Old Course” and spiritual birthplace of modern golf (McCord).

Sometime in the seventeenth century, players who could afford it began replacing the classic wooden ball with an expensive leather ball called a “featherie” for its stuffing of goose down or chicken feathers. Featheries varied in size and weight and had a short lifespan, but enjoyed a burst in production on the island under the direction of James I (McCord).

The technology that truly impacted the sport, meanwhile, emerged with new materials from around the world and with new methods of production that came out of the Industrial Revolution.

The “gutta-percha” ball was developed in 1845. “Gutties” were made from gutta-percha, the gum or sap of various Malaysian trees. The rubber-like material was initially rounded by hand before molds were developed to speed up the process. In a few years, experience showed nicks and gouges to the hard-cured material helped regulate flight patterns, so the manufacturers began chiseling irregularities into the balls.

The original modern ball that would eventually replace the gutties was first developed in 1898 and virtually perfected 10 years later. Akron, Ohio’s Goodrich Rubber Company’s executive Coburn Haskell developed a two-piece ball with a core of wound rubber and a shell of balata (a gum of a tropical American tree). After initially having the rubber cores painstakingly wound by hand, Haskell enlisted mechanic John Gammeter to develop a machine to do the work. Gammeter eventually patented his machine, and the resulting product (now a three-piece ball with a special core on which the rubber was wound) was taken out for a test run by Haskell and professional golfer Joe Mitchell.

The world’s biggest golf ball mold manufacturer, meanwhile, had gotten a hold of Haskell’s bramble-pattered ball (with raised bumps). The bumps on the surface eventually smoothed out with use, leading the firm’s William Taylor to dimple the ball instead, creating the advanced aerodynamics that took an already highly mobile, bouncy ball to greater and sometimes maligned “excessive” distances. But no matter. Innovators of the game had also recently developed a lathe to standardize and mass produce wooden clubs and heads (which combined with forged-iron approach clubs), and those forces combined to make golf increasingly more accessible.

The Rise of Golf Professionalism

The first golf professionals from England and Scotland made names for themselves at the early years of the British Open, which was founded by the Royal and Ancient Society in 1860. The first British Open was comprised of eight participants and was won by Willie Park, Sr. Park and arch rival Old Tom Morris combined with Young Tom Morris to win 11 of the first 12 championships.

English and Scottish settlers began transplanting the game to new territory, from India to Canada and, perhaps most importantly, to the United States. Of course, the fact that fans of the game were already developing new technologies alone makes golf’s presence in America important to the history of the sport. But golf professionalism took on new levels in the early matches and exhibitions in the United States.

The game had long been around in America when Scottish emigrant John Reid first took up a club in 1888. Reid, known as “the Father of American Golf,” took an instant liking to the game and founded the St. Andrews Golf Club. Other clubs and courses followed until, in 1894, five clubs joined under the name of the United States Golf Association. The USGA quickly established itself as the de facto governing body of golf in America and immediately launched the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open championships at the Newport Golf Club in Rhode Island.

Exhibition golf was held on courses everywhere, showcasing some of the biggest professional names of the sport while drawing attention to a course and its community. One of Great Britain’s greats from the turn of the century was Harry Vardon. America’s first sporting goods manufacture, Spalding, sponsored a major exhibition tour that featured Vardon using one of their new gutta-percha balls. The ball, of course, would not enjoy much success in light of the emerging Haskell ball, but the events were well attended, showing that Americans had developed a keen interest in the sport. That was important for American national pride, as the sport was dominated by naturalized Americans in the early years of the sport in the United States.

The first golf champion born in the United States was John McDermott, who won the U.S. Open in 1911. American golf was rising in prominence by the time the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) was created in 1916. That was three years after an American dark horse amateur named Francis Ouimet shocked Vardon (and professional Ted Ray) by winning the U.S. Open in 1913 and capturing the imagination and nationalistic pride of Americans—even those not interested in the sport. Ouimet set the stage for professional Walter Hagen, one of the first golfers to achieve celebrity status through the show business of golf.

Hagen stood out for a lot of reasons, from flamboyant dress to his often wild play and personality. But he also was a brilliant golfer and showman, what historian Al Barkow calls “the first professional golfer, as opposed to golf professional . . . he made his living exclusively by playing golf” (29). Most golf professionals at the time maintained jobs related to the game (which remains a primary distinction from golf amateur status, who are further prohibited from accepting larger sums of money as prize for play). Most importantly, Hagen played his profession far and wide, putting on a show and generating a fan base and new generation of golfers all over America. Finally, in 1922 (and three more times that decade), Walter Hagen won the British Open. No longer just an undisputed champion in America, Hagen had proved himself abroad in an energetic post-World War I era of American pride.

A Proliferation of Golf Technology, Culture, and Personality

Players and technology would continue to evolve over the decades of the twentieth century. The biggest names and personalities of the sport infused new generations of players with a passion for the game ensuring its continued growth, popularity, and accessibility. For example, the next major golf personality following Walter Hagen was Gene Sarazen, an Italian-American who helped broaden the game’s popularity both within the middle class and into new social demographics. But he also contributed the first legal sand wedge to the game in the 1920s. Meanwhile, that same formative decade saw the successful production of quality steel shafts for clubs to replace the hickory wood ones that, even with great skill, were difficult to make consistent.

The 1930s was launched by Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam, taking all four of the British and U.S. Opens and Amateur championships. The Great Depression drove down prize money (purses) for most years of the decades, but the PGA persisted, in part because of Jones’ desire to create an enduring legacy. He spearheaded the building of the Augusta National Golf Course on which is played the Masters tournament, now two of America’s golf icons.

The 1930s also saw the first woman professional (Helen Hicks) tour the country to teach and promote the products of her employer, Wilson Sporting Goods (the Ladies Professional Golf Association came to fruition in 1950). But, overall, some of the momentum of the game for all players slowed or stopped by World War II, which saw most major championships canceled and the manufacture of equipment cut off. But the spirit of the game withstood the interruption, and by the 1950s golf found a place on television, beginning with a first telecast of the U.S. Open in 1953 and followed three years later by the Masters (though, by the late 30s, BBC Television was covering its first matches).

Prize monies were skyrocketing and the fan base was broadening with television. Meanwhile, college golf scholarships emerged to allow great young talent to train at universities while getting their education. It was sort of a “minor leagues” for golf, and out of that league emerged names like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who would begin to impact the game in the 1960s (Barkow). Meanwhile, in 1961, the Caucasian-only clause was stricken from the PGA Constitution, finally opening up the tour to minority professionals in America (McCord). The game with dubious origins and Scottish spirit had been fully embraced by Americans, and they began to enjoy a period of international success—even dominance.

The Modern Game

With the help of the slickly produced Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf television series, golf enjoyed an expanded global audience. In addition, plastics heavily influenced the game by becoming the basis of the most durable cover the game ball had ever had. It took several years to catch on, but a lot of experimentation with polymers, rubber, and surlyn and the financial backing of the powerful Spalding Sporting Goods Company finally produced the first commercially successful ball incorporating plastics:

-- Posted September 21, 2011


Barkow, Al. 2000. The Golden Era of Golf: How America Rose to Dominate the Old Scots Game. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, NY.

Harrell, Eben. “Chinese Chip in with Claim to Golf.” The Scotsman. January 11, 2006. Accessed May25, 2011.

links. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers.  Accessed: May 31, 2011.

McCord, Robert R. 1998. Golf: An Album of Its History. Burford Books: Short Hills, NJ.