History of Golf

The early 1970’s marked a major milestone in golf history: the opening of the 10,000th golf course in the United States. Figuring conservatively at 6,000 yards per course, we can estimate that some 60 million yards, or 34,100 miles, of this country are regularly traversed by some 10 million golfers.

Golf
Assuming a figure of eighty yards as the average fairway width, we can conclude that a total area of about 1,550 square miles is now devoted solely to the practice of swatting a small ball into a four- and a-quarter-inch hole, a total area larger than the state of Rhode Island!

The world’s most land-consuming game is most often traced to humble beginnings in Scotland, but there is no firm evidence that golf originated in that country. Similar games were played in other nations centuries before golf appeared in the British Isles. In the early days of the Empire, the Romans enjoyed a game they called paganica, played with a bent wooden stick and a leather ball stuffed with feathers. Roman legionnaires may well have brought the game to Britain.

Cambuca, a game similar to paganica that was played in fourteenth-century England, may have been an early ancestor of golf. The Dutch played a game called kolven on frozen rivers and canals. In kolven, the players used a wooden club to putt a ball toward a stake pressed into the ice. Sixteenth-century illustrations from Bruges, in Belgium, show players putting a ball at a hole in the ground. The Soviets recently claimed that golf originated in Denmark in the fifteenth century, and the Chinese have long claimed that the game was born in the Orient two or three centuries before Christ.

In any case, we first find a reference to golf in Scotland in a 1457 decree ordering that the game “be utterly cryit doun and nocht usit,” since it interfered with the practice of archery, a more useful sport to the defense of the realm. Another ordinance of 1471 decried the playing of “golfe and futeball;” and in 1491, yet another decree stipulated punishments for law-breaking linksmen.

This last edict was the work of King James IV, who for a time forbade golf in Scotland, declaring: “It looketh like a silly game.” But within a few years of his decree, the king himself became a keen golfer, and entries showing the purchase of balls and other golf equipment appear in accounts of James’s lord high treasurer.

In 1592, the laws against golf were modified to forbid the sport only on the Sabbath. That law was later softened to outlaw golf only “in tyme of sermons.”

Since the time of James IV, golf has remained a popular royal sport in Britain. Golf has long been officially known as the “royal and ancient game.” James’s son, James V, was a regular on the links. His daughter, Mary Stuart, was seen with clubs in hand just a few days after the murder of her husband, an indelicacy that should not surprise many of today’s more avid linksmen. Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the duffer whose partner dropped dead on the golf course? The bereaved player was mournfully sipping his cocktail at the clubhouse bar when a friend rushed up to offer his condolences.

“I heard you carried poor old Willie all the way back to the clubhouse,” the friend said. “That was quite a job. He must’ve weighed a good 250 pounds.”

“Oh, carrying him wasn’t difficult,” the duffer replied, shrugging. “What bothered me was having to put him down at every stroke, and then lift him up again.”

Golf was regularly played in England at least as early as 1603, when King James I, a Scot, appointed an official clubmaker, and budgeted funds for the purchase of golf balls.

Before assuming the English crown in 1685, James II played a challenge match against two Scottish noblemen, choosing for his partner a shoemaker named Johne Patersone. Evidently Patersone was a ringer, for the king won the match, and Patersone bought a house in London with the money he earned from the royal victory.

During the eighteenth century, golf clubs and associations became popular throughout England and Scotland. The reasons are obvious: anyone can set up a tennis court in his yard, or play soccer in an open field, but even a four- or five-hole golf course requires a vast expanse of well-tended land. Only by pooling their resources; and sometimes their land, could golfers provide themselves with an adequate course.

The first golf club in England, The Royal Blackheath, was founded around 1787, when there were already six clubs in Scotland. The most famous Scottish course, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, was founded in 1754, and remains the supreme authority in the sport, framing and revising rules for clubs throughout the world, except for clubs in the United States, which has its own governing body. There are now some 1,800 golf courses dotting the island of Great Britain.

Professional golf began in earnest in the early nineteenth century. The earliest pros not only played for cash, but lent their talents to the manufacture and design of golf clubs and balls, and instructed beginners, as well. The most famous of the early pros was Old Tom Morris, the proprietor of the golf shop at Prestwick, Scotland. Old Tom won the British Open four times between 1861 and 1867 before relinquishing his title in 1868, to his son, Young Tom Morris. Young Tom had entered his first professional tourney at the tender age of thirteen. He was only seventeen when he won the British championship. He won four successive championships and was undoubtedly the premier player of his time.

Golf was being played in the United States at least as early as 1779, when an advertisement for golfing equipment appeared in a New York paper. The game may actually have been enjoyed much earlier here, for upon the death of William Burnet, governor of New York and Massachusetts, in 1729, the Burnet estate listed “nine golf clubs, one iron ditto, and seven dozen balls.” There is also evidence of golf in South Carolina and Georgia in the late eighteenth century. But the game apparently did not catch on here at the time, for almost a century passed before golf was mentioned again in official records.

The father of American golf is Robert Lockhart, who returned from Scotland in 1887 with a supply of balls and clubs and laid out a course in a pasture in Yonkers, New York. A year later, Lockhart and his friends founded the first modern American golf club, named St. Andrews after the landmark Scottish course.

Within the next five years, more than two hundred clubs were organized here, among them the Chicago Golf Club, the first American course with eighteen holes.

By 1895, there were over 50 clubs, and by the turn of the century,more than 900, with at least one club in each state. A 1901 golfing guide listed 982 clubs, including 66 six-hole courses; 715 nine-hole links, and 92 eighteen-holers. One hundred nine courses were listed without mention of size. The 1920’s saw a rapid increase in the number of golf courses and players. By 1930, there were over 5,000 courses in operation, with an estimated $830 million in property value and some 2 1/4 million players, along with 800,000 caddies.

Many Americans considered golf an effete sport until 1913, when a former caddy named Francis Ouimet defeated two British stars to win the U.S. Open. After Ouimet’s victory, golf was increasingly accepted by the general public.

Today, there are three types of golf course in the United States: the private course open only to club members; the private course open to the general public (for a price); and the municipal course owned and operated by the city and available to all for a small fee. In addition to the 10,000 regular courses, there are hundreds of small pitch-and-putt courses, and untold numbers of miniature links.

Today, the four major tournaments are the U.S. Open, the Masters, the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Championship, and the British Open. A victory in all four contests in one year constitutes the “grand slam” of golf. Bobby Jones, perhaps the greatest amateur golfer of all time, is the only man to win “the whole ball of wax.”

Jones’s four victories in 1930 came in the four major tournaments of his time, not the four major tourneys of today.

Today, a modern pro can earn well into six figures in a single year, without winning even one major tourney. Jack Nicklaus, 1975’s biggest money earner, brought home a nifty $298,149 in purses during that season.

Among women golfers, Sandy Palmer was the leading money-winner that year, with over $76,000 in purses. Kathy Whitworth, eight times the leading money-winner among women golfers, has grossed over a half-million dollars in purses during the last fifteen years. But to most minds, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias remains the Babe Ruth of women golfers. A star in track and field, tennis, baseball, and basketball before she turned to golf, Babe won more than fifty major golf tournaments in her career, including a streak of seventeen straight triumphs. In 1950, the Associated Press voted Babe the greatest female athlete of the half-century.

Golfers, of course, have their own magazines. Golf Digest, the leading publication in this field, has a circulation of close to one million copies.

In addition to a hall of fame of great players, golf has certainly produced some marvelous additions to our vocabulary. The word golf itself is probably derived from the Dutch kolf or kolven, or the German Kolbe. Some authorities claim that the source is the Scotch gowf, “blow of the hand.” The game was long known as goff, gouff, or gowff in Scotland.

The word caddie (the youth who carries the golfer’s bag and often chooses the club for each shot), comes from the French cadet, “young lad.” The term putt, like the verb “put,” is rooted in the Middle English puttee, “push” or “thrust.”

The rules of golf, unlike the rules of many other sports, have changed little over the centuries, but the equipment used in the game has undergone a number of major alterations. The earliest golf sticks were made with thick wooden shafts and long heads. Modern clubs are manufactured with steel shafts and either persimmon wood or chromium-plated steel heads.

Today, we use numbers to designate each club; but until the 1920’s each club had its own name. The woods were numbered from one to five, and were known as follows:

1 THE DRIVER
2 THE BRASSIE
3 THE SPOON
4 THE BAFFY
5 THE CLERK

The irons were numbered one through nine:

1 THE DRIVING IRON
2 THE MIDIRON
3 THE MID MASHIE
4 THE MASHIE IRON
5 THE MASHIE
6 THE SPADE MASHIE
7 THE MASHIE NIBLICK
8 THE PITCHING NIBLICK
9 THE NIBLICK

Other clubs include the putter, the jigger or chipper, and various wedges, however, no golfer in tournament play is permitted to carry more than fourteen clubs.

Before 1848, golf balls were made of leather, stuffed with “as many feathers as a hat will hold.” The leather balls were expensive and virtually useless when wet, so the guttie, a ball of solid gutta percha (a rubberlike substance) caught on quickly in the 1850’s. Golfers using the guttie quickly noticed that a new ball tended to hook and slice erratically when hit: but old, pockmarked gutties traveled straight. So the practice began of manufacturing golf balls with small depressions, or dimples, on the outer surface.

Rubber-cored balls appeared in 1898; and at first, were known as “bounding billies.” Since then, golf’s governing bodies have legislated the size and weight of the balls to be used in all official play. At present, official U.S. balls are equal in weight but slightly larger in diameter than the balls used in Britain and the rest of the world.

By the way, the golf tee was the brilliant invention of one George F. Grant of Boston, who patented a tapered wooden tee in 1899.

Golfing records are difficult to compare, since golf courses vary in difficulty. But the lowest golf score ever recorded for an eighteen-hole course of at least 5,000 yards was a fifty-five, achieved by E.F. Staugaard in California in 1935, and matched in 1962 by Homero Blancas in Texas.

The longest golf drive on record is 515 yards, by Michael Hoke Austin in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1974. Prior to that, the record belonged to Englishman E.C. Bliss, who walloped a ball 445 yards during a 1913 match. Unofficially, it’s been claimed that a golfer known only as “Ohio Fats” has hit drives considerably longer.

Many talented golfers go through life without once tasting that dream of all linksmen, the hole-in-one. But at least fifteen players have achieved the remarkable achievement of holes-in-one on successive holes. The greatest of these feats was accomplished in 1964, when Norman Manley recorded back-to-back aces on two par-four holes in Saugus, California.

You can be certain that no one will ever score a hole-in-one on the seventeenth hole of the Black Mountain Golf Club in North Carolina.

The par-six hole, the longest in the world, measures 745 yards from tee to cup.

The world’s largest club in the world is undoubtedly the Eldorado Golf Club in California, which includes fifteen individual courses!

Among the remarkable lore of golf are the following stories:

Let us here set down the enviable record for the most strokes taken on a single hole, an outlandish 166! In the 1912 Shawnee Invitational for Ladies in Pennsylvania, an experienced woman golfer, who shall mercifully remain nameless, had the misfortune of duffing a drive into the Binniekill River. With the ball floating insolently in the water, she set out in a rowboat to “play the ball where it lies,” with her husband at the oars. After flailing away for what must have seemed an eternity, she finally succeeded in driving the ball to dry land one-and-a-half miles downstream. By the time she hacked her way back through the woods and holed out on the sixteenth green, the distraught duffer had taken 166 strokes-all meticulously recorded by her loving husband.

Justice McKenna of the United States Supreme Court was a dedicated golfer, but a rather unsuccessful performer. Hoping that his game might be improved if he took instruction, he engaged a professional for a course of lessons.

One day, while practicing on a course just outside the Capitol, he placed his ball on the tee, swung mightily, and missed. The same thing happened on three successive strokes: each time his club hit several inches behind the ball. The golf pro watched in silence.

The Justice was chafing. Finally, in white heat, he glared at his ball, which hadn’t moved a fraction of an inch, and muttered, “Tut! Tut!”

The instructor gravely walked towards the jurist, and said, “Sir, you’ll never learn to play golf with them words.”

Lew Worsham leaned over his putter on the 18th green of the Jacksonville Country Club. He needed to sink the ball in 2 to win the 1948 Jacksonville Open Championship, a $10,000 feature. He moved his putter carefully behind the ball. Suddenly, he straightened, dropped his club, and went to the side of the green.

“I touched the ball,” he told the tournament official. “Call a penalty stroke.”

Worsham then returned to take the 2 putts that would have won, the 2 putts that now gave him only a tie.

The next day, Lew lost the playoff to Clayton Haefner on the 21st green.

But even in defeat Worsham was marked as a great champion, a champion in sportsmanship. Not even his victory in the 1947 National Open earned him the respect he won by calling against himself a penalty nobody else had seen.

GOLF’S MOST COLORFUL TERMS

BIRDIE Score of one stroke less than the par for that hole.

BISQUE Handicap stroke that a player may use on any one hole of his choosing, provided he announces his decision to use the stroke before teeing off on the following hole.

BOGIE Score of one stroke more than the par for that hole.

BULGER A driver whose face bulges into a convex shape.

BUNKER Sand trap.

DIVOT Piece of turf cut out of the ground by a player’s stroke.

DUB To hit the ball poorly, or a shot poorly executed.

FORE A cry of warning to people within range of a shot.

GOBBLE Hard-hit putt that drops into the cup, but would have traveled far beyond the cup had it not dropped in.

HOSEL The socket on an iron club into which the shaft fits.

MULLIGAN A poor shot which a player, by agreement, is allowed to cancel and replay.

SCLAFF To strike the ground behind a ball before making contact with the ball.

Dave White’s round at the Winchester Country Club started fine, but he blew up on the fifth hole and took a horrifying 13! Then the Massachusetts pro settled down with a vengeance. He shot 10 straight birdies to salvage a par round of 72.

The day was August 19, 1962. Longview, Texas, was agog. Homero Blancas, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Houston had just completed the first round of the Premier Invitational Tournament in 55 strokes! His card of 27 for the front nine, and 28 for the back, was the lowest round of golf ever played on a course measuring more than 5,000 yards.

All seven brothers of the Turnesa family, who were born and reared in Elmsford, N.Y., became outstanding golfers. Mike Turnesa was a greenskeeper at Fairview Country Club in Elmsford, and he started his kids in the game. They learned fast.

Six of the boys, Mike, Jr., Frank, Joe, Phil, Doug, and Jim, became professionals. The only Turnesa who didn’t turn pro was Willie, the youngest. But he, too, was a superb golfer. Willie won the U.S. Amateur in 1938, and again in 1948; and he won the British Amateur in 1947.

Among them, the seven Turnesa brothers won a host of tournaments, and in 1952, Jim won the Professional Golfers Association championship.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

2 thoughts on “History of Golf”

  1. A great write up on golf. I would also add that junior golf is also growing rapidly every year.

  2. Interesting info. I am trying to find the origin of the terms birdie and eagle. Is it because the earlier balls were stuffed with bird feathers?

Leave a Comment