The game of golf has a long and illustrious history, stretching back over five centuries. Its origins are in Eastern Scotland, during the 15th century. In the first golf games, players would hit pebbles with sticks around a natural course including hills, sand dunes, ponds, and tracks. There are several contemporary games that were similar, including versions from Belgium and Holland, but only the Scottish version included a hole. While these three stick-and-ball games might have originated from an even more ancient, single source, it’s reasonably clear that the Scottish version was the direct precursor of modern-day golf.
If you were to play a game of golf in the 15th century, you wouldn’t have quite the same experience as you would have today on a modern golf course. Courses of centuries ago varied a great deal in the amount of holes-from five to 25. St. Andrews established an 18-hole golf course in 1857, and other courses followed suit over the years until the 18-hole course was considered the norm.
Golf requires relatively short grass-but there were no mechanical grass cutters in the 15th century. The earliest golfers played on what is today referred to as a “links” course. The word “links” refers to the type of terrain, and is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hlinc, meaning “ridge,” dating to around 931 A.D. Links terrain was a rough, grassy area between the sea shore and the land. The grass was naturally short-bladed and the soil was very sandy, with lots of dunes and sand pits, as it was near the beach. The land had little agricultural value, and was thus accessible to golfers. Golf was traditionally played in the winter, when livestock grazed on the land and trimmed the grass.
The earliest balls were made of a leather shell tightly stuffed with feathers. Yes, Clubs were typically made of wood; wrought iron was sometimes used, but sparingly, as it could destroy the feathered balls. Special clubs were adapted to the terrain, such as the “rutting iron,” designed to get a ball out of a wagon wheel rut.
In the middle of the 15th century, Scotland was preparing to defend itself against English hostilities. The public, however, wasn’t interested in war-they played golf instead of practicing for battle. The king believed golf was a dangerous distraction, and banned it in 1457. It stayed outlawed until 1502, when the king himself took up the sport.
After royalty began to show an interest, the game exploded in popularity. It spread into England and France, where the royal court employed military cadets to help them carry their clubs-hence the term “caddie.”
In the 16th and 17th century, the best golf course was at Leith, near Edinburgh. The first golf club, the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, was formed in 1744 and ran an annual golfing tournament, with a silver golf club for first prize.
The game of golf was introduced all over the world with the spread of the British Empire in the 19th century. However, it was still an elite sport-the clubs and balls were handcrafted and expensive to produce. Around 1848, golf equipment began to be produced en masse, making it accessible to average people for the first time.
The first major national championship was played at the Prestwick Golf Club in 1860. The tradition evolved into the British Open, and it was around this time that the first professional golf players were seen. There were still not many sponsored championships like the Open to compete in; most professional golfers earned a living by betting against their opponents. They supplemented this by caddying, teaching, and making golf balls and clubs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, several technological advances made golf both easier and cheaper. One was the Haskell rubber-cored ball, which added about 20 yards to even a beginner’s range. Steel-shaft clubs were even more cheaply produced than the mass-market wooden clubs of earlier times. As a result, golf became even more accessible to beginners.
Golf now has the distinction of being the first sport ever played in space. In February 1971, astronaut Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon during a two-day mission. The swing was one-handed, and impaired by the limited range of motion allowed by his spacesuit. Still, Shepard described the ball as traveling for “miles and miles and miles” in the moon’s gravity, which is a sixth as strong as Earth’s. The ball actually traveled between 200 and 400 yards.
Today, golf and golf lessons are played all over the world-by amateurs at public courses, enthusiasts at private clubs, and professionals at prestigious tournaments. Despite its history as an elite sport, it’s popular among people from all walks of life. Golf has survived for over five centuries, and with its wide appeal and accessibility, chances are it will still be popular in five more.