The game of golf most likely began when a few hardy Scottish souls used a stick to propel a round rock toward a predetermined target. The exact details have been lost in the mists of time. Between the 1500s and 1600s, the game became more formalized. Everyone played, from the peasants to the elite. However, not everyone favored the game. King James II of Scotland thought the youth of his era should be more focused on worthy pursuits, such as going to war, rather than honing their golf skills. In 1636, David Wedderburn included the Latin word for "club" in his Vocabula, a listing of terms related to golf. Also included was a term for "golf hole," a critical element for defining the modern day game of golf.
Precursors to Golf
While Scotland is credited with being the birthplace of golf, similar games were played much earlier. According to GolfNow.com, feather-stuffed balls were hit with branches as early as the time of Julius Caesar. The Dutch played a golf game of sorts on their frozen canals, as documented by book illustrations as early as the 1400s. The game was more like ice hockey and was played with sticks and a ball. It was called kolven. Kolven became kolf, and then gawf in Britain. However, according to the Scottish Golf History website, there is not a " universally accepted derivation for the word golf." The French and Belgians played a cross-country version of the game with a ball and a stick.
By the 1500s, a game similar to modern-day golf was played on the coasts of Scotland. Both men and women participated. In fact, Mary Queen of Scots was chided for playing the day after her husband was murdered. Rules varied, but by 1744 a set of 13 rules had been established and accepted. That's a far cry from today's rule book, which is hundreds of pages. In 1764, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews established that the game should consist of 18 holes. At the time, that course consisted of 12 holes. Ten of the holes were played once and an additional eight holes were played again for a total of 18.
Early golf clubs are difficult to date accurately. By comparing the techniques used to make bows, Troon clubs are believed to date from the early 17th century or late 16th century. The golf ball, which was made of carved wood in the 1500s, segued into the featherie in 1618. The featherie was a leather pouch stuffed with wet feathers. When the feathers dried the ball became firmer and round. This innovation took the game of golf out of the common man's reach because featheries were expensive and didn’t last long. When forged metal clubheads became available, many golfers stuck with wood clubs because they did less damage to the featheries. The gutta percha ball gave the game back to the masses 200 years later. Gutta percha balls were made of rubber, were much less expensive to produce because they could be poured into molds and lasted longer than featheries.
Clubs, Courses and Competition
The distinction of being the earliest golf course is credited to the old links of Musselburgh in Scotland. Scotland's Prestwick Golf Club played host to the first Open Championship in 1860. By the mid-19th century there were still only 17 golf courses in the world, 14 of them in Scotland.