While the birthplace of golf is typically represented by the formation of the famed Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, its place in sports history actually tells the story of a much slower crawl across the globe. And while debate continues as to the birthplace, most scholars agree that the game Sunday hackers everywhere have come to love originates on land in northern Europe.
Think you know the sport because you’ve watched epic Sunday battles between Jack and Arnie, Tiger and Phil? Think you know the sport because you’ve had the occasion the stroll the 18th fairway at Augusta National and Pebble Beach? Those epic battles and those landmark courses make up only a sliver of the history that has helped shape its place in sports lore.
Here is a bit of a longer look back at the sport, before carts roamed the rough and logo balls littered the practice greens.
One of the first recorded games resembling today’s sport dates back to 1297 in the Netherlands, with players each using a stick and leather ball. The player who struck the ball the fewest number of times into a target hundreds of yards away was awarded the winner. Debate continues even today as to whether this occurrence in the Netherlands marks the true roots of the sport, or if the sport was actually born in Scotland.
Nearly 100 years later, players in Zeeland and Bavaria took to a game called ‘colf,’ which was played on ‘De Baen,’ or ‘the course.’ Such designated areas were created because the game was considered too dangerous to play inside the city’s walls.
Many scholars today attribute the origins of the game to Scotland. To Scots, the word ‘gowf’ is derived from the Dutch word ‘colf’, meaning “stick,” “club” or “bat.” In 1592, the Town Council Minutes of Edinburgh listed the game as an activity to be avoided on the Sabbath. (Imagine how courses would receive that rule today.)
British slave traders built the first African course on Bunce Island in Sierre Leone in the late 18th Century. Other historic courses in southern Europe are reminders of European influence on the growth of the game in distant lands.
Among the earliest indications of the sport reaching North America is a newspaper ad published in New York in 1739 by William Wallace calling for a shipment of clubs and other equipment from Europe to South Carolina. About 50 years later the South Carolina Golf Club was founded in 1787.