Almost 30 million people play golf regularly in the US and the game is enjoyed by millions more around the world. One appeal of golf is that it can be enjoyed at just about any age; another is that with the right handicap or connections, it’s possible for anyone to play on many of the world’s great courses including Pebble Beach and St. Andrew’s. Golf has evolved over the centuries and today’s sophisticated equipment, low scores and designer courses are very different from the stick and ball games that were the origins of golf.
Most of us assume that golf originated in Scotland; the country is known as the home of golf and is home to some of the great courses. However, primitive versions of the game were played in ancient China, and by the Romans who hit a stuffed leather ball with a stick. Various versions of the game spread to Medieval Europe and it was especially popular in France and the Netherlands. But there’s no doubt that the game as we know it today originated in Scotland around the 15th century. King James II banned the sport as it was becoming more popular than archery, although later became an avid golfer himself. The next 200 years saw golf increase in popularity, along with refinements to the rules and the establishment of some of most prestigious clubs. Musselburgh Links is often said to be the world’s oldest purpose designed golf course, and matches were being played there sometime before the middle of the 17th century; a regular player there was Mary, Queen of Scots. The first official golf rules were drawn up in 1744, and the 18th century also saw the game start to spread all over the world, largely due to Scottish expatriates and soldiers. Some of the oldest courses outside Scotland are located in France, including Pau, established in 1856.
It was during the mid 17th century that golf spread to America. Dutch settlers in what is today Albany, NY, played two versions of the game. During the warmer months it was played in area fields, while a version was developed to play on ice during winter. 1873 saw the opening of the first golf club in North America, in Montreal, Canada and the first club in the US opened a few years later in Yonkers, NY. However, golf clubs in Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC also claim to be the oldest in the country. Most early American golf courses weren’t at all sophisticated, often just a couple of holes laid out in a farmer’s field, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that golf courses were actually designed and laid out. Golf became more acceptable in the US after a 20 year old amateur player, Francis Ouimet, scored a victory in the 1913 US Open; it’s been said that his surprise win helped to persuade 2 million people to take up the game. Ouimet’s win also suggested that golf could be played by anyone, and not just the wealthy.
The mid 19th century saw the first British Open being played at Prestwick, in Scotland. As the name suggests, the tournament was originally open to any golfer, whether professional or amateur, and regardless of their ability. The first British Open attracted eight golfers and was won by Willie Park, who shot 174 on the 12 hole course over three rounds. Prize money was awarded for the first time in 1863, with the ten pounds pot being split between the 2nd, 3rd and 4th runners up. The winner received a belt, a reminder of the days when those winning archery or jousting competitions won a similar prize. The period before the First World War was dominated by three golfers, JH Taylor, Harry Vardon and James Braid, who between them won the British Open 16 times over 21 years. Today, the Open, as it’s usually known is still the world’s most prestigious golf event and Harry Vardon’s record of 6 wins still stands today.
In 1895, the first US Open championship was played in Newport, RI; it consisted 36 holes of golf played over one day, and was won by the English player Horace Rawlins. The American PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) was formed in 1916 and that same year saw the first PGA championship, won by Jim Barnes. The game was popular throughout the 1920s and the era saw a move towards professionally designed and challenging courses. Over 1100 golf clubs were located all over the US by the early 1930s, and the British Open had its first victory by a native born American golfer in 1922, when Hagen won with a score of 300. 1934 saw the first Masters golf competition, played as it still is today, on the privately owned Augusta National course in Georgia. Today, the PGA, the Masters, the US Open and the British Open are still considered to be the big four golf tournaments, and winning all four tournaments during a career has been achieved by only a few golfers, including Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
The 1950s saw the US Open televised for the first time; that same decade also saw several golf magazines being founded as well as the publication of golf books. How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time by Tommy Armour was published in 1953 and became the first ever best selling golf book. In 1961 and 1962, Arnold Palmer won the British Open; his appearance in the tournament during the 1960s helped to further popularize the sport and make it more accessible. The 1970s saw some of the biggest names in golf routinely on top of the leader board at the world’s great tournaments, including Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Peter Thomson, a five time British Open winner. The 1970s also saw two of the greatest ever players at their peak, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, and the fight between the two in the last round of the 1977 British Open at Turnberry has been described as the most exciting golf tournament ever. The ’80s saw the introduction of the official world golf rankings and the ’90s and beyond saw various rules introduced to prevent equipment becoming too effective as to simply make the game too easy.
Golf shows no signs of losing its popularity as the 21st century saw a new wave of golfers becoming household names. The history of golf can be felt on the great courses of Europe and America, and experienced in person in several golfing museums, including the British Golf Museum in St. Andrew’s, Scotland and the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida.