The Origins of Golf

Most of us must have heard of Sir Francis Drake’s famous words when, playing a game of Bowls on Plymouth Hoe, he was informed that the long awaited and much dreaded Spanish Armada was in sight. There is time to finish the game, the great mariner said. To which statement the Oldest Member replied: If he had been a golfer he would have ignored the Armada altogether. (From The Awakening of Rollo Podmarsh, by P.G. Wodehouse, 1923). Just a few years later, Sir Francis might very well have been playing golf, with the attendant historical consequences of not leaving the course.


Golf, now a universal pastime and occupation, has been associated with Scotland and the Scots for centuries although the game’s antiquity predates its adoption by Scotsmen as the game par excellence. The Romans, for example, played a version of the game, called paganica, which was played with a curved stick and a feather stuffed leather ball. Later, a similar game, called cambuca or bandy bull, was played in England during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) and similar games were also played in Holland. Nonetheless, golf as it has come down to us will always be quintessentially Scottish.


By about the mid 15th century, the game had become the national sport of Scotland, eclipsing all other sports much to the dismay of the authorities who felt that the practice of archery, in particular, was being neglected. Indeed, thrice in that century, 1457, 1471 and 1491, Parliament felt obliged to pass legislation which forbade the playing of golf! But it was all in vain. In 1502, James IV, perhaps the first royal golfer but undoubtedly its first patron, lifted the prohibitions on the playing of golf and since then there’s been no looking back.


In 1553, the Archbishop of St Andrews, John Hamilton, together with his chapter, recognised and approved the rights of the community to use the links for the playing of golfe, amongst other things and, in 1614, this right was reaffirmed by a worthy successor to the archbishopric, George Gledstanes. Barely 6 years later, the final accolade was added when James VI reconfirmed the rights of the good folk of St Andrews, previously confirmed by the churchmen, to play golfe on the town’s links.


It must not be thought that, because of the trailblazing exploits of its prelates and the eventual accolade from the monarch, St Andrews was the only place in Scotland where the sport thrived. On the contrary, there is evidence that, all over the realm, golf was the in thing; if you weren’t into golf, then, you weren’t into anything, so to speak. A couple of examples will serve to show the validity of this assertion. In 1592, the magistrates of Edinburgh banned the playing of golf on Sundays because it interfered with the church going habits of the good burghers, and in the Diurnal of Occurents (Journal of Occurrences), a 16th century manuscript detailing some of the more remarkable occurrences in the kingdom from the death of James IV in 1513 till 1575, mention is made of the game being played on the Leith links.


With the unification of the crowns of England and Scotland, the game was reintroduced down south by James I (James VI of Scotland) at Blackheath in 1608 and since that time many members of the British Royal family have been closely associated with the game. For example, the club that was founded in 1754 at St Andrews was given the title Royal and Ancient by King William IV in 1834.


The first international match, a foursome, took place in 1681 between England and Scotland. Two English gentlemen in the suite of the Duke of York, later James II (James VII of Scotland) had dared to assert that golf was of English rather than Scottish extraction! The Duke, partnered by a shoemaker called Patersone, speedily put the records straight by defeating the English.


 Up until the early years of the 19th century, golf was essentially a Scottish game with a few English outposts; since then the game has caught on and spread like wild fire. It was first played in Calcutta in 1829 and in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1842. The first European course was set out in Pau, France, in 1856; the first Canadian course was set out in 1873; and the first US course was set in New York in 1888.


The first British Open was played in 1860 at the Prestwick Golf Club; the first US Open was played in 1895 at Newport, Rhode Island; the first US Masters (known then as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament) was played in 1934 at its permanent home at the Augusta National Golf Club, and its current name was adopted in 1939; the first US Women’s Open was played in 1946; the British Women’s Open was first played in 1976. The Walker Cup was first played in 1922; the Ryder Cup was first played in 1927; the Curtis Cup was first played in 1932.

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Comments 1 comment

oje 7 years ago

Interesting facts that i hadnt known. Nice.

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