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Origins of Golf: When and Where Did Golf Begin?

Golf History FAQ

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Everyone knows golf originated in Scotland, right?

Welllllllll ... yes and no.

It's definitely true that golf as we know it emerged in Scotland. The Scots were playing golf in its very basic form - take a club, swing it at a ball, move ball from starting point to finishing point in as few strokes as possible - by at least the mid-15th Century.

In fact, the earliest known reference to golf by name comes from King James II of Scotland, who, in 1457, issued a ban on the playing of golf and football (soccer). Those games, the king complained, were keeping his archers from their practice.

James III in 1471 and James IV in 1491 each re-issued the ban on golf.

But the game continued to develop in Scotland over the decades and centuries, until 1744 when the first-known rules of golf were put down in writing in Edinburgh. Golf as it was then played would be easily recognized by any modern golfer.

But can it be said that the Scots "invented" golf? Not quite, because there's strong evidence that the Scots were influenced themselves by even earlier versions of games that were similar in nature.

Here's what the USGA Museum says about the issue:

"While many Scots firmly maintain that golf evolved from a family of stick-and-ball games widely practiced throughout the British Isles during the Middle Ages, considerable evidence suggests that the game derived from stick-and-ball games that were played in France, Germany and the Low Countries."

Part of that evidence is the etymology of the word "golf" itself. "Golf" derives from the Old Scots terms "golve" or "goff," which themselves evolved from the medieval Dutch term "kolf."

The medieval Dutch term "kolf" meant "club," and the Dutch were playing games (mostly on ice) at least by the 14th Century in which balls were struck by sticks that were curved at the bottom until they were moved from Point A to Point B. Sounds a lot like hockey, doesn't it? But it sort of sounds like golf, too (except for that ice part).

The Dutch and Scots were trading partners, and the fact that the word "golf" evolved after being transported by the Dutch to the Scots lends credence to the idea that the game itself may have been adapted by the Scots from the earlier Dutch game.

Something else that lends credence to that idea: Although the Scots played their game on parkland (rather than ice), they (or least some of them) were using balls they acquired in trade from ... Holland.

And the Dutch game wasn't the only similar game of the Middle Ages. Going back even farther, the Romans brought their own stick-and-ball game into the British Isles, and games that contain antecedents of golf were popular in France and Belgium long before Scotland got into the game.

So does that mean that the Dutch (or someone else other than that Scots) invented golf? No, it means that golf grew out of games that were played in different parts of Europe.

But we're not trying to deny the Scots their place in golf history. The Scots made a singular improvement to all the games that came before: They dug a hole in the ground, and made getting the ball into that hole the object of the game.

As we said at the beginning, for golf as we know it, we definitely have the Scots to thank.

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