The Origins of Golf

Tolkien fans from Mexico to Massachusetts may revel in his fiction that golf was invented when a hobbit knocked a goblin's head down a rabbit hole. But as to where golf actually started . . . well, at least two opinions about that exist.

According to a historical article on the USGA site, the name of golf, and possibly the game of golf, came from the Dutch and was passed to the Scottish as trade took place between the two countries. This theory roots the game of golf in the Dutch game played with a ball and stick on the frozen canals.

But the theory doesn't seem to hold water. For one thing, the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary don't think much of it on linguistic grounds. For another thing, the historical record shows golf being played in Scotland before the Dutch game was ever even mentioned.

So how do we know where and when golf started?

Many articles about golf include claims that the Royal Burgess Golfing Society archives contain a document showing that a game of golf was played in Edinburgh on Bruntsfield Links in 1456. This date makes sense because records show either King James II or the Scottish Parliament banning golf (and football) in Scotland in 1457 or 1458.

The purpose of the ban was either to encourage the population to keep their focus on archery practice which, unlike golf, was important for defending Scotland, or because the banned sports were considered dangerous. Additional bans were recorded in 1471 and 1491.

Clearly, no ban would have been necessary were golf not flourishing and even growing in popularity, so even without having seen the Bruntsfield document, historians reasonably concluded that golf was being played in Scotland by 1457 or so at the latest.

A second clue to the rise of the game of golf in Scotland in the late medieval period is rooted in the action of King James IV. Chess may be "the game of kings," but the record of King James's purchase of a set of golf clubs in 1502 is what provides our second bit of evidence that golf originated in Scotland. The craftsman who made the clubs was a bow-maker in Perth, and King James paid thirteen shillings for them.

Her love of golf may have been the beginning of the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots, another Scottish monarch. Her enemies started a rumor that Mary played golf just days after the murder of her second husband. One thing led to another, and her purported game of golf was used to tie Mary to the murder. She fled to England, was imprisoned, and eventually beheaded.

The earliest golf rules to be found also come from Scotland. They date from 1744, and were collected for a tournament to be held in April of that year by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith.

References to tees, holes, hazards, clubs, balls, and penalty strokes are all mentioned, assuring us that the game being played was markedly similar to what we call golf today.

Of course, some differences exist between eighteenth century Scottish rules and modern day rules. For example, Rule 10, which says, "If a Ball be stopp'd by any Person, Horse, Dog or anything else, The Ball so stop'd must be play'd where it lyes" could drop the reference to horses and dogs on the golf course . . .

Just as the recent history of golf cannot be told without reference to Tiger Woods and his game-changing influence, so the origins of golf cannot be told without reference to Scotland, the place where golf really originated.

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British Golf Museum (n.d.). The Origins of Golf Gallery. Retrieved from Hansen, L. (2010, July 18). Mary, Queen of Scots, mother of golf. NPR. Retrieved from Historical Rules of Golf Pages. (n.d.). Articles laws in playing at golf. King James VI Golf Club. (n.d.). Club history. Retrieved from National Library of Scotland. (2007, May 31). Swing through golf's early history. Retrieved from Oxford University Press. (1971). The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press. (p. 283). USGA Museum. (n.d.). Golf history FAQ. Retrieved form

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