The Origins of Golf

Scotland is widely recognised as the home of golf though it is in fact a much disputed claim, with various countries claiming heir to the golf throne.

BC Stick & Ball Games

In 2,500BC in ancient Egypt there was an ruler by the name of Kheti, who was buried in a tomb in the old town of Beni Hasan. As is traditional in ancient Egypt there is several paintings on the tomb showing a variety of cultural activities, including sport- and one image in particular could suggest that golf was played by the dynasty governor. The image illustrates two individuals with what looks to be sticks and a small ball. There is no story or manuscripts/descriptions to go alongside the painting so its generally left to the imagination, and a similar game to golf seems to be the most plausible depiction.

The Greeks were next up to be notable players of stick-and-ball games. In the National Archaeological Museum in Athens there is a ancient painting of four individuals with two playing what looks to be the exact same game as depicted in the Egyptians artwork. They were discovered during archaeological excavations on the island of Santorini, and are estimated to date back to around 600BC. There is little information with them and again they are left to modern interpretations.

The development made by the stick and ball games played by the Romans, and their game called Paganica, were perhaps the beginning of golf- with wooden sticks being bent at one end, and stronger leather balls stuffed with feathers- far more similar to the modern golf balls of the modern game. However, there was no holes and a designated tree was the predominant target. A mark would be left on the selected tree and the participants would be challenged to hit the mark, with the one who hits the ball closest to the mark being the winner. Although the sticks used where more similar to modern clubs in design, the balls used by the Romans were notably different- being much larger than modern golf balls, coming in sizes in-between a golf ball and football with the distance between the participant and the tree subsequently being fairly short.

It was during the reign of Julio Cesar around 100BC that it became widely popular across the empire- and with the empire controlling most of Europe, across Europe aswell. Historians say that the Romans played the game in Scotland- largely in the streets, and this may have stuck around with the natives. There is no record of any rule book for the Romans Paganica with the basic rules most likely passed around orally. It has been said that the Romans may have developed the game to be played in two separate teams, eliminating the tree- and thus it may be more comparable with modern hockey.

An ancient painting of Greeks playing ball and stick sports (first two, courtesy of theacropolismuseum.gr) Painting on a Egyptian tomb (last one, courtesy of mainichi.jp). Roman depictions (courtesy of historiasdelahistoria.com)


The Art of Chuiwan

In one of the kingdoms of the old Chinese empire during the early part of the 11th century in the Song Dynasty, in a place called Jiangnan in southern china, a local official began teaching his daughter to play a game that was passed down to him by his father. The game was called Chuiwan. The local official would dig holes in the ground and teach his daughter to direct balls into the holes using branches. The game spread after the Emperor of the time, Emperor Taizu of Song, took a liking to it having being introduced during a meeting with the official. It is by far the most similar to modern golf in terms of the rules- where a hole would be dug into the ground and participants would attempt to drive the ball into the hole.

The development of the Chinese version would further bring it more into line with modern golf rather than the the stick-and-ball games before them- they later would develop sticks made from bamboo, which is stronger than your average tree branch, aswell as using agate for the ball, which is a special type of rock- aswell as the use of holes in the ground, something that were never noted before. Far more similar to the modern clubs and balls of today. This new-look stick and ball game was named Chuiwan- which means something along the lines of ‘hit-ball’.

A rule book, called The Art of Chuiwan, was later written by a man named Ning Zhi in 1282, and the rules are very similar to that of golf. The two most similar aspects is that the holes are marked by colourful flags, and the bats used vary in kinds- with small and large bats, with participants allowed upto 10 different kinds. Given the delicate nature of creating these bats it can be seen why it was not a game played widespread, with all of the paintings of the game being played only showing it being played by emperors.

The game dyed down in popularity in China during the reign of the emperor The Great Qing- becoming associated with women and children only. Chinese scholars suggest that Mongolian travellers may have brought the game to Europe, and later Scotland, where it was further developed.

(Photos courtesy of absolutechinatours.com and chinadaily.com)


The Dutch & Colf

In the 20th century a dutch banker and golf enthusiast, Steven Van Hengel, set about finding the true origins of golf. He subsequently investigated and released a book called Early Golf: History and Development which unsurprisingly claimed that the dutch were in fact the founders of golf. Van Hengel went further than others in that he stated a specific date that golf was first played- that date was boxing day of 1297, in the village of Loenen aan de Vecht in North Holland.

In the book he claimed that the ‘new’ sport, which was named Colf, was played by dutch painters and recorded by the Amsterdam author Jacob van Maerlant. Although a book of Van Maerlant, Boeck Merlijn, does mention for the first time the word ‘Colf’, the story put forward by Van Hengel about it being played on boxing day was later revealed as fabricated and a hoax. The game played by the Dutch and the other low countries of Europe was in fact no different to the Romans Paganica. In fact the Dutch and some of the other Flemish countries began playing the game on ice from about the 13th century- possibly then giving birth to Ice Hockey.

These kind of games became very popular across Europe and as we will see with Scotland, for different reasons, it was often banned by the authorities. It was regularly deemed a sport of inconvenience- unprofitable, time-consuming and a nuisance. Balls would often fly through windows, hit people, needlessly occupy and distract the youth and the game in generally could, and would, quickly turn violent- perhaps influenced by the Romans who seem to be the ones who popularised violence in sports.

(Photos of Dutch colf courtesy of sportsheritagescotland.co.uk, strangehistory.net and ancientgolf.dse.nl)


The Home of Golf

The first mention of Golf in Scotland comes from an Act of Parliament in March 1457, in which King James II voices his disapproval and has the game banned. It seems a bit strange for golf to be banned but it is all to do with the constant threat of invasion that the country was experiencing at the time. In these days England had gained significant dominance in all wars largely due to their highly skilled archers. There is no better example of this than during the 100 years wars with France, where at one point the French had sent over one of the largest invading armies in history, but upon their arrival in England they were devastated by English longbowmen- with around 20,000 french soldiers taken out by the skilled archers.

King James II, looking for any opportunity to even up the scores in the battles, would embark on a significant campaign across the country to train Scots in archery, at one point stating that his Scots would be the ‘Mothers of all Archers’. This push for focus on archery practice would lead to the ban on golf- an increasingly popular game in the country at the time.

It is ordained and decreed, that football and golf be utterly condemned and stopped, and that a pair of targets be made at all parish Kirk’s and shooting be practised.

King James II 1457 (modern translation)

It didn’t entirely stop people from playing it, and there is records of people being caught playing while the ban was in place. Notably in the Perth Kirk records which state complaints made by the church about boys playing golf instead of attending their service. The boys were subsequently pursued by the local authorities and aswell as being fined (most likely their parents) they were brought before the church the following Sunday to repent. It wasn’t until 1502 that James IV took up a liking of the game and officially lifted the ban- notably during a period of peace with England.

It was King James IV who made the sport popular with Royals and the elite, and he is recognised as the first golfing monarch. The game subsequently spread down the Royal line with Mary Queen of Scots a notable and regular participant. The controversial queen brought the game to France during her youth and this is where the term ‘caddie’ comes from- as the young Queen was constantly surrounded by French militants when out, and the French militants of the time were known as cadets. The queen also caused great controversy after playing a round at St Andrews just a day after her husband, Lord Darnley, was killed near Holyrood Palace in 1567.

(Picture: Depiction of Mary Queen of Scots playing the Old Course at St Andrews, courtesy of theCourier)

In was in the 17th century, in 1682, when the first International golf match would take place. Following the Union of the Crowns the game had spread in popularity to England- having previously been played by Charles I, though not particularly catching fire in the nation. Naturally, a match would soon take place between England and Scotland. It was the first international golf match and would take place at Leith Links in Edinburgh. The challenge came about after two English noblemen began claiming that golf was an English game- and the Duke of York, James (the future King James VII), challenged them to prove it by facing Scotland in a match. The Duke would be supported by his old golfing partner John Paterson, and the two would wipe the floor with the English pair and bragging rights have belonged to Scotland ever since.

In terms of St Andrews being the Home of Golf. It goes back to around the time of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1552 the Archbishop of St Andrews, John Hamilton, drew up a charter to give the residents of the town more rights in the area. These included powers to a legally undertake a number of activities, all regarding the links of St Andrews, and one of the most notable was the right to freely play golf on what would become known as the old course. The links had previously been operated as grazing land. The old course become nationally renowned and quickly began garnering visitors from across the country, and in 1754 a party of well known nobleman from across fife would establish the Society of St Andrews Golfers. The elite club would quickly develop into the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

Following on the heels of the new establishment an official rule book would follow- the first recognised official rule book of the sport. It was title simply ‘the Rules of Golf’ and was released in 1897. The rule book was based upon the the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and their rules drawn up in 1745, aswell as the well read diary of of the early entrepreneur of the sport Thomas Kincaid. Written in 1687 it provides instructions on how the game should be played including basic rules and suggested techniques aswell as the introduction of the handicap rule. The dairy is available to view in the Scottish National Galleries.

Old & Young Tom Morris. In the early 19th century a man named Tom Morris would appear on the golfing scene, and revolutionise the game. Famous as a golfer himself, he was well known in the town of his birth, St Andrews, for his craft in making different clubs and balls- but his legacy is in the design of courses. This began upon his appointment as greenkeeper for the St Andrews course (the old course) which had become worn out and unfit for purpose. Old Tom’s success in transforming the old course would lead to him being the at the forefront of designing new course all across Britain. In 1851 he had a son, also named Tom known as Young Tom. Young Tom would become sports first wonder-kid and prodigy. Sadly he would not be able to achieve the heights of his father however as he died from Apnea (stopped breathing) at the age of just 24. Young Tom had previously taken part in a match in what was very poor weather conditions, and this highly likely influenced his untimely death.

Edinburgh rules of 1745 (left) and the widely used rules of St Andrews (right) (both photos courtesy of scottishgolfhistory.org)

Old Scottish Golf Gallery

(photos courtesy of golf-monthly.com, spectator.co.uk, olfdeskscotland.com and lookandlearn.com)


Golf is an exercise which is much used by gentleman in Scotland. A man would live 10 years the longer for using this exercise once or twice a week.

Dr Benjamin Rush

Origins of Golf Conclusion

All sports have ancient origins- they seem to begin in BC ancient times, are adopted and developed over the years by other nations, with the final developer credited as the creator. The cycle is repeated with all sports and golf is no different. Unlike other sports, it can be a task to determine the origins of golf individually as there is only a history of stick-and-ball games, and this could have developed into several modern sports such as hockey, cricket and tennis. Its clear that if anyone is to be considered the home of golf it is Scotland. Even just taking a look at some of the origins of the names in golf speaks volumes with Scotland fairly dominant.

Golf Name Origins

Golf- It was first directly referenced in the 1457 Act of Parliament when King James states “ye fut bawe and ye golf”. Although previously called gouf in Scotland(which means ‘to strike’), it may be a combination of this term and the dutch term colf.

Links- It is a recognised word in the Scots language, and comes form an old English term hlinc– which meant a ridge (rising ground). It was formally used in Scotland to describe rough grasslands between the smooth ones and the sea.

Tee- Possibly the English version of the Scottish Gaelic word taigh, which was used to describe the circle shaped target area of curling. This is believed to be the origin though the golf tee itself was invented by the American Dr. George Grant.

Birdie- Coming from the American term bird which was used widespread in the 19th century to describe anything that was especially great- it began being used in golf to describe a great shot, and over the years became Birdie.

Caddie- Used by Mary Queen of Scots in reference to her French personal assistants/guardians, originating from the French word Cadet used in allusion to militants.

Eagle- Similar to Birdie it comes from america and is an expansion of the birdie term with an eagle being the American national animal.

So it can be concluded that Scotland is the home of golf. Many of the ancient ball and stick games were in fact predecessors to other modern games. Although golf was very clearly influenced by these games, it was Scotland who created the golf as we know today. Scotland introduced the rules, the 18-holes, half of the names, the modern club and ball, the designing of course, popularised it the way it was played on the Scottish streets, and more importantly led by example in how to play it with Scottish golfers setting the standard and dominating in the early periods of the sport. So the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and the Dutch can be disregarded for their silly-boy games- it was Scotland who brought golf to the gentlemen.


Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots, you get good breaks from bad shots– but you have to play the ball where it lies.

Bobby Jones

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