The History of Golf (and Why It Matters)
As one of the world’s most popular and enduring sports, it is no secret that golf has a storied history that stretches back hundreds of years. But it might surprise golfing aficionados to learn just how radically the game has changed since its inception in the 15th Century. Here are just a few facts about the history of this great game, and why the sport is likely to be popular in perpetuity.
- Scottish Roots
For all intents and purposes, the game that we now know of as golf originated in Scotland nearly six centuries ago. The game makes its first appearance in the historical record around the middle of the 1400s; in fact, we know that King James II actually banned the game because it interfered with the Scottish military’s archery practice.
Nor were politicians at the time immune from being slandered for spending too much time on the golf course: In the 16th Century, Mary Queen of Scots was lambasted in public for spending time golfing after the murder of her husband.
- Establishing Technique
In the infancy of the sport, it is possible that golf had no “official” set of rules in the way that we now understand them. (Official code of conduct or no, however, players must have decided on an informal but standard set of rules between themselves as a custom.) Over hundreds of years, however, a formal code of golfing conduct and technique for playing was slowly established.
Indeed, one 17th Century writer describes a method for forming a golfing posture that is remarkably similar to the way that golfers play today: Just like we do at present, competitors would bend their knees and loosen up their arm muscles before hitting the ball.
In the 18th Century, however, a cadre of Scottish golfing aficionados set down a rule book that golfers were expected to follow to play the game honorably. These rules were established at Leith Links outside of Edinburgh; in its modern incarnation, Leith Links is a public park rather than a links course.
- Attaining Respectability and Prestige
But golf as the “gentleman’s game” de rigueur did not become truly fashionable with the upper and middle classes until the Victorian age. This was largely due to Queen Victoria’s obsession with the works of Sir Walter Scott and with the culture of Scotland in general. Keen to immerse herself in the culture of the Highlands, Victoria had the immense Balmoral Castle built in Aberdeenshire.
As they often did in those days, the upper classes in England followed Victoria’s lead with gusto. The result was that the cream of English high society enamored themselves with Scottish culture throughout the latter half of the 19th Century. Keen to emulate the aristocratic tastes that had developed “across the pond,” moreover, wealthy families in the United States also began playing golf and commissioning extensive courses around this time. Seemingly overnight, golfing became linked (no pun intended) in the public mind with wealth and respectability.
Aside from the kind of technology that has improved everything from the shape and weight of golf clubs to the way that courses are built in public areas, the basics of golf as the Victorians developed it remain in place to this day. Few people other than diehard golfers play links courses anymore, it is true, but the notion of golf as a “gentleman’s pursuit” is still part-and-parcel of any local country club set in a wealthy suburb. From our vantage point, however, it’s strange to imagine that the sport of the upper classes was once banned by a king.