Debra Ann Ballinger. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 2, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

Golf is a ball-and-stick game, the chief aim of which is hitting a small, hard ball into small holes placed at prescribed intervals around a grassy course. Today, golf reaches out to people of all ages and has become one of the premier world sports recreationally and professionally. The International Golf Federation (IGF) recently requested recognition from the International Olympic Committee for the 2008 games, citing world participation of more than sixty million men and women. In the early years of the modern Olympic games, golf was one of the events staged.

Scottish Claims

Scotland has long claimed to have founded the game of golf, and its headquarters for golf rules housed within the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) at St. Andrews, Fife, has been at the center of golf’s recorded history. However, pictures and records from many other nations depict a sport resembling the ancient ball-and-stick target game.

  • A Roman game called paganica was introduced to France and Germany and then to the Netherlands.
  • Chole,a derivative of hockey, played in Belgium as early as 1353, may have provided the most direct link to Scotland.
  • Reportedly, a Scottish regiment aiding the French against the English in 1421 became entranced by the sport and, when the regiment returned home, members played a modified version that became golf as we know it today.

Golf became so popular that the Scottish parliament of James II banned golf in 1457 because it interfered with military training for the wars against the English. The ban continued through the parliaments of James III (1470) and King James IV (1491). In 1502, with the Treaty of Glasgow between England and Scotland, James IV lifted the ban and was the first recorded purchaser of golf equipment—a set of clubs. In 1553, the Archbishop Hamilton of St. Andrews granted the local population the right to play on the St. Andrews links, and the game took root as Scotland’s own sport.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was the first recorded female golfer, and according to legend, that partly led to her demise. She was seen playing golf shortly after the death of her first husband, Lord Darnley. Such behavior was considered unfit for a woman in mourning and, presumably, contributed to her being convicted and beheaded in 1587. Her indelible mark on golf history remains her introduction of caddies, in reference to the cadets she brought along to carry her equipment.

Despite being banned on Sundays, initially for interference with military archery training and the nation’s defense and later for stealing attendance from church, golf’s evolution continued:

  • 1618: the “feathery ball” was introduced.
  • 1642: John Dickson was officially licensed as the ball-maker for Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • 1659: Records from the American colonies show that golf was banned from the streets in Albany, New York.
  • 1744: The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers formed and honored its annual champion with a silver chalice.
  • 1754: The St. Andrews Golfers Club, later named the Royal and Ancient Club (R&A), formed and published the first rules of the game.

Soon, other clubs sprang up, including Royal Burgess of Edinburgh (1773), Royal Aberdeen (1780), and, in the United States, the South Carolina Golf Club in Charleston (1786). In each of these clubs, membership was restricted to mostly noblemen and gentlemen, who engaged in interclub fall and spring matches involving hefty wagers.

Rules Development

Before the published rules of the St. Andrews golfers, golf had been played at a variety of venues, on courses with differing numbers of holes. The “Old Course” at St. Andrews was originally eleven holes leading out from the club/university grounds to the water. The golfers then played the same holes in reverse—twenty-two holes total. The first rule established by the St. Andrews golfers, to speed up play and standardize distance, was that the ball was to be teed within one club of the last hole. In 1764, the members converted the first four holes to two holes each because they were too short and slowed play, which left an eighteen-hole venue—nine holes out from the clubhouse, and nine coming back in. This standardized future courses. The front nine score is still referred to as the “out” score, and the back nine as the “in” score, referencing the revised St. Andrews layout.

For years, golf was governed separately—in the United States by the United States Golf Association (USGA), and in the United Kingdom by the British Golf Association (BGA) and the R&A—and lacked standardization of equipment and rulings. In 1952, the first world code of rules was established between the R&A and USGA. In an effort to standardize play for professionals and amateurs in all major competitions, the USGA assumed control of the U.S. Women’s Open in 1953. This paralleled the organization and alignment of the British Women’s Open with the R&A and helped promote tournament play for professionals and amateurs alike. In 1958, further organization of amateur standards came from the formation of the World Amateur Golf Council, in collaboration with the USGA and organizations from thirty-two other countries. A new system for handicapping was implemented, in which each golfer had a single USGA handicap instead of various other versions. This allowed men and women and golfers of varying skill levels to participate equitably. The R&A and USGA joined the IGF in 2000 and affiliated with associations worldwide to establish and maintain standardized rules for an equitable playing field. Scoring systems, equipment, rules for play, length of holes for “par” from tee to green, amateur status, and player etiquette are all governed by IGF rules.

Even with standardization, competitive golf provides scoring options. In medal play, players keep an aggregate score across all eighteen holes and compete against the course, their personal records, or other golfers on the same or different rounds and days. This is the format most commonly broadcast on television and played by leisure golfers and those on the professional tours—the medalist is the golfer with the lowest stroke total. Golfers who play regularly are encouraged to honestly and accurately record all rounds to establish a handicap. Under USGA rules, handicaps are derived by the difference or partial difference between their best twenty-round average subtracted from par (normally 72). Par is derived by the distance on each hole—and the number of strokes an expert golfer should need from tee to green, plus two putting strokes. Golfers who consistently play par golf are called scratch golfers and have a handicap of 0. A professional golfer competing in a handicapped tournament might even have a negative handicap and have to add strokes to his or her score at the end, or on a hole. In medal play, the golfer’s handicap is subtracted from the gross (total) eighteen-hole score to arrive at a net score. Many leagues and tournaments award prizes on both gross and net scores.

In match play, opponents compete hole by hole, with a point scored for the winner of each hole. Using handicaps in match play, the score per hole is adjusted according to the handicap, before the point is awarded. Match play is still the most common scoring system for collegiate golf and many amateur championships—a tradition established at the matches at St. Andrews. The handicapping system has made golf an attractive leisure sport for golfers of all levels—it rewards individuals for playing at their best and allows players with different skill levels to compete equitably.

Newer courses have different teeing grounds (tee boxes) on each hole, designed so that golfers of differing ability, age, strength, handicap, or gender would use a similar length shot or club in their approach shot to the green. This provides golfers an equitable chance to achieve a “net” par on a hole. A course rating system has also been designed to identify difficulty, according to length (rating) and topography (slope) for each course.

Equipment Creates Professional Golf

The first golfing equipment was a handmade ball of feathers tightly wound around a center of either stone or other material that could be molded into a round shape and clubs constructed of whatever wood was indigenous to the countryside. The title “The World’s First Golf Professional” was given to Allan Robertson, a feather ball maker from St. Andrews, who developed a new club with a slender wooden shaft and an iron head. Robertson continually built clubs that were lighter and more flexible than those of his contemporaries.The change in clubs led to a fundamental change in the golf swing.

The amateur golfers wore crested wool jackets that represented their clubs but also limited their arm movements to about 180 degrees and a wristy swing. This created a low, flat, and often rolling shot—good initially in the Scottish winds, but not resembling the swing taught today. Robertson, not of the “gentlemen’s” class, was not so restricted. He and the other caddies turned professional golfers sported sweaters and were able to experiment with different swings.

Other professionals were merchants who made clubs, designed and laid out courses, and made golf apparel for the club members. The caddies and other professionals would assist with the morning matches between the gentleman members but would gather later for their own rounds while the members socialized in the clubhouse. As the gentlemen’s matches (match play format) became more established, many clubs began employing club professionals to manage their courses and operations, and to teach the game. In 1854, the R&A invited each of the twelve clubs in existence to send two golfers for a “Grand Tournament,” which was played over several days. The last day the professionals played and recorded their round—Robertson’s 80 was about 25 strokes less than that of the amateurs participating in the club match play. Thus, the challenge of the professionals was born. As word spread about the professional challenges, some of the amateurs joined, leading to the term open play. Today, “open tournaments” are still played with amateur and professional golfers competing against one another.

The establishment of rules, equipment development, and professional golf have always been intertwined. As numbers of competitors increased worldwide, equipment changed to gain the competitive edge. The “guttie,” or gutta-percha ball (made of a natural balata-like substance) was introduced in 1848 and, by the mid 1850s, had replaced the feathery ball. The guttie was machine produced, cheaper, and produced a consistent ball flight. Professionals began experimenting with new swings to curve shots and impart backspin to reduce the roll on the hard greens. Tom Kidd, winner of the 1873 Open, built irons with metal spines across the faces—producing backspin far beyond that of the flat-surfaced irons. Although the R&A banned the protrusions, others took up the challenge to find a swing and new irons that could so dramatically change their games. In 1890, the brassie club was introduced—a brass plate was added to the sole of the wooden club. Harry Vardon invented the modern upright swing and a grip that controlled the longer swing path—one that interlocked the little finger on one hand with the index and middle fingers on the other. Today, 95 percent of touring professionals use the Vardon grip. Vardon won the British Open six times between 1896 and 1914 and was hired by Spaulding Company, of the United States, in 1900 to teach and tour with Spaulding’s equipment. While in the United States, Vardon won the 1900 U.S. Open and inspired Americans to adopt his grip and swing.

Over the next few decades, several equipment and rule changes affected golf:

  • The rubber core ball, patented by Coburn Haskell in 1898, enabled the ball to travel further.
  • Grooved-faced irons were invented in 1902.
  • The mass production of golf clubs developed from 1900 to 1920, and clubs were numbered and standardized.
  • William Taylor introduced the dimpled-pattern ball cover in England in 1905.
  • The Goodrich Company introduced a golf ball with a rubber core filled with compressed air in 1906.
  • The R&A banned the center-shafted putter in 1910, but the USGA kept it legal.
  • Arthur F. Knight patented steel shafts, also in 1910. The USGA allowed them in tournaments in 1926, and the R&A followed suit in 1929.
  • One of the last rules to be standardized worldwide was the size of the golf ball when, in 1990, the R&A adopted the 1.68-inch diameter golf ball (previously
    62-inches) standardized by the USGA.

The industry continues to experiment with and develop balls with different dimple patterns, covers, or core composition to entice golfers to purchase new equipment and gain a competitive edge.

Manufacturers hired professional golfers to tour at various clubs, give clinics, and promote equipment for their new sporting goods industry. The first female professional, Mrs. Gordon Robertson, was hired at Princess Ladies Golf Club, in 1908. Professional golfers were skillful players, but others were employed by clubs and seldom had time to perfect their games. Vardon’s playing success in the United States led to an exodus of Scottish, Irish, and English professionals across the Atlantic, where Americans had the money to pay for lessons and equipment. Among the Scots who joined the immigrant movement was Donald Ross, who moved to North Carolina and built dozens of courses.

As these pros toured the United States, they gave lessons, held exhibition matches, and played events like the U.S. Open. The Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) was formed in 1916 and held its first championship with a prize of $500 to the winner. Among the best-known pros were Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazan. In 1935, Helen Hicks was one of the first women hired by Wilson Sporting Goods to promote women’s golf through exhibitions and clinics and to advise the company about golf club design for women. Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, 1932 Olympic track and field medalist, also turned to golf. In 1935, declared a professional by the USGA, she played professionally until 1946. Reinstated as an amateur in 1946, she won seventeen amateur titles in two years, including the 1947 British Women’s Open Championship—the first U.S. golfer to do so. Her personality and international fame attracted spectators and brought attention to women’s professional golf. She ushered in a new style of clothing, shedding long, tight skirts and other restrictive garments for knickers and slacks, which gave more freedom to swing for distance and increased comfort. This interest sparked the industry to pay more attention to women as clients. The Women’s Professional Golf Association (WPGA) was chartered in 1944 but disbanded in early 1949 because of financial stress.

Following World War II, steel-shafted clubs were introduced as factories transitioned from war to peacetime productions. Professionals began playing with these cheaper clubs that would not warp when wet, and didn’t whip and twist as the hickory shafts did. The shafts maintained a better swing pattern throughout the down swing, so the professionals learned to keep their wrists cocked longer and swing harder, releasing the wrists at the end to increase clubhead speed and shot distance. Byron Nelson, who won eleven tournaments in a row in 1945, adopted the new swing and taught many of the great players of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Also developing the upright swing to perfection was female golfer Mickey Wright, who won eight-two tournaments between 1955 and 1973—her swing is considered the best swing of all time, male or female.

Participation for All

Although professional golf receives much media coverage, amateur golf continues to flourish throughout the world and across the ages. The National Golf Foundation (NGF) reports that in the United States:

  • 2 million golfers aged eighteen and older played at least one regulation round of golf in the previous twelve months,
  • 7 million Americans five years or older played a round of golf or visited a golf practice facility,
  • 1 million junior golfers ages five to seventeen have either played a round of golf or visited a golf practice facility,
  • 45 percent of golfers (11.9 million) are aged eighteen to thirty-nine,
  • 33 percent of golfers are seniors (ages 50+),
  • 22 percent (5.76 million) are female golfers.

The ratios are similar in other Western countries, and participation in Asian countries is growing as well. Public golf courses have developed to the point that the sport is much less limited by cost—the median price of a round of golf at an eighteen-hole municipal or daily fee course in the United States is $36 to $40 including cart and green fee. Most courses also have provisions for individuals with mobility impairments. The NGF estimates that roughly 10 percent (2.4 million) of today’s U.S. golfers represent a racial minority:

  • 882,000 are African-Americans
  • 1,400,000 are Hispanic
  • 851,000 are Asian/Pacific Islanders
  • 712,000 are self-identified by survey respondents as “other,” which includes Native Americans and mixed races

Breaking Down Barriers: Women and Minorities in Golf

Although golf today reaches out to a diverse population, clubs did not readily open their doors to women or to persons of color or diverse backgrounds for many decades. The gender barrier began breaking down with the earliest recorded reference to a women’s competition in 1810, at Musselburgh, Scotland. The North Berwick Club in Scotland included women in its activities in 1832. The Ladies’ Golf Club at St. Andrews (1867) was the first official golf club for women, and on 19 April 1893, Issette Person convened a meeting of dedicated women golfers in London, forming the Ladies Golf Union (LGU). In addition to promoting general interest in the women’s game, its goals were to develop a “handicapping” system, provide uniform rules, and fund an annual championship tournament for women. Later that year, the first Women’s British Amateur Championship had thirty-three contestants at the nine-hole course at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s Golf Club.

The Amateur Golf Association of America (later renamed the USGA) organized in 1894 and held its first U.S. Amateur Championship in Newport, Rhode Island; one year later, its first women’s U.S. Amateur was held at the Meadow Brook Club on Long Island, New York. By 1900, U.S. men and women were winning golf medals at the Olympic games. The USGA and LGU agreed to hold biennial amateur competitions between the United States and Britain in 1932. The first official Curtis Cup was held in May at England’s Wentworth Golf Club, witnessed by 15,000 spectators, and won by the U.S. team (led by Marion Hollins) over the British team (led by Joyce Wethered). Wethered’s matches with Glenna Collett Vare became so legendary that towns closed up shop and gave workers the day off to watch the matches, which were credited with permanently raising the standards of women in golf. Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones, U.S. golfing legend of the 1920s and 1930s and the only player to win the Grand Slam of men’s golf, reportedly called Wethered the “greatest golfer of all time, man or woman.” In 1950, during the U.S. Women’s Open Championship, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) certificate of incorporation was signed, and the women’s golf tour consisted of eleven events and a total purse of $50,000.

Today, international competition for women is as extensive as that for men:

  • The 1990s brought the Solheim Cup sponsored by Karsten Manufacturing, which created biennial professional match-play competition between the LPGA and European Women’s Professional Golfers Tour (WPGET).
  • Since 1988, LPGA Rookie-of-the-Year winners have heralded from Sweden, Scotland, England, Japan, Australia, and South Korea.
  • In 1988, Mercury LPGA Series was instituted as the first television series for women’s golf and Betsy King (U.S.) became the first player ever to receive $6 million in career earnings.

International competition for men was already firmly entrenched. The game of golf spread early to South Africa (1885) and Japan, where, in 1914 at Komozawa, the Tokyo Club was founded, triggering the golf boom in that nation. The race and class barriers were not so easily erased, however. In South Africa, for example, clubs banned persons of color from playing on their courses, and today many clubs still restrict memberships and play to males and to those “voted” acceptable.

The rich history of golf included prominent African-Americans long before the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, however:

  • John M. Shippen was actually the first African-American professional golfer and played in the U.S. Open at the age of sixteen in 1896—the officials and golfers believed that he was half Shinnecock Indian.
  • George F. Grant, a dentist and one of the first African-American golfers following the Civil War, patented the golf tee.
  • Joseph M. Bartholomew, a caddie from the age of seven, constructed a golf course in 1922, in New Orleans, that is still in play today, and is named after him.
  • Ben Spiller competed equally with the likes of Ben Hogan in the mid 1940s. Spiller and Ted Rhodes finished in the top twenty-five of a PGA tour event in 1948 in Los Angeles.

Not until 1955 and a lawsuit by Alfred (Tup) Holmes, however, were public golf courses in Atlanta, Georgia, and other parts of the nation opened to people of color. The PGA didn’t remove the Caucasian-only clause of its constitution officially until 1961. PGA professionals still boycotted South Africa in the 1980s because of exclusion of black players. The female color barrier was overcome largely because of such athletes as two-time Wimbledon (tennis) champion Althea Gibson, who joined the LPGA tour in 1963. That same year, the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open was televised and helped to expose young girls, regardless of race, to the possibilities of golf for leisure or career. Four years later, African-American Renee Powell became a regular player on the LPGA tour, and the women in golf became champions of equal rights for women everywhere: They refused to hold the tournament at any venue where Gibson or Powell were not allowed into a clubhouse or faced other discrimination.

Today, the international and diverse representation in golf is evident, with young players of all races taking top honors on both men’s and women’s tours. Worldwide, competition for women is found in North America, Asia, and in Europe. Asian women’s golf started with the Thailand Ladies Amateur Open Golf and Inter-Club Team Championships (1978), and in 1979, the Nichirei International U.S.-Japan Team Championships were inaugurated. For men, there are professional golf tours in Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, and North America. Although some private clubs still hold to prejudicial constraints by race and gender, other clubs and organizations are being developed to cater only to women or golfers from minority populations. Many clubs have accommodations for persons who are blind or physically challenged, some have special mobility provisions, and wheelchair golf has worldwide competitions.

Golf also has expanded to youth, through efforts of professional associations. In 1987, Judy Bell became the first woman elected to the USGA executive committee, and two years later, reflecting the growing appeal of the game to younger girls, the LPGA began sponsoring the PGA Urban Youth Golf Program and the LPGA Girls Golf Club. This club has expanded its outreach throughout the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, in partnership with the USGA and the Girl Scouts of the USA. International competition for juniors includes the Junior Ryder Cup, and the International Golf Federation sponsors clinics and junior tournaments around the globe. The PGA, LPGA, R&A, and national professional associations sponsor youth clinics, sponsor teaching schools, and donate equipment to schools and community associations to attract youth to the sport.

Recognition of Champions

In 1998, the World Golf Foundation ( was established in St. Augustine, Florida, to represent all major golf organizations throughout the world, to honor the history of golf and achievements of its greatest individuals, and to teach both golfers and the general public about the game and its positive values. The website lists all major golf organizations as partners and has representatives from each on its advisory board. The USGA ( and R&A ( also have web links to museums and archives worldwide for information on golfing heroes, pioneers, golf history, evolution of equipment and the rules.