The evolution of golf is a fascinating story, especially for anyone interested in starting this skillful sport. So how exactly did golf begin, and how does it differ from what we know now? This guide details the history of golf, and there may be more surprises in here than you are expecting.
From Humble Beginnings
Golf can be traced back to the reign of Julius Caesar when Romans used a club-shaped tree branch to strike a feather-stuffed ball. However, it wasn’t until 1457 that today’s game began to take shape in Scotland. This came after King James II of Scotland outlawed the popular game for distracting the military from their training.
The first international golf match was hosted at Leith near Edinburgh in 1682, when the Duke of York and George Patterson, representing Scotland, beat two English noblemen.
To an International Sport
It was then in 1744 that the game of golf officially became a sport when the first club was formed in Leith, and an annual competition held. Ten years later, The St Andrews Society of Golfers was founded to compete in its own annual competition, and subsequently, the first-ever 18-hole golf course was constructed and became the world’s premier golf club.
It was in the seventeenth century that that golf became a major pastime in Great Britain. During the 1860s, the British Open became the first tournament to be played, prompting an international movement and the arrival of the first permanent golf club in Montreal, Canada, in 1873.
The Advancement of Golf Clubs
Golf was considered the pastime of the wealthy, not least due to the expense of the equipment required to play. Clubs were crafted out of tough wood and the head was connected to the shaft using a splint that was bound tightly with leather. The time and expertise required to make golf clubs priced them beyond the reach of the masses. Along with the fact that clubs were prone to breakage, and golfers could expect to lose at least one club during a round, it meant fewer people could afford them.
Scotland was considered to be the best place to source your golf equipment from and a lucrative trade was established supplying golf clubs around the world. Golf clubs continued to evolve, using different woods and aluminum, until 1902, when the groove faced irons were introduced for increased backspin. The Prince of Wales used a steel-shafted club on the Old Course in 1929, prompting the legalization by the R&A. This resulted in Billy Burke going on to be the first person to win a major tournament with steel-shafted clubs at the US Open in 1931.
In 1939, the R&A introduced the 14-club rule in order to promote individual skill, and it was at this time that the modern standard for numbering woods and irons was conceived. Clubs continued to evolve using different materials and methods all the way through to the early 2000s when the hybrid club started to gain popularity. 7% of golfers used a hybrid in 2004 but this number jumped to 30% by 2007 and today hybrid golf clubs can be found in almost every bag.
How the Ball Got Its Dimples
Similarly, the golf ball has made major advancements from its humble origins. The 17th Century ‘Featherie’ was a leather ball stuffed with bird feathers and stitched shut. They were hugely problematic in that they were labor-intensive to make, lacked spherical purity and performed differently when wet.
By the mid-1800, the sapodilla tree had provided the answer. Robert Adams Paterson discovered that the sap, when exposed to heat, could be placed into round molds and then dried into solid balls. These were called gutties and were the first golf balls to be massed produced. Repeated use of these balls then led to the discovery that the nicks and dents incurred actually improved the performance of the balls flight path. With the rising popularity in used balls becoming increasingly evident, manufacturers began experimenting with trying to get different textures onto the surface of the new balls.
But the guttie was soon to be obsolete as, in 1890, a new ball had been produced using the latex-like sap of the Balata tree. These balls were produced using raised protrusions until the early 1900s when it was discovered that surface indentations had a better result. This ball was widely used all the way through till the 1960s when the Balata was replaced with urethane skins and synthetic resin cores.
Golf balls have continued to experience technological advances in the last few decades and there are now several excellent choices on the market for even the most discerning of golfers.
Golf has a long and rich history and is one of the few sports that people can continue to enjoy well into their later years in life.