History's Tee Times

By Linda Pescatore

January 30, 2009 5 min read


The evolution of golf -- from Scotland to the New World

Linda Pescatore

Creators News Service

It may be impossible to know who the first golfers were, but they surely had no idea what hitting that ball would set in motion.

Many scholars say there are references to golf-like stick-and-ball games as far back as 14th century Netherlands, 11th century China and even ancient Rome. While there are no discernible duffers on the cave walls of Lascaux, the urge to whack a ball toward a target is perhaps as old as humanity.

Wherever it germinated, golf as we know it didn't truly bloom until it was transplanted to Scotland during a proliferation of trade in the 1300s and 1400s, according to Rand Jerris, director of the United States Golf Association Museum in Far Hills, N.J.

"Dutch sailors brought the game with them to the linksland," he said, referring to low, rolling, sandy seaside known as "links" in Scotland.

Scottish cities such as Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St. Andrews embraced the game, and the latter rose in importance because of its university and the influential Royal and Ancient Golf Club there, Jerris said.

"Some people call [St. Andrews] the legendary, ancestral home of the game," he said, adding that no hard evidence supports that.

Near the end of the 15th century, the Scots tried outlawing football and golf for their uselessness while encouraging archery, which was more practical for battle, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

It didn't work. In the early 1500s, the encyclopedia noted, the lord high treasurer's accounts include payments for the king's "golf clubbis and ballis" during stays at Perth, Edinburgh and St. Andrews.

While the Old World was reserving tee times, the New World still lay undiscovered. Not until the 1700s did the golf ball finally cross the pond and drop on our greens.

As the American Revolution raged in 1779, James Rivington's loyalist gazette advertised:

"To the GOLF PLAYERS: The Season for this pleasant and healthy Exercise now advancing, Gentlemen may be furnished with excellent CLUBS and the veritable Caledonian BALLS, by enquiring at the Printer's."

Golf didn't hold, however. By 1820, it was gone, Jerris said. "Following the War of 1812, America shed itself of many English customs," he explained.

Fast forward to the 1880s, an unprecedented economic boom time. This go-round, the game proliferated. The number of courses zoomed from a handful to more than 1,000 in a few years, Jerris said.

The Amateur Golf Association of the United States -- a brief precursor to the USGA -- formed in 1894 to formalize the rules and conduct national championships. Founding the USGA was a milestone in advancing the sport, Jerris said.

The 1910s and '20s -- the heyday of greats such as Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan -- marked golf's golden age. Unlike today, pros were not the stars. "Amateur golf was the pinnacle," Jerris said. "Professionals were working-class, second-class citizens."

Things began changing with the Great Depression.

"The 1930s is when golf is democratized," Jerris said. "It was largely a country club sport. That really changed when public works projects built more than 350 public golf courses across the United States. The game became far more accessible."

Another burst came in the '50s and '60s. President Dwight Eisenhower, an avid golfer, occupied the White House. Television brought the game into America's living rooms, and a "very energetic and charismatic" Arnold Palmer brought both attention and money to the game, Jerris said. "With the massive growth of sports advertising revenues, they recognized their name and their image had value. Money started to pour in."

Purses bulged. Contrast the $150 prize Horace Rawlins won in the 1895 U.S. Open with Tiger Woods' recent $1.35 million payday in the same contest.

The Internet and the proliferation of sport-focused TV channels popularized golf worldwide. "The game is no longer dominated by American or British players," Jerris said. "Golf is really starting to take off in China."

The economy will largely determine where golf evolves next, Jerris said. "In the last couple of years, we've seen declining numbers," he said. "There are golf courses closing. Tour events have already lost sponsors."

One bright spot on the horizon is the possibility of golf becoming an Olympic sport. "Once the [International Olympic Committee] recognizes a sport, then the national Olympic committees suddenly have money," Jerris said.

For more information, visit the USGA Museum's website at www.usgamuseum.com

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