Generally attributed to Scotland, the origins of golf may be a bit hazier than you think. Before the common era, the Romans played a game that used a bent stick and hit a stuffed, leather ball. During the Song Dynasty in China, chuíw án was played and 1297 there is a record in the Dutch played a game with a stick and leather ball. In the 17th century in the Netherlands there is a report of a contest of putting a small ball in a hole.
The word “golf” is also cited from different sources:
- Scots - gowf
- Dutch - colf or colve meaning "stick, "club," "bat"
- Proto-Germanic language - kulth
- Old Norse - kolfr meaning "bell clapper”
- German - Kolben meaning "mace” or “club”
It was mentioned in 1457 through an act prohibiting gowf and futbal as distractions from the military practice of archery. We find the earliest written instructions from 1687 from the diary of Thomas Kincaid. He wrote of his playing at Bruntsfield Links and described how he made his golf strokes.
Now at the National Library of Scotland, the 1744 written rules are considered the oldest surviving written documentation. The Articles and Laws in Playing Golf was also called Leith Rules.
And that brings us to deciding which is the oldest golf club. The Company of Gentlemen Golfers later called The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers played at Leith. There is also the Royal Burgess Golfing Society that was formed in 1735.
The oldest established course is credited to the Old Course at St. Andrews. It was there that the standard number of holes was reduced from 22 to the current 18. For quite some time each course owner had his own idea of how many holes it should have. In fact, there is a contention that modern courses should go back to that variable depending on the lay of the land and how the shots could best be configured.
Then there is the first trophy which was won by John Rattray as part of the 1744 Gentlemen Golfers’ Competition. After a little foray with the Jacobite Rising in 1745, Rattray won the Silver Club twice more.
Early clubs (the instrument of play as opposed to the group or place) were made from wood with leather for gripping. To hold the shaft to the grip or the head, they used thread that was whipped around. This thread was linen, waxed, and black.
As iron became easier to work with, manufacturers developed a range of clubs to hit different types of shots. After about the mid 1920s the clubs were made with steel shafts, or pyratone, aluminium, fiberglass or resin. Some were coated to look like wood.
As the popularity of the sport grew, a standard group of clubs was generally accepted. There were some colorful names for these instruments:
- Mashie – This is a club with an iron head with a pretty good slant. It is used to loft the ball high rather than go for distance. It is designed to go over hazards like bunkers or trees and to roll only a short distance once it lands.
- Niblick – To get out of a pit or where height is a major concern, this is a club with a broad, flat side.
- Midiron – This is used to gain distance and was used by players to drive 150 to 180 yards.
- Brassie – With a lower center of gravity, the use of this club was designed to work out long shots from hard ground and in the rough. It was so named because the soleplate was made of brass. Its closest relative is the number 2 wood.
- Hybrids – Some combinations were developed:
- Mashie-Niblick – Has a loft higher than a mashie but lower than the niblick.
- Mid-Mashie – between the midiron and mashie.
It seems a shame to have lost these unique terms but today the standard clubs include:
- Wood – These provide long range shots and are used to tee off. Although they are called woods, they are made from titanium or other alloys. They are commonly called driver, 3 wood, and 5 wood. The driver has the lowest loft but will send the ball the farthest and are suggested for long holes. Sometimes the wood is used to hit from the fairway.
- Iron – These have heads that are quite angled. They are recommended for shorter distances, less than 200 yards, and are numbered from 3 through 9. The closer to the green, the higher number (and higher loft) is suggested.
- Wedge – This is a specialty club and is broken into subsets like sand wedge and lob wedge. It is generally used to extricate the ball from bunkers or the rough.
- Putter – This is a club with a short shaft and small head. It is used to get the ball the final distance into the hole. Its flat head will guide the ball squarely and accurately.
The earliest balls were made out of wood and carved by hand. By the 17th century, it had migrated to a leather ball filled with feathers and stitched shut, but these acted differently dry as opposed to wet, had difficulty remaining round, and took a long time to produce.
Robert Adams Patterson made the first molded golf ball. It was called the “guttie” and could be reshaped with heat. But as luck would have it, players figured out that balls that had some nicks or damage actually flew truer than those that are perfectly round. So, manufacturers started carving intricate designs to find the right balance.
An employee of Goodrich rubber found that if he wound rubber bands into a tight ball, it had a lot of kinetic energy. Sometime in the 1900s someone whose name is lost in history found that indentations or dimples was the way to go and now we have the modern golf ball.
If this summary has enticed you to take part in this historic sport, contact us at Back2Basics.golf. We will be happy to get you started.