After more than five centuries, here’s how the game we play today got that way
Given that golf has been played for more than 500 years, it’s had more than its share of important moments. But some were more important—or interesting, or amusing—than others, and their effects are still being felt today. The following timeline of notable events in golf history isn’t meant to be comprehensive, simply enlightening.
1457—“Golf Be Utterly Cryit Doune”
In perhaps the earliest instance of golf being mentioned anywhere, King James II of Scotland had his parliament declare that “the futeball and golf be utterly cryit doune and nocht usit.” Seems the playing of games was getting in the way of practicing archery and other means of defending the country in its ongoing wars with England. Golf and other activities were labeled hazards to “the common good of the Realme and defense thereof” throughout the 15th century, but in 1552 the people of St. Andrews received a license from their Archbishop allowing them to tee it up on the local links—as long as they didn’t play on the Sabbath.
1744—First Clubs, First Rules
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, the game’s first official club, was formed in 1744 when the men who played over Leith Links convinced the city of Edinburgh to back a competition aimed at identifying the game’s best player. (The HCEG would eventually settle at Muirfield.) To govern their event, the Company drew up the game’s first list of rules, 13 simple regulations covering everything from where to tee off to playing the ball as it lies. These rules would begin to gain widespread acceptance after being adopted 10 years later by the golfers of St. Andrews.
1754—The Society of St. Andrews Golfers Founded
It became the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in 1834.
1764—From 22 Holes to 18
No one knows precisely when golf was first played in St. Andrews—on the “linksland” between the town and the sea—but from its earliest days, perhaps as far back as the 1300s, the “course” consisted of 12 holes cut in the ground. Players started astride the first hole and hit “out” to the second; from that one to the next; 11 times until reaching the last hole. At which point they turned around and played back “in,” another 11 holes for a total of 22. In October 1764, The Society decided that “it would be for the improvement of the links that the four first holes should be converted into two.” The 12 holes in the ground became 10, equaling 9 holes of play each way for a total of 18. A standard was born.
Early golf was a game for the wealthy, in part because its equipment was so expensive. Featherie golf balls—little sacks of leather hand-stuffed with feathers—were slow and hard to make, and cost about four shillings each when a tradesman was making about six shillings a week. But in 1848, a new ball entered the market, mass-produced from gutta percha, a rubberlike sap from Southeast Asia. Easier to make and less expensive (about one quarter the price) than a featherie, they also lasted longer, flew farther, and rolled truer on the green. They also let more people into the game, a trend accelerated 50 years later by the Haskell ball, which flew and rolled even better than the “guttie” thanks to its insides—a continuous rubber thread wound around a solid rubber core.
1857—First Instruction Book
The Golfer’s Manual: Being an Historical and Descriptive Account of the National Game of Scotland, by “A Keen Hand” (pseudonym for H.B. Fannie).
1860—First Open Championship
Played at Prestwick, won by Willie Park.
The Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Yonkers, N.Y., the oldest private golf club in the U.S., was formed.
1891—The British Invasion Begins
The first of countless British pros and architects to come to the U.S. was Willie Dunn, who arrived in 1891 at the invitation of W.E. Vanderbilt. Member of a famous golf family from Musselburgh, Scotland, Dunn was a player, instructor, course designer, greenkeeper, and equipment innovator. While in the U.S., he taught numerous prominent Americans the game, laid out the original 12 holes of Shinnecock Hills, and opened an indoor golf academy on New York’s Fifth Avenue. He also won the (unofficial) 1894 U.S. Open, then finished second in the (official) 1895 U.S. Open. Many émigré pros, players, and architects followed his lead and came to America around the start of the 20th century, helping to grow the game here.
1895—A Busy Year
Three tournaments made their debut: The U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, and U.S. Women’s Amateur (there wouldn’t be a U.S. Women’s Open until 1946). Also, the first public course in America—Van Cortlandt Park in Bronx, N.Y.—opened. And in one of the first examples of golf’s new ruling body flexing its muscles, using a pool cue as a putter was banned after someone actually tried it in that year’s U.S. Open.
1913—An American Hero
Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old American-born amateur, ignited America’s interest in golf by winning the U.S. Open at The Country Club outside Boston, where he used to caddie, defeating British legends Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff.
There were already three courses at Pinehurst, one of the first golf resorts, when Donald Ross took three holes from the No. 1 course and turned them into what was likely the first dedicated practice range in the world. Nicknamed “Maniac Hill,” noted professional Tommy Armour later said it was to golf “what Kitty Hawk was to flying.”
1930—Bobby Jones Wins Grand Slam
1938—Lightening the Load
The 14-Club Rule, enacted in 1938, limits how many clubs can be used in a round to 14. The number of clubs had never been defined, and with the advent of steel shafts in the mid-1920s, players began carrying implements for any and all situations: Lawson Little won the 1934 U.S. and British Amateurs with 26 clubs in his bag and golfers were known to carry full sets of both left- and right-handed clubs at the same time, just in case.
1962—Passing the Torch
Jack Nicklaus defeated Arnold Palmer at Oakmont to win his first U.S. Open.
1968—PGA Tour Formed
The early golf “tour,” which started in the 1920s, was managed by the PGA of America because the players were club pros making a little extra money on the side. As the tour grew, the players resented following rules designed to aid shirt-folders and lesson-givers. The PGA of America created a Tournament Bureau in the 1930s, but as its popularity grew, the players continued to rebel against the restrictions put on them. In 1968, they broke away and took control themselves, eventually creating the Tournament Players Division of the PGA, which became the PGA Tour.
1971—Golf on the Moon
Astronaut Alan Shepard hit a golf ball on the moon with a 6-iron he smuggled onto the Apollo 14 capsule.
1978—Woods Made of Metal
Making “woods” out of metal wasn’t a new idea, with attempts as far back as the 1890s. But they didn’t catch the public’s fancy until the 1980s. Leading the charge was Gary Adams, who started making drivers with stainless-steel heads in 1978; the next year, he launched TaylorMade Golf. Ron Streck was the first pro to win a tournament using a metal wood, the 1981 Michelob-Houston Open. Callaway introduced the Big Bertha driver in 1991. Today, metal accounts for more than 99 percent of wood sales.
1979—Golf Goes Global
The Ryder Cup started in 1927 with teams from the U.S. and Great Britain. In 1973, the British team became Great Britain and Ireland. And in 1979, having lost 18 of the previous 22 matches (with one tie), it became Continental Europe with the addition of two players from Spain. In time, players would come from Germany, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, France, Belgium, and, as of 2021, Norway; and since expanding, the Euros have won 11 of 21 matches (with one tie). The success of the Ryder Cup also prompted the launching of The Presidents Cup, pitting a U.S. team against a team made up of players from everywhere in the world except Europe. Golf has truly become a global game: According to the National Golf Foundation, in 2021 there were golf courses in 206 of 251 countries and dependent territories.
After decades of bigger, bolder, and more ostentatious, course architecture took a 180-degree turn to the natural with the opening of Sand Hills, designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, in the true middle of nowhere—Mullen, Neb. Amid dunes reminiscent of Ireland, the architects followed the land, saying they found more than 130 holes that had to be pared down to 18. Employing the wind and dramatic landforms, and without a tree, drop of water, or out of bounds in sight, they created—although they’d surely say “uncovered”—not only a course that returned golf to its roots but a movement that some call “minimalism” and all agree remains in force today.
1996—Tiger Turns Pro
And in 2000–01 he completed the “Tiger Slam,” holding all four major championship titles (from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters) at the same time.
2016—Golf Returns to the Olympics
A century after brief and unremarkable appearances in 1900 and 1904, golf returned to the world stage in Rio. Male and female players represented 41 countries, including such traditional golf powerhouses as Bangladesh, Israel, Russia, and Morocco.