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Controversial in nature, golf was previously thought to have originated in Scotland in the 15th century. However, upon further discovery in the late 1990s, golf could be traced back to Rome in 100 BCE, then later on in China beginning in the 10th century. 

This discovery leads to more questions regarding the history of golf:

  • How did those early games evolve into what they are today?  
  • How was the game played? 
  • What materials were used to make the game’s equipment? 

Developed over almost the last 2,000 years, let’s briefly look into the history of golf to see how the game’s simplistic nature was built and evolved upon the shoulders of many.

Golf Through 15th Century

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Originally referenced as “paganica,” the game of golf can be connected back to 100 BCE as previously mentioned. The Romans played a game in which they hit a hair-stuffed leather ball with a bent stick.

Records from the Song Dynasty era (CE 960- 1279) describe a game called “chuíw án” that included several clubs and a ball. The records also detail a Chinese magistrate instructing his daughter to “dig goals in the ground” so he could “drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick.”

Furthermore, a 1282 book titled, “Manual of the Ball Game” is the first known guide to a game with striking similarities to golf.

Although the game of golf has similarities to games played before the 13th century, there is limited information regarding the materials used for the golf equipment or how society viewed golf in those early days. 

THE GOLF BAN

Golf was initially thought to have originated in Scotland in the 15th century. At the time, archery was a required skill as part of Scotland’s national defense. However, sports, including golf, were seen as overshadowing archery and thus a threat to the country’s national security. 

James II, the King of Scotland, passed the first act in 1457 and was reaffirmed in 1471 and 1491. Later, after James IV became King of Scotland, the golf ban was lifted in 1500. Furthermore, beginning in the mid-16th-century golf became popular among royals. 

GOLF IN THE 18TH CENTURY

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Although the game of golf can be traced back centuries earlier, it was in the 18th century that created golf in the most similar ways we know golf to be today. 

Whereas before, thick leather was the leading golf ball material, it was in the 18th century that we first see golf balls being stuffed with feathers to soften the ball.

In 1729, the first reference to golf clubs in the United States of America was the recording of clubs at the Estate of William Burnet (Governor of Massachusetts). 

Although the “Manual of the Ball Game” existed, the actual rules of the game were created in Edinburgh in 1744 by a group called the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Formed ten years later was the Society of St. Andrews Golfers (which was later renamed in 1834 to the Royal and Ancient Golf of St. Andrews and remains active today).  

St. Andrews set a precedent for being the authority on golf. Reduced from a 22-hole course to 18 holes in 1764, this is now internationally recognized as the proper golf course format.

The Development of Golf Balls

Although made from leather, hair, and feathers up until the 19th century, it was the development of golf balls beginning in the 19th century that most represent the golf balls we have today. 

GUTTA PERCHA GOLF BALL

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A student from St. Andrews named Robert Adams Paterson discovered that the dried gum resin from Malaysian sapodilla trees (and other guttiferous trees) could be utilized to make golf balls.  

Dried gum resin was not a new medium source but previously used as packaging material. Paterson found that by heating the resin then forming it into a small ball shape. Unfortunately, Paterson died before seeing success in creating a good golf ball using this method. 

Although Paterson’s brother tried to honor his brother’s experiments by creating several more prototypes and attempting to patent the product, the dried gum resin golf balls remained unpatented. However, it became generally well-known that Robert Adams Paterson was the discoverer of the dried gum resin golf ball. 

The first Gutta Percha golf balls became smooth during the heating and cooling process. However, it was soon discovered that the golf ball performed much better after it had been nicked and slightly damaged during the game. 

Another student at St. Andrews then began to use tools to create grooves in the golf balls, further noticing that the golf balls performed better when the indents were consistent rather than random. 

Becoming quickly recognized as a better performing golf ball, the dried gum resin golf balls became popular in the mid-19th century, replacing the feather-stuffed hard leather golf balls of before. 

Ten years after the dried gum resin golf ball became popular, a man named Willie Dunn created a golf ball mold which would create golf balls quicker, as well as make them form more consistently. They were then painted red for use in the winter seasons (for easy visibility) and white for all other seasons. 

HASKELL GOLF BALL

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To further develop the golf ball, an American man named Coburn Haskell created (then later patented) a golf ball that included a core of rubber threads with a dried gum resin cover with a bramble texture (imprinted grooves from sticks and leaves). 

The success of this golf ball allowed Haskell to establish the Haskell Golf Ball Company in 1901, which superseded the Gutta Percha golf ball within only a few years. 

Patented by Haskell Golf Ball Company in 1908, the “dimple pattern” that we have come to know today replaced the bramble pattern.

The Haskell golf ball was an essential development in the golf ball due to adding a rubber center to the ball, which makes the ball lighter and easier to spin. It would be close to almost 30 years later that the golf ball became further developed.

SPALDING GOLF BALL

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It wouldn’t be until the late 1930’s that a company named Spalding (founded by A.G. Spalding) developed the first Rubber-Wound Balata (a rubber-like tree sap) golf ball with a liquid center, representing a massive technological advancement in the golf ball. Liquid centers experimented with include:

  • Saltwater and corn syrup mixture
  • Castor oil
  • Mercury
  • Honey
  • Wine
  • Radium

FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF THE GOLF BALL

The golf ball would continue, and continues to be developed further to this very day:

  • James R. Bartsch patented the first single-piece solid-molded ball in 1967 (initially filed for in 1963).
  • In 1968, Spalding would invent the first 2-piece golf ball.
  • The quest for cheaper materials began in the 1960s, resulting in the use of synthetic materials. 
  • In the 1980s, Spalding replaced the naturally occurring resin with a synthetic ionomer resin packaging material (patented by DuPont) known as Suralyn.

Today, golf balls are still made similarly: a two-piece golf ball with rubber center and an ionomer resin cover with a dimple pattern.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF GOLF CLUBS

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Although we know that the evolution of golf began almost 2,000 years ago, the first recorded commissioned golf clubs were not until the 15th century by King of Scotland, James II. During this time, a softer wood created the club handle, while a tougher wood created the club head. A golf club set included:

  • Longnoses
  • Grassed drivers
  • Spoons
  • Niblicks
  • Cleek

Wooden clubs were not developed much over the next few hundred years. Further development of the golf club over the next six centuries included:

  • Exploring ways to forage iron into the head of the club began in 1618.
  • The first iron head clubs began to emerge from blacksmith’s shops in 1750.
  • Hickory wood became a lower priced option (but more durable than previous wood-made clubs) for club heads in 1826.
  • In 1900 persimmon wood became the main club head material.The steel shaft was introduced in the United States in 1925.
  • Steel club heads were legalized for use at St. Andrews in 1929, which provided more accuracy and durability than wood heads. 
  • In 1939 St. Andrews enacted a 14-maximum golf club rule (carried with each golfer).
  • The 1960s became focused on finding synthetic materials to create club heads.
  • Iron head clubs over the persimmon club heads didn’t become widely used until 1991 when its popularity soared. 
  • Designed in the 2000s, a hybrid of wood and iron became common.

Modern Golf 

Although there remains some controversy around the origination of golf, what we do know is that every contribution toward the development of golf has made it what it is today. 

As golf has an estimated following of over 450 million people with massive international influence, the fact that golf is in the top ten most popular sports is not surprising. The dedication to the sport’s development over the last 2,000 years has undoubtedly proved that. 

Although golf remains a seemingly simple game in nature, the next time you pick up your ball and club, take note of the many people who invented and created the game of golf which has evolved into what it is today. In this sense, modern golf is undoubtedly not simplistic by any means.