Several countries claim to be the birthplace of golf, but it is widely accepted that it originated in Scotland in the middle ages when golfers, playing among the sand dunes along the coast, would use a stick to hit a pebble towards a target in the least number of shots. Over the next few centuries, specialist wooden clubs were developed as was a ball made from stuffing goose feathers into a leather pouch and the game became popular with the upper classes as well. This led to a desire for the game to become more organised and structured and eventually in 1754 this role was taken on by The Society of St Andrews Golfers that would assume Royal patronage and a change in name in 1834 to The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews
The early courses were built on links close to the sea and were accessible via rail. Over the next 150 years the game increased in popularity and clubs and golf courses spread all over the world. In the UK the popularity of the sport amongst the middle classes led to the development of a plethora of golf clubs as the professional classes moved out to the suburbs. This also led to the development of governing bodies in different countries, always along gender lines, with the intention to organise competitions and look after the needs of the amateur golfers. The Ladies Golf Union, covering Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1893 followed by The Welsh Golf Union (1895), The Welsh Ladies' Golf Union and Scottish Ladies Golf Association (1904), The Scottish Golf Union (1920), The English Golf Union (1924) and the English Ladies Golf Association (1952). In Wales and England mergers between the two genders have led to the Golf Union of Wales and Golf England as the governing bodies. The professional side of the game was developed by the formation of The Professional Golfers' Association in 1901, formed by the leading players in Great Britain of that time and it is recognized as the oldest PGA in the world.
The R&A remains responsible for the administration of the Rules of Golf having held that role of providing a uniform approach to the Rules since 1897 – a role currently performed with the consent of 143 organisations from the amateur and professional game, and on behalf of 128 countries throughout Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Meanwhile, the USGA, an organisation with whom The R&A has jointly issued the Rules of Golf since 1952, is the governing body in the USA and Mexico.
The amateur game, as well as providing recreational golf for millions around the world, also provides various levels of amateur tournaments, with national championships attracting international competitors. Although in the early days of 'Open' tournaments, where amateurs and professionals competed together, amateurs had some success', the 20th and 21st centuries has seen the dominance of the professional player, with no amateur winner of the majors since 1930 in the men’s game. In addition, all the top professionals, not least Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia served notice of their potential as amateurs before opting to join the paid ranks. Some, however, such as Sir Michael Bonallack, Jessie Valentine, Peter McEvoy and Carol Semple Thompson remained career amateurs as did the American, Bobby Jones, who is regarded as the most successful amateur ever. Jones, who won the US Amateur five times, the British Amateur once also beat the best professionals of the period with wins in the US Open (five) and the Open Championship (three). In 1930 he won all four championships in the same year, the 'Grand Slam', before retiring from competitive golf at the age of 28. Four years later he started the Augusta Invitational Tournament at the club he had founded in 1931, August National and the tournament would eventually become known as The Masters.
The R&A has also continued to run The Open, one of golf’s four ‘Major’ championships, a quartet completed by the US Open, the US PGA Championship and The Masters. The Open, which is always contested on links (coastal) courses in reflecting the game’s origins, was first staged in 1860 at Prestwick, Scotland. It was won by a Scot, Willie Park senior, and his compatriots including himself and his son, went on to win the next 28 championships before an Englishman broke the sequence. The Claret Jug, which is the trophy presented to the winner, was won by an overseas player for the first time in 1907 – Arnaud Massy of France – and Jock Hutchison became the first winner from the USA 14 years later. Hutchison’s countrymen such as Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen followed suit before the outbreak of the Second World War and, following the end of hostilities, the nationality of the winner reflected the growth of the game internationally. Since 1946 players from seven different countries, including Argentina, New Zealand and Zimbabwe have won the Championship.
Ironically, players from Scotland and England dominated the first 16 US Opens after it was first contested in 1895 before Americans took a stranglehold on proceedings. Similarly victories by non-Americans in the US PGA Championship, which was first staged in 1916, are rare. However, wins by players from Fiji, Germany and South Korea again both confirms the game’s increasing appeal worldwide.
Meanwhile, The Masters, the youngest of the four majors, which started in 1934 and, unlike its three siblings, is always contested on the same course – Augusta National – was initially dominated by Americans until South Africa’s Gary Player won in 1961. Since then players from Spain, Canada, Argentina, Germany, Australia, Fiji England and Wales have been successful at this the most idiosyncratic Major.
Whatever the winner’s nationality, however, major victories are a mark of a player’s standing in the game’s pantheon and in this respect it is American golfers who top the major winner’s roll of honour with Jack Nicklaus (18), Tiger Woods (14) and Walter Hagen (11). Britain's leading major winner is Harry Vardon with seven wins, the last of them in 1914. More recently Nick Faldo has won six major championships.
It is fair to say, though, that the ladies professional circuit is more cosmopolitan than its male equivalent: at the end of August 2013, the list of the top 10 players in the world comprised players from seven nations. Four of those came from South Korea and another from China – evidence of the increasing presence of the game in the Far East and the excellence of its leading protagonists.
Just as the R&A organises the Open, it is the Ladies Golf Union (LGU) that has run the Women’s British Open since 1976, one of five major championships for women. The others are the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open, which are staged in the USA, and the Evian Championship which, introduced in 2013, is contested in France.
In terms of the women’s professional game, Patty Berg of the USA is its most successful with 15 major wins; Mickey Wright and Louise Suggs, also of the USA, have 13 and 11 respectively while the recently retired Annika Sorenstam of Sweden is the leading European with 10. For Great Britain and Ireland, Laura Davis leads the way with four titles, a tally matched by South Korea’s Inbee Park, whose most recent success came in 2013.
There are two major team competitions in professional golf. The Ryder Cup has been played between the top male players originally in 1927 between Great Britain and the United States, and then in 1949 when the Irish joined the Great Britain side and finally in 1979 when a European team was chosen to play against the United States. This reflected the fact that up to that time victories for the GB&I team were few and far between. However since that point, Europe has held the trophy on ten occasions to seven by the USA. The women players from Europe and America have their own version, the Solheim Cup which was inaugurated in 1990. USA lead the wins in this competition by eight to five. Both competitions are played every two years (men now in even years, women odd years), the venues alternate between Europe and the US and both are played with a mixture of fourball, foursomes and single match play.
In amateur golf Great Britain and Ireland’s males take on the USA for the Walker Cup. This was established 1922 and the USA have dominated with 35 wins to 8. The females do battle for the Curtis Cup which was founded in 1932 with again the USA dominating proceedings with 27 wins to 7 (with three matches tied). These matches are also held biannually in even years and again follow the matchplay format.
Golf has only ever twice appeared on the schedule at the Olympic Games – in 1900 and 1904, and will make its return at Rio 2016 after a 112-year absence.
Margaret Ives Abbott became America’s first female Olympic Champion when she won the nine-hole golf tournament at the Paris 1900 games, but died without realising her achievement due to the poor organisation of the tournament.
Four years later in St Louis, Missouri, golf made its last appearance at an Olympic Games. George Lyon of Canada won the men’s individual gold medal, while the United States won the team event, which had been brought in to replace the women’s individual.