Golf – The Ancient Origins and Hidden Beginnings of a World-Wide Sport

ancient golf

The gladiatorial ring of ancient Rome was an infamously bloody, savage, and deadly sport, with hardened warriors battling to the death for the entertainment of the masses. The Mesoamerican ball game, Uluma, was equally as perilous, as a fast-paced, ruthless game tied to religious ritual, in which players were at risk of execution or sacrifice. But not all ancient sports were bloodthirsty, violent challenges. Some, such as golf, were an enjoyable and challenging competition with an ancient pedigree.

Golf is a sport with ancient origins that has endured into our modern era, adapting and evolving through time to fit the age. Golf, in its modern incarnation, is understood as a ball and club sport wherein players hit small balls into holes from a distance, over various terrains and at a series of starting points. Aside from the risk of lightning strike or aggressive competitors, it’s a sport in which death is somewhat unlikely – which might be one of the reasons it has lasted so long and is now enjoyed around the world.

While it’s often assumed that golf originated in Scotland, that’s only part of the story. Historians still debate the true origins of the ball and club sport that descended from the ball and stick games of ancient eras around the globe.

Ancient Ball and Stick Games: Egyptian, Greek, and Roman

Recorded ball and stick games stretch back to at least 2600 BC in Middle Egypt, with tombs displaying paintings and bas-reliefs showing men with clubs or sticks and balls. The name of these ancient Egyptian games remain unknown, but it is said they were probably exported to the Mediterranean through trade.

The ancient Greeks continued the stick-and-ball game traditions, and carvings depict a sport that appears to be similar to modern field hockey.

Bas relief approx. 600 BC, Kerameikos, Athens, shows men with hooked clubs or sticks playing with a ball. These ancient ball-and-stick games morphed into field hockey, ice hockey, and golf.

Bas relief approx. 600 BC, Kerameikos, Athens, shows men with hooked clubs or sticks playing with a ball. These ancient ball-and-stick games morphed into field hockey, ice hockey, and golf. Public Domain

Researchers connect modern golf with the ancient Roman game of Paganica (or Paganicus), wherein a wool or leather ball was stuffed with feathers and hit with bent wooden clubs. The Roman balls were bigger than the modern incarnation, approximately 5.5 inches (15 centimeters) in diameter. The object of Paganica was to strike the ball and hit an appointed target, a rock or tree.

As the Roman Empire spread across Europe in the first century, so too did their ball games, and the popular sport eventually reached the northern countries.

The Scots Add an Important Element and the Ruling Class Takes Over

Historians generally agree that the term “golf” came from the Middle Dutch words “colf” or “colve”, which were sticks or bats used in an early ball game, called kolven.

It is said the Scots later added the element of the hole in the ground, and individual athletes rather than teams, which forever separated golf from other ball and stick sports.

In the Middle Ages the game of golf was banned by the Scottish Kings James II and James IV in the 1400s, as it was believed the popularity of the sport interfered with military discipline and archery training. Other such games featuring curved sticks or clubs were also legislated, such as early field hockey (the stick was bent, and so descended the words ‘hooky stick’, or ‘hockey’). Eventually, however, James IV grew to enjoy golf himself, and the popular game spread to England in the early 1500s, and was considered a game for the ruling class.

In 1503 the first record of golf clubs noted, “For golf clubbes and balles to the King that he playit with.”

Ancient Chinese Links: Chuiwan

It is suggested that Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Europe may not have had the only golfing traditions. The ancient origins of golf may have stemmed directly from China.

The ancient Chinese game of chuiwan was played between the eighth and 14th centuries. This can be seen in a scroll from 1368 titled “The Autumn Banquet”. The scroll depicts a member of the Imperial Court holding and swinging what looks to be a golf club. A ball sits on the ground near him, he appears to be trying to sink it into a hole. Flags seem to denote targeted areas.  The rules of chuiwan are said to resemble those of modern golf, in that players use sets of up to 10 clubs, the balls were made of wood and, the hole are spread across terrain of different degrees of difficulty, and there was even a tee off area.

The earliest reference to this golf-like sport in China dates to the Song Dynasty (1050–1100) with a report of a Tang official teaching his daughter how to play a game wherein one digs holes into the ground and drives balls into them.

As the game was played by the Imperial Courts, clubs were sometimes made of gold, and were decorated with precious gems

The game of chuiwan peaked during the Song Dynasty, and then declined, and eventually it became a game casually played by women and children. It has been posed by Chinese scholars that chuiwan may have spread to Europe from China by traders and travelers during the Middle Ages.

It is said another potential golf origin is the Persian game chaugan.

Modern Golf Tees Off

In Europe, documentary evidence of the modern game of golf cites the earliest recorded game as played on March 2, 1672 at East Lothian, Scotland, as included in the Account Book of Sir John Foulis of Ravelson. The passage notes that “golf was played on Musselburgh Links as early as 2 March, 1672, although Mary, Queen of Scots, reputedly played here in 1567,” and this has been accepted by Guinness World Records, making it officially the oldest golf course in the world.

It was almost 200 years later that the now-standard 18 hole golf course was created at St Andrews, Scotland, reduced from 22 holes, and it wasn’t until October 17, 1860 that the world’s first recorded golf tournament, “The Open Championship” was played in Ayrshire.

The more modern image of golf. The MacDonald boys with ball and club, 18th century.

The more modern image of golf. The MacDonald boys with ball and club, 18th century.  Public Domain

Certainly golf is a sport that is enjoyed today by professionals, celebrity athletes, and regular enthusiasts alike, and it is a rich game that sees no signs of slowing down. The familiar swing of the club and the strike of the ball is a tradition that humans have been happily repeating since ancient times.

A modern golfer taking a tee shot to begin a round of golf.

A modern golfer taking a tee shot to begin a round of golf. Public Domain

Featured image: A court painting depicting Xuande Emperor of the Ming Dynasty playing chuiwan.Public Domain

By Liz Leafloor

Originally published at Ancient Origins.

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