Golf is a precision club and ball sport, in which competing players (or golfers) use many types of clubs to hit balls into a series of holes on a golf course using the fewest number of strokes.
It is one of the few ball games that does not require a standardised playing area. Instead, the game is played on golf “courses”, each of which features a unique design, although courses typically consist of either nine or 18 holes.
Golf is defined, in the rules of golf, as “playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.”
Golf competition is generally played for the lowest number of strokes by an individual, known simply as stroke play, or the lowest score on the most individual holes during a complete round by an individual or team, known as match play.
The Origins of Golf
While the modern game of golf originated in 15th century Scotland, the game’s ancient origins are unclear and much debated. Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, in which participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. One theory asserts that paganica spread throughout Europe as the Romans conquered most of the continent, during the first century BC, and eventually evolved into the modern game. Others cite chuiwan (“chui” means striking and “wan” means small ball) as the progenitor, a Chinese game played between the eighth and 14th centuries.
A Ming Dynasty scroll dating back to 1368 entitled “The Autumn Banquet” shows a member of the Chinese Imperial court swinging what appears to be a golf club at a small ball with the aim of sinking it into a hole. The game is thought to have been introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages.
Another early game that resembled modern golf was known as cambuca in England and chambot in France. This game was, in turn, exported to the Low Countries, Germany, and England (where it was called pall-mall, pronounced “pell mell”).
Some historians, however, believe that golf descended from the Persian game, chaugan. In addition, kolven (a game involving a ball and curved bats) was played annually in Loenen, Netherlands, beginning in 1297, to commemorate the capture of the assassin of Floris V a year earlier.
The modern game originated in Scotland, where the first written record of golf is James II’s banning of the game in 1457, as an unwelcome distraction to learning archery. To many golfers, the Old Course at St Andrews, a links course dating to before 1574, is considered to be a site of pilgrimage.
Golf is documented as being played on Musselburgh Links, East Lothian, Scotland as early as 2 March 1672, which is certified as the oldest golf course in the world by Guinness World Records. The oldest surviving rules of golf were compiled in March 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers, later renamed The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which was played at Leith, Scotland.
The world’s oldest golf tournament in existence, and golf’s first major, is The Open Championship, which was first played on 17 October 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club, in Ayrshire, Scotland.
The Basic Fundamentals of Golf
Every round of golf is based on playing a number of holes in a given order. A ’round’ typically consists of 18 holes that are played in the order determined by the course layout. On a nine-hole course, a standard round consists of two consecutive nine-hole rounds.
Playing a hole on a golf course is initiated by putting a ball into play by striking it with a club on the teeing ground (also called the tee box, or simply the tee). When this initial stroke (or ‘shot’) is required to be long due to the length of the hole, it is usual (but not required) for a golfer to suspend (or ‘tee-up’) the ball on a tee prior to striking it. A tee in this last sense is a small peg which can be used to elevate the ball slightly above the ground up to a few centimetres high. This elevation is at the discretion of the golfer.
Tees are commonly made of wood but may be constructed of any material; the ball may even be teed on a mound of grass or dirt (at one time a small pile of sand placed by the golfer was routinely used and sand was provided at teeing grounds for golfers’ use).
When the initial shot on a hole is a long-distance shot intended to move the ball a great distance down the fairway, this shot is commonly called a ‘drive’. Shorter holes generally are initiated with shorter clubs called irons. Once the ball comes to rest, the golfer strikes it again as many times as necessary using shots that are variously known as a ‘lay-up’, an ‘approach’, a ‘pitch’, or a ‘chip’, until the ball reaches the green, where he or she then ‘putts’ the ball into the hole (commonly called “sinking the putt”).
The goal of getting the ball into the hole (“holing” the ball) in as few strokes as possible may be impeded by obstacles such as areas of long grass called ‘rough’ (usually found alongside fairways) which both slows any ball that contacts it and makes it harder to advance a ball that has stopped on it, bunkers (or sand traps), and water hazards. In most forms of game-play, each player plays his or her ball until it is holed.
Players can walk to their next shot or drive in golf carts over the course. The game can be played either individually or in groups and sometimes accompanied by caddies, who carry and manage the players’ equipment and who are allowed by the rules to give advice on the play of the course. A caddy’s advice can only be given to the player or players for whom the caddy is working, and not to competing players.
Golf clubs are used to hit the golf ball. Each club is composed of a shaft with a lance (or ‘grip’) on the top end and a club head on the bottom. Long clubs, which have a lower amount of degreed loft, are those meant to propel the ball a comparatively longer distance, and short clubs a higher degree of loft and a comparatively shorter distance. Typically, the actual physical length of each club is longer or shorter, depending on the distance the club is intended to propel the ball.
The ‘driver’ is the largest-headed and longest club. Woods are slightly shorter but still comparatively large-headed clubs, used for long-distance fairway shots. Woods are now typically made of metal; the traditional name remains in general use but is gradually being replaced by the term “fairway metal”. Next shorter in length are the irons, the most numerous and versatile class used for a wide variety of shots. Hybrids embody the characteristics of both woods and irons in varying degrees and are increasingly being used in preference to long irons in many places because they are easier for the average golfer to use. Finally, the putter is used to roll the ball across the green into the cup.
A maximum of 14 clubs is allowed in a player’s bag at one time during a stipulated round. The choice of clubs is at the golfer’s discretion, although every club must be constructed in accordance with parameters outlined in the rules. (Clubs which meet these parameters are usually called ‘conforming’.) Violation of these rules can result in disqualification.
The exact shot hit at any given time on a golf course, and which club is used to accomplish the shot, are always completely at the discretion of the golfer; in other words, there is no restriction whatsoever on which club a golfer may or may not use at any time for any shot.
Golf balls are spherical, usually white (although other colours are allowed), and minutely pock-marked by dimples that decrease aerodynamic drag by increasing air turbulence around the ball in motion, preventing “boundary layer” separation, thereby allowing the ball to fly farther.
A tee is allowed only for the first stroke on each hole, unless the player must hit a provisional tee shot or replay his or her first shot from the tee.
Many golfers wear golf shoes with metal or plastic spikes designed to increase traction, thus allowing for longer and more accurate shots. A golf bag is used to transport golf clubs and the player’s other or personal equipment. Golf bags have several pockets designed for carrying equipment and supplies such as tees, balls, and gloves.
Golf bags can be carried, pulled on a trolley or harnessed to a motorised golf cart during play. Golf bags have both a hand strap and shoulder strap for carrying, and sometimes have retractable legs that allow the bag to stand upright when at rest.
The Popularity of Golf
In 2005, Golf Digest calculated that the countries with most golf courses per capita, starting with the best endowed were: Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Canada, Wales, United States, Sweden, and England (countries with fewer than 500,000 people were excluded). Apart from Sweden, all of these countries have English as the main language, but the number of courses in new territories is increasing rapidly.
The most notable example of this phenomenon is the expansion of golf in China. The first golf course in China opened in 1984, but by the end of 2009 there were roughly 600 in the country. For the last several years, development of new golf courses in China has been officially banned (with the exception of the island province of Hainan), but the number of courses has nonetheless tripled since 2004; the “ban” has been easily evaded with the government’s approval simply by not mentioning golf in any development plans.
In the United States, the number of people who play golf twenty-five times or more per year decreased from 6.9 million in 2000 to 4.6 million in 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation. The NGF reported that the number who played golf at all decreased from 30 to 26 million over the same period.