History of Golf in Scotland: The Scottish origins and worldwide success of golf explained

“Europe's Sam Torrance toasts victory with his wife Elizabeth after holing the winning putt.” (1985) “Europe's Sam Torrance toasts victory with his wife Elizabeth after holing the winning putt.” (1985)
“Europe's Sam Torrance toasts victory with his wife Elizabeth after holing the winning putt.” (1985) | PA
“Golf is an exercise which is much used by a gentleman in Scotland……A man would live 10 years the longer for using this exercise once or twice a week.” - Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813)

Dubbed the ‘spiritual home of golf’, Scotland has claim over some of the world’s oldest and most popular courses as well as famous players and victories in competitions. According to Bunkered “as many as 60 million people in 230 countries around the world play golf” making it a global phenomenon yet it all started right here in our ‘wee’ and ‘bonnie’ Scotland.

Naturally, many other nations have attempted to lay claim as inventors of the game - and historians wrestle with guesswork at the best of times - but Scotland has the receipts i.e., historical documents. These reveal that the rules for golf were formally documented in 1744 but Scots had been playing the game for centuries prior.

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In fact, golf was such a beloved pastime that in 1457 the Scottish parliament of King James II banned it as they believed Scotsmen were neglecting their military training in favour of playing it. Some sources state that the country merely ‘ignored’ the ban, however. Fortunately, by 1502 the sport received royal favour as King James IV of Scotland (1473-1513) made history by becoming the world’s ‘first golfing monarch’.

Players polished their irons and hit the fairways for the Ryder Cup - one of the world’s greatest sporting events that just wrapped up this month. It reminds us of how far golf has come from its birthplace.

In honour, here is an overview of golf’s history in Scotland and a look at our most prominent courses and oldest golf societies.

“The clubhouse of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.” (1951) “The clubhouse of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.” (1951)
“The clubhouse of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.” (1951) | PA

The Scottish Origins of Golf

The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide by Historic UK writes: “Golf originated from a game played on the eastern coast of Scotland, in an area close to the royal capital of Edinburgh.

“In those early days players would attempt to hit a pebble over sand dunes and around tracks using a bent stick or club.”

Despite a ban on the game in the 15th century, the royal endorsement of King James IV of Scotland (1473 - 1513) later led golf to a boom in popularity throughout Europe in the 16th century. While King Charles I introduced England to the sport, Mary Queen of Scots brought it to France during her studies there.

In fact, the term ‘caddie’ for someone who carries a golfer’s clubs derives from the french “le cadet” which means “the boy” according to the Scottish Golf History Organisation.

The game was officialised as a sport in 1744 after the Gentleman Golfers of Leith formed the first club and created an annual golfing competition. Ten years later, the “golfing grounds” of St Andrews were founded which today is now known as the “Old Course” as it is credited as the oldest golf course in the world. St Andrews is also widely recognised as the ‘home of golf’ as the first reference to the game was traced back to there in 1552.

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The Scottish town also is the home of the first ever 18-hole course which was constructed in 1764 - a standard for the game which persists to this day. Their club was honoured by King William IV in 1834 who bestowed it with the title “Royal and Ancient” which led to the name it now goes under i.e., the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, established as the world’s premier golf club.

The First Rules of Golf

Known as ‘the Thirteen Articles’, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers first wrote down the rules of golf in 1744 in preparation for their tournament at the Leith Links. In the century that followed, over thirty clubs adopted those thirteen rules that they wrote down.

That said, according to Sky History: “There wasn’t an attempt to create a standardised set of rules until the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R &A) delivered the first consolidated rules code in 1899.

“During this same period, the United States Golf Association was formed in New York City.

“The USGA’s rules converged significantly with those from the R&A, consolidating those two entities as the two main governing bodies of the game.”

A full description of the thirteen original rules of golf can be found online via the Professional Golfers Career College.

“Former US president Donald Trump playing golf at his Trump Turnberry course in South Ayrshire during his visit to the UK.” (2023)“Former US president Donald Trump playing golf at his Trump Turnberry course in South Ayrshire during his visit to the UK.” (2023)
“Former US president Donald Trump playing golf at his Trump Turnberry course in South Ayrshire during his visit to the UK.” (2023) | PA

How many golf courses are in Scotland?

Most sources agree that there are 550 golf courses in Scotland and many of the most famous among them are situated on the East and West coasts of the country.

Along the coastline running from Ayr to Largs, enthusiasts can enjoy a long line of fairways including some of the most prominent courses in the world including Turnberry, Royal Troon, Kilmarnock Barassie and many more.

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“Scotland's Sam Torrance, tees of on the first day of the Dunhill Cup, at St. Andrews.” (1995) “Scotland's Sam Torrance, tees of on the first day of the Dunhill Cup, at St. Andrews.” (1995)
“Scotland's Sam Torrance, tees of on the first day of the Dunhill Cup, at St. Andrews.” (1995) | PA

Famous Scottish Golf Players

Colin Montgomerie, Sandy Lyle, Paul Lawrie… Scotland has produced a plethora of exceptional players over the years. One of the most famous, perhaps, is Ayrshire-born Samuel Robert Torrance OBE.

Not only did Torrance win 21 European Tour titles over 3 decades, he also became a Ryder Cup captain and went on to lead his side to victory at The Belfry in 1985.

His winning putt was Europe’s first after 28 years of American domination.

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