• Academic says golf was being played in China as early as the tenth century
• Assertion predates St Andrews by 500 years
• Scottish enthusiasts maintain Scots were first to use holes rather that targets
"When golf was introduced into China most people naturally assumed that golf was a foreign game. In fact this is contrary to the historical facts. Golf, as we know it today, clearly originated in China." - Prof Ling
Story in full FOR centuries, the Scots have claimed it as one of their great inventions, a Royal and Ancient game born on the windy links.
But now Scotland's reputation as the cradle of golf is under threat from an unlikely challenger - China.
According to a leading Chinese academic, golf was being played by Chinese nobles as early as the tenth century - 500 years before a club was swung at St Andrews.
Professor Ling Hongling, of Lanzhou University, claims to have uncovered evidence of golf being played in China in AD945 in a book called the Dongxuan Records written during the Song Dynasty (AD960-1279).
The game described in the book is called chuiwan - chui meaning "to hit" and wan meaning "ball". It was played with ten different jewel-encrusted clubs, including a flat-surfaced "cuanbang" - equivalent to a modern-day driver - and a "shaobang" (three-wood or spoon).
According to Prof Ling, golf only arrived in Scotland after it was exported to Europe by Mongolian travellers during the late Middle Ages.
The claims are certain to add fuel to fierce international controversy about which country invented the sport, now played by 50 million people around the world. In 2003, a pair of French historians uncovered a picture from a 15th-century book showing men outside a Loire Valley chateau playing a ball and stick game known as "pallemail".
Scotland's claim as the home of golf rests on a resolution dated 6 March, 1457, when King James II of Scotland banned football and "ye golf".
The first surviving written reference to golf in St Andrews is contained in Archbishop Hamilton's Charter of 1552. This reserves the right of the people of the Fife town to use the links land "for golff, futball, schuteing and all gamis". As early as 1691, the town had become known as the "metropolis of golfing".
Scottish enthusiasts have argued that, while not the first to play stick-and-ball games, Scots were the first to use holes rather than targets - a key innovation that led to modern golf.
But Prof Ling says the Chinese book makes reference to a prominent Chinese magistrate of the Nantang Dynasty (AD937-975) instructing his daughter "to dig goals in the ground so that he might drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick".
Prof Ling said: "When golf was introduced into China most people naturally assumed that golf was a foreign game. In fact this is contrary to the historical facts. Golf, as we know it today, clearly originated in China."
Malcolm Campbell, a former editor of Golf Monthly, said Prof Ling's findings, if authentic, may undermine Scotland's claim as the birthplace of golf. But this may be of little importance - the country continues to be the game's spiritual guardian, as it has for centuries. Scotland is the traditional and cultural home of the game and will always be.
"I don't think the Royal and Ancient Golf Club will be moving to Peking."
A spokesman for St Andrews Links Trust, which runs the golf courses in the Fife town, said: "It has long been clear that there were many different variations of this rudimentary pastime, but the game of golf as we know it today was first played here at St Andrews.
"The links are known around the world as the Home of Golf and attract many visiting golfers each year whose dream is to play here," said the spokesman.