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The Weird and Wonderful History of Golf: Fun Facts for Fans

As all serious golfers know, and all not-so-serious golfing spouses wished they didn’t know…the time has come for the annual PGA tournament!

And since this blog seems to specialize in little-known trivia flavored with the odd bit of factual nonsense, let’s honor this prestigious sporting tradition by answering the two most time-honored golf-related questions: “Why do we play golf?” and “Why do fashionable persons play golf wearing peculiar outfits with unusual quantities of plaid?”

The origins of golf…

Basically, people have been hitting balls (or rocks) with sticks for as long as we’ve been able to hold sticks with our marvelous opposable thumbs. However, the specific pattern of stick-ball hitting that evolved into golf began in 15th century Scotland. (The same cheerful century in which Gutenberg invented the printing press, Machu Picchu was constructed, the Wars of the Roses kept England out of Scotland’s hair for a while, the Turks overran Constantinople, and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Fun and frivolous times.)

But, because no truly frivolous deed goes unpunished, the first historical mention of golf was King James II’s ban of the sport (in 1457), because it distracted boys from learning proper, manly athleticism, like archery. Fortunately for later generations of golf enthusiasts, James IV rebelled against his grandfather’s harsh strictures, and reinstated golf in 1502, ordering “golf clubbes and balles [for] the King [to] playit with.” (And to really stick it to his grandfather, he ordered the clubs from a famous bow-maker in Perth.) The oldest surviving 22-hole formal golf course is the Musselburth Links in East Lothian, but the first modern golf course (played with a wimpy 18 holes) was charted out on the fields near the new St. Andrew’s College, for which local parishioners were given special permission to play by the Archbishop of St Andrews, because, yes, the sport of golf can potentially impact the state of your soul.

Even more importantly, the early Scots invented absurd golfing outfits and that feature very long plaid argyle socks.

the first golf outfits with argyle socks

And although the formal golfing kilt is rarely seen outside of Scotland, the custom of wearing some combination of Scottish plaid, knee-cinched shorts, and really long argyle socks remains popular to this day.

goofy golf outfit

Sadly, the liberal expansion of golf in the 1500s was also plagued by its own limitations, this time against the intrusion of women. In fact, the rumor in Scotland is that the name “GOLF” is actually an acronym taken from the phrase “Gentleman Only, Ladies Forbidden.” But, again, the timely intrusion of a royal changed the face of the game. , rebelling against her own grandfather, became the first truly famous female golfer.

Mary Queen of Scots - First Famous Female Golfer

(And, in case you ever underestimated the extreme hardiness of Scots monarchs—think about how tricky it is to play in extreme Scottish crosswinds, and then imagine what a whale-bone corset would do to your follow-through swing, never mind trying to angle the shot to avoid sixteen layers of petticoat. All considering, it’s impressive that, while Mary’s golf-loving second husband was murdered under mysterious circumstances, his death did not seem to have been caused by a golf club.)

Beautiful view of Scottish golf course

Perhaps the magnificent scenery of the golfing courses was soothing enough to compensate for the many frustrations of the game.

These early courses were kept ever-green by Scotland’s perpetually dampish climate, and stayed green through the winter months, since about half the greenery on a Scottish golf course is moss that grows up under the grass. (Although some acknowledgement should probably also be given to the many uncredited generations of 14th-century Scottish sheep, who considerately fertilized the ground in anticipation of the eventual invention of golf.)

organic natural fertilizer for golf courses

The Emigration of Golf (Part 1: “Kolf”)

There was some version of golf (called kolf) played in America by early Dutch settlers in the 1640s-50s—they played in two-man teams across fields during the summer months, and on the ice in winter months. (It is unknown whether hitting golf balls through holes drilled in the ice resulted in fish dinners as well as points.) These early games were played for glory and for alcohol, with rounds to be paid up in the local tavern (two brandies per win). Sadly, in the winter of 1650, golfer Philip Pietersz Lademaecker quarreled with the tavern keeper Stven Jansz regarding the number of brandy-winnings that had been recorded, and the two men started a brawl that pulled in several other devout golfers, including Gijsbert Cornelisz. Cornelisz and Janz were both fatally wounded during the fight, but, being true sportsmen, apologized to each other before dying. That deadly brawl, combined with numerous instances of hooligans “playing at Golf along the streets, which causes great damage to the windows of the Houses, and exposes people to the danger of being wounded” resulted in a universal ban on urban kolf and a fine of 25 Guilders for any offenders.

golf in winter

Nearly 325 years later, it is possible that the early invention of ice kolf bore some modern influence on the Eliot Staples Bering Sea Ice Classic, which is properly played exclusively during the winter, on the frozen ice of the Bering Sea (just off the coast of Nome, Alaska), using neon-colored balls, which are much easier to find in the snow. Astroturf putting “greens” are allowed for a few feet around the holes, but water hazards are generally avoided, due to probable fatalities.

The Dutch (rather than Scots) influence on this variation of the sport is most evident in the extreme lack of either plaid or argyle, and in the flexibility of the specialized rules, which include:

  1. The game will last for no more than 6 holes (none longer than about 120 yards), and is generally played with ancient, rusty clubs found in attics or garages. (Aside from this event, Nome is not much of a golfing hotspot.) 
  2. Regulation Ice Classic tees are to be made from empty shotgun shells frozen into the ice or miniature liquor bottles (recently emptied by tournament players), stuck into the snow on a somewhat arbitrary basis.
  3. Regulation Ice Classic holes are made from coffee cans, also frozen into the ice, and surrounded by a small patch of Astroturf (more for visibility than putting accuracy, which is impossible given the unpredictably lumpy topography of naturally-formed sea ice.) 
  4. At least one hole shall be located in the “Nome National Forest” (which is comprised of wooden cutouts and leftover Christmas trees donated by local residents).
  5. Each member of each four-person team will hit, and then all four will hit again from the site of the best previous shot (or the site of whichever golf ball can be found in the snow and hasn’t fallen down a crevice in the ice).
  6. If you hit a polar bear, you incur a three-stroke penalty. (No penalties are incurred, however, if ricochet shots happen to hit other golfers.)
  7. If you lose your ball in a snowdrift, or down a crack in the ice, it is permissible (or even encouraged) to steal a ball from one of your competitors and continue play.
  8. There shall be a mandatory break after the third hole, during which all players warm up with the liberal application of alcohol at the seaside Breakers Bar.
  9. Members of the winning team shall receive trophies, certificates, shirts, hats, a ceremonial ball and scorecard, and bragging rights for the following year.

The Emigration of Golf (Part 2)

For the less haphazard golfers of the continental United States (or “The Lower 48,” in Alaskan speak), the ancestry of golf bypassed the large numbers of Scots who emigrated to America from the 1600s-1800s (primarily because the emigres were not Scottish royals or otherwise members of the upper-echelon, golf-playing social classes), and so it wasn’t until 1888 that two Scotsmen, John Reid and Robert Lockhart, first brought modern golf to the U.S. as a demonstration sport. Within the year, they had established the first American golf club, which they named (either pretentiously, ironically, or unimaginatively) “The Saint Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers New York.”

Nome Golf

Due to the onset of winter and the lack of color photography, the Yonkers branch initially fell short of Scotland’s spectacular greenery, but the sport caught on almost immediately, and soon became a beloved pastime on both sides of the proverbial pond. By 1910, there were more than 250 golf clubs scattered across the United States, over 1,000 by the mid-1930s, and roughly 11,000 today.

Even outside of Alaska, the United States has been known for the wacky golf antics of the 1920s (during which one club trained a baby elephant to serve as a caddy.)

a baby elephant as a golf caddy

And more modern golf hazards, which include both man-made hazards and numerous animals taking revenge for their exploited elephant brethren.

animals revenge on golf courses

And even a few hazards unique to the pin itself.

animals taking revenge on the golf course

So be careful out there, all you golfing aficionados! The sport has a more complex history (and more contemporary hazards) than the PGA likes to publicize.

And if you want to look snappy on and off the course, consider pairing your argyle socks with the high-end polos designed by us for the kinds of men who are willing to brave the elements (and the wildlife) in pursuit of athletic glory.

Otero Menswear: Anything but Average


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