User login

A Brief History of Golf

History.  History is one thing that, despite the focal point of the conversation, is widely debated among many people.  Scholars will debate the fine points of ancient wars; scientists will debate the dating of a rock found at the Grand Canyon; religious scholars will debate the power of Gods and finally, sports historians will debate endlessly who was the greatest player in that sport of all time.

Sports fans, historians and casual observers of the game will argue who the best players are across different eras, the best venues and best games of all time.  There are people who will argue Michael Jordan is the best basketball player and others who will debate that Wilt Chamberlain is.  Some people will argue that Wrigley Park is the best place to see a ball game, others will say Fenway Park.

This argument applies in Golf as well, with the same amount of rigor and debate.  With Tiger Woods tearing up the modern golf world and breaking records, there are people already saying Tiger is the greatest of all time.  Naturally, there are people who would disagree with that and defend their position strongly.  In order to fully debate this, however, one needs to understand the history of the game, the best courses, the professional organizations and the best players.

The origins of the game of golf are widely debated; some people trace it back to the Netherlands in the 13th century but others will argue that game was not golf as we know it today.  Most will agree, however, that Scotland is the birthplace of the game as we know it today.  There are many critical aspects of the game that can be traced directly back to Scotland.

The first course with 18 holes was developed in Scotland, along with the first instance of registered membership with a golf course.  The rules of the game and the first organized matches (tournaments) had their origins in Scotland, which would then start to pop up in England and around the globe.  1672 is the first recorded year that golf was played at what is known as the first course in the world, the Musselburgh Racecourse.

One cannot talk about the history of golf without mentioning St. Andrews.  St. Andrews is synonymous with golf history; this world famous course in Scotland is credited as setting the world standard for the number of holes on a golf course.  The course started with 11 holes with which people would play twice in a round totaling 22 holes.  The course was reduced to 9 holes in the late 18th century and since people played the holes twice to make up a round, a round was deemed to be 18 holes.  All other courses followed suit and 18 holes became the standard.

The game of Golf eventually evolved across the world into the form you see today; many organized tournaments spanning multiple countries, organized by skill, age and sex.  In order to organize in this fashion, people had to agree on fundamental rules about the competition, the game, the equipment and the play.  Multiple organizations around the world for Golf would be formed, one of which is the United States Golf Association (USGA).

The USGA was formed in 1894 in order to help answer the question of which player was the National Amateur Champion, as winners of tournaments from multiple courses gave their winners this title.  The organization had its first amateur championship the following year and has evolved over time to hold many different championships.  Other organizations exist in the United States and Europe with a similar mission to the USGA.

One of the items addressed by the USGA was the regulations around the balls used in championship play.  The golf ball did not have standards around size, weight, chemical makeup and etceteras, so the USGA addressed this by introducing standards for play in their tournaments in 1930.  Now that there were standards in what golf balls could be used, the matches had a more consistent feeling from golfer to golfer.

Golf clubs have gone through quite a revolution over time as well.  Great fans or historians of the game will likely have wood clubs in their collection.  Clubs evolved from plain wood all the way through to wood with irons heads, steel shafts with iron heads, graphite shafts with iron heads and graphite shaft with titanium heads.  The next thing you know, plutonium will be added to golf equipment guaranteeing 400 yards off the tee!

A conversation about this history of golf must, of course, include the best players of all time.  This is a hotly debated topic but generally speaking the greatest golfers of all time include Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Annika Sorenstam and or course, Tiger Woods.  Each of these players revolutionized the game in their own way and dominated the field in their game in their era.

Ben Hogan was one of the first dominant golf players and is well known for helping set the foundation for the modern golf game and swing. Hogan was born on August 13, 1912 in Stephenville, Texas and suffered some traumatic events growing up including the suicide of his father.  Hogan dropped out of high school and became a pro golfer in 1930; it wasn’t until 1940 that Hogan won his first professional tournament, and he was not bringing in much money at all during that time frame.

Hogan stuck with it and became one of the greatest golfers of all time.  Hogan was given multiple nicknames, among them “The Hawk” because of his incredible will and fight.  Hogan also earned the nickname “The Wee Ice Man” in Scotland for his intimidating stare and quiet demeanor.  Hogan was a fierce competitor with an incredible swing that he perfected with many hours of practice.

Hogan had perhaps one of the greatest seasons in golf history during 1953 when he won almost all of his tournaments, including all three majors he played in (he declined the fourth).  The latter part of his career was impacted by a serious car accident he suffered in 1949; this accident made it difficult for him to walk and allowed him to only play 18-hole rounds on his injured legs.

Hogan had an incredible career and is widely recognized as one of the greatest of all time.  He is still recognized as having the greatest golf swing of all time and being the best ball striker.  Even in modern times, players such as Tiger Woods admit that Hogan had the best, most “in-control” golf swing they had ever seen.  Hogan moved into golf instruction and equipment after his playing career was over and passed away in 1997.

Another of the greatest golfers of all time was Sam Snead, born May 27, 1912 in Ashwood, Virginia.  Snead turned professional at the age of 22 and won five tournaments in his first year on the PGA tour (1937).  Snead holds the record for number of tournament wins in one year with 11 in 1950.  Snead won seven major championships in his career but was never able to win the U.S. Open, a failure that serves as a mark on an otherwise brilliant career.

Snead was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.  Snead was forced to modify his putting stance as he got older due to his deteriorating physical condition, and actually came up with a technique that was banned by the USGA (“croquet-style”).  Snead continued to play well into his 80s and was still shooting in the 70s for an 18-hole round even at the age of 85.

In addition to his playing career, Snead became involved in golf instruction through writing golf instruction books and columns in magazines.  Snead had a unique image and was sometimes seen playing tournaments in straw hats and barefoot.  Snead passed away in 2002 and left behind a legacy being one of the top 5 best golfers of all time.

Another golfer who has to be considered one of the best all-time is Arnold Palmer.  Palmer was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on September 10, 1929 and learned golf from his father.  Palmer won his first event on the professional tour in 1955 after he came home from the Coast Guard.  Palmer would go on to win 93 other tournaments, including seven majors and 62 on the PGA Tour.

Palmer’s claim to fame that distinguishes him from the other legends of golf was his marketability and impact on the game of golf around the world.  Palmer, along with Jack Nicklaus, is widely credited for making the game more popular across the world through the rise of televised events.  Palmer played the British Open tournaments more than most other players to help cement his status as a global golf icon and to raise the popularity of the game.

Palmer never won the PGA Championship in his career but had many other achievements, among them being the first player to amass $1 million in career earnings on the tour.  Palmer was one of the first inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, and he compiled five major championship victories on the Champions Tour when he started play there in 1980.

Palmer was a popular figure who helped raise the game to another level the entire time he played, even as he got older.  Palmer has since taken on many non-playing golf interests, mainly business related although he has done some golf instruction.  Palmer’s main interactions with the game have been creating a the first golf course in China, hosting a PGA Tour event and being prominently involved in the launch of The Golf Channel.  Palmer continues to live large in the golf world and is one of the top 7-10 golfers of all time.

When you think of women’s golf, one name that comes to mind more often than not is Annika Sorenstam.  Sorenstam was born October 9, 1970 in Bro, Sweden.  Sorenstam was an accomplished tennis player, soccer player and skier growing up in addition to her love for the game of golf.  Sorenstam turned professional in golf in 1992 and won her first tournament in 1994.

Sorenstam would go on to win a significant amount of tournaments and be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2003.  Sorenstam has won 10 major championships on the LPGA and has a career earnings of $22 million, which is around $8 million higher than the second highest of all time.  She has won eight “player of the year” awards, played in a men’s tournament and holds many other distinguished awards.

Sorenstam stopped playing golf competitively in 2008 and is now focusing on, among other things, her golf academy, course design and charitable interests.  While there are some female golfers roaring through the LPGA today, Sorenstam will likely hold the torch as the greatest female golfer of all-time for a while.

Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus was born January 21, 1940 in Columbus, Ohio and is the world record holder for most victories in major championships.  Nicklaus turned professional at the age of 21 and had already won every major golf tournament by the time he was 26.  Nicklaus has won 18 major champions, nine of which came in the 1970s and his last in 1986 at the Masters, making him the oldest golfer to win a major tournament (age 46).

Nicklaus had many other accomplishments in his storied career as the most dominant player in golf.  Nicklaus was one of the first to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 and has amassed 113 career professional victories (including 73 on the PGA Tour, second only to Sam Snead with 82).  In his first six years on the Champions Tour, Nicklaus won eight majors and ten tournaments over all.

Now that Nicklaus’ playing career has mostly passed him by, he is still heavily involved in the game.  Nicklaus has a golf course design company, he has written books on the subject and he runs a tournament on the PGA Tour.  Nicklaus also owns a golf equipment company, yet another golf related item on his long resume.  Bottom line, Jack Nicklaus is golf and only the surge of a new dominant, modern player could make people forget just how good Jack was.  This golfer’s name, of course, is Tiger Woods.

Tiger Woods, born December 30, 1975, is perhaps the most influential golfer of all time.  Woods has generated a significant amount of new and youth interest in the game of modern golf.  In this modern era of constant media coverage, Woods has transcended the game and become one of the most recognizable people (not just athletes) in the entire world, amassing around $120 million in endorsements in 2007.

Woods was born in Cypress, California and his genetic makeup includes five different ethnicities (Chinese, Thai, African-American, Dutch and Native American).  Woods was dazzling the world at a very early age, carding a 48 over nine holes at the age of three!  Woods won the age 9-10 boys group at the Junior World Golf Championships at the age of eight.  Woods continued his brilliant amateur career until 1996, winning amateur championships, collegiate championships and etceteras.

Woods turned professional in 1996 and won several tournaments, being named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.  Woods immediately earned endorsements and public attention even as a rookie, scoring endorsement deals from Nike and Titleist.  This was the first exposure on a mainstream stage for Tiger Woods and would propel him to the status of one of the world’s greatest athletes.

Woods made his mark permanently on the professional tour by winning the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes.  Woods would continue on to win 14 major championships (2nd highest of all time) and 65 professional tournaments (3rd of all time).  Woods is only 34 years old and has several more decades to continue piling up wins and breaking records.

Woods is perhaps the most marketable and recognizable athlete of all time.  Children (and adults) around the world look to Woods as a role model for not only golf, but for achieving their own dreams through hard work and determination.  Woods has taken an active charitable and instructive role outside of golf with the following activities: The Tiger Woods Foundation, In The City Golf Clinics, Tiger Woods Learning Center, Tiger Jam and the Tiger Woods Foundation National Junior Golf Team.

In addition to helping underprivileged youths play the game of golf, Woods’ foundations provide an outlet for young people to gain structure in their life, which will help prepare them for other aspects of being an adult.  Woods, through these foundations, charitable work, golf course design, endorsements and record breaking play, has redefined the game of golf for good.

So who is the best player of all time?  Should this be measured by tournament wins, earnings, popularity, dominance over a grouping or impact on the game?  There are many dimensions that this can be measured on, all of which will more than likely point to Tiger Woods as being the best golfer of all time IF his career continues on a successful path.  Tiger will have all of these dimensions; pure records, earnings, dominance in his era and impact on both the game and society.  One can only hope that his knee injury does not significantly alter the trajectory of his bright career.

Regardless of who you think is the best player of all time, the best course or where the game originated one thing we can all agree on is that golf has a long and rich history.  The game has evolved greatly over time from wooden clubs and plaid pants to graphite-shaft-titanium-head-wind-resistant-jacket with all the media coverage to boot.  Golf has been and always will be an incredibly enjoyable game for all to play.  It is amazing how much history and joy has been generated from hitting a stationary ball with a stick!