golf, game of hitting a small hard ball with specially made clubs over an outdoor course sometimes (particularly if it is near the coast) called a links. The object is to deposit the ball in a specified number of cups, or holes, using as few strokes as possible. Although golf's place of origin is uncertain, Scotland has the strongest claim. As early as 1457 it was banned there as a threat to archery practice, which was considered vital to national defense. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland (founded 1754), is the international shrine of golf, and the club's basic rules are the worldwide standards.
Rules and Equipment
The standard course, usually more than 6,000 yd (about 5,500 m) in length, consists of 18 consecutively numbered "holes" (the playing areas leading to the cups). The cup measures 4.5 in. (11.43 cm) in diameter and is set into a smooth surface of closely cropped grass, called a green. Golfers begin play by driving the ball toward the hole from the tee, a slightly elevated rectangular area. Between the tee and the green lies the fairway, often bounded by tall grass (the rough) and trees, and containing natural or constructed obstacles (hazards), such as small lakes or streams, sand pits (bunkers), and mounds. Fairways vary in length from 100 to 650 yd (90–600 m). Two basic principles underlie nearly all the rules: first, players must play the course as they find it and, second, they must play only their own ball, and not touch it (except to hit it with a club) until play is completed on the hole. These principles ensure challenging conditions, demanding skilled shotmaking, and imposing penalties for the loss of one's ball.
The rules have varied little, but changes in equipment have been dramatic over time. In golf's earliest days, the ball was made of feathers stuffed tightly into a leather bag and struck with wooden-shafted clubs. Today balls are of composite materials and can be hit in excess of 300 yds (274 m). A complete set of golf clubs once comprised 3 or 4 woods, used for long drives; 10 irons (numbered upward as the angle of the club face provided increased loft), used for intermediate and short shots; and a putter, used for rolling the ball across the green. Although golfers may carry no more than 14 clubs in their bags, they can now select from 15 different woods, some now made of nonwood materials, from a range of hybrid clubs that combine the characteristics of traditional woods and irons, making them easier to hit than the standard irons they are designed to replace, and from specialized wedges for sand play and for pitching the ball at varying degrees of loft, which complement the standard irons.
Golf in the United States
Although there is evidence that Americans played golf in the 17th cent., the first permanent clubs in the United States were not organized until the late 1880s. A dispute between the sponsors of two "national" championships led American golfers to found (1894) the United States Golf Association (USGA) as a governing body for the sport. The USGA also conducted annual tournaments, including the National Amateur and the National, or U.S., Open (which includes both amateur and professional players). The first of these championships took place in 1895. In 1916 the United States Professional Golf Association (PGA) was founded and the annual PGA championship inaugurated. During the first several decades in which these major tournaments were held, golf had little broad appeal.
Though the game boomed among business executives in the 1920s, amateurs were usually members of exclusive clubs, and professionals were usually teachers of the game. The only golfer to ever win a grand slam (the four major championships—then the British Amateur and Open and the U.S. Amateur and Open—in one year) was an amateur, Robert Tyre ( "Bobby" ) Jones, Jr., who retired shortly after his 1930 feat. During the Depression, many private courses opened to the public, and agencies of the New Deal built nearly 1,000 public courses.
Golf today is one of America's fastest growing participant sports, particularly among public course players. Many private clubs still exist in the 1990s, with some determining membership on racial or religious grounds. The growth of the game has been consistent since the advent of televised tournaments in the 1960s and the gradual strengthening of the professional circuit (which has lessened the distinction of playing as an amateur). Two of golf's greatest and most charismatic players, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, entered their prime in time to take advantage of both conditions.
The world's best players now vie in 72-hole tournaments for prize money that can exceed $500,000 for a victory at one of the four major championships (now the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA Championship, and the Masters); some other events greatly exceed that amount. Every two years in the Ryder Cup competition, a team of American professionals plays against Europe's best players. A made-for-television event, the Skins Game, is a popular version of an old golf gambling game in which selected professionals compete for money that has exceeded $300,000. Women (under the aegis of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association, founded 1946) and seniors have their own professional tours. The women also contested their own U.S.-Europe team event, the Solheim Cup, for the first time in 1990.
See M. Bartlett, ed., The Golf Book (1980); R. Sommers, The U.S. Open (1987); G. Wiren, The PGA Manual of Golf (1991); T. Watson, The Rules of Golf (1992); J. Feinstein, The Majors (1999).