The following is excerpted from Routing the Golf Course, by Forrest Richardson (©John Wiley & Sons, 2002)
Despite the many books written on the subject – which, by the way, reach numerous and varied conclusions — there is really a simple answer. It is offered here for anyone who may ever ask: Golf was invented by whomever invented the golf course. For without golf courses, as it has already been established, there are only sticks and balls. Sticks and balls and the process of hitting them together are only a fraction of golf. Golf is more.
The above conclusion conveniently bypasses the longstanding jockeying for position by the Scottish and the Dutch. Which of them was responsible for golf is rather a contested question. The Dutch scholars point to their ancestors’ game het kolven and a number of similarities to golf, but they are unable to point to golf courses dotting the Dutch landscape. The Scots, in an effort to thwart the Dutch claims to golf-like clubs, balls, targets, and the sketchy history of cross-country kolven play, try like the devil to push their origins of golf as early as possible. Nothing would be more welcomed by the Scots than the unearthing of a long-lost diary of a golf course operator writing about the troubles of damage from knights in heavy armor trampling across their “course.” What matters in finding the origin of golf is finding the origin of the golf course. In this area, the Scots are well in command.
The most famous written account in support of the Scottish origin of golf is the 6 March 1457 Act of Parliament in which golf was banned because it was interfering with the archery practice of its citizens. Logically, to be banned in the first place, golf must have been popular well before this time. Keep well in mind that this 1457 written account is the first mention of golf ever found. All of the previous historical references were to other games or were merely generic accounts concerning clubs and balls.
In support of the Dutch argument is the Book of Hours of 1530 , which shows paintings of people playing kolven with clubs that resemble what we have come to know as golf clubs. These players are striving to knock balls into an actual hole in the ground. Kolven has been traced to the year 1297, and this is not widely disputed. The distinction between the two accounts is that the 1457 Scottish act was unmistakably about a cross-country game called golf in which players controlled their own ball and played with it until holing out to a distant target that changed each time the players repeated their pursuit. The name golf has stuck ever since. There is no reason to believe golf has ever been anything but a game played across a rambling landscape on what has come to be known as a course. On the other hand, there is every reason to believe that Dutch het kolven, at least what we know about its play up to the written mention of golf by the Scots, was about play in courtyards, through villages, and, very often, on ice.
Although it will continue to be debated, the Scots were the first to define golf, and there can really be no dispute when the word define is used. Ancient Scotland is where golf came into being. Although it is very likely that influences such as kolven and other games may have helped parts of it to develop, golf, with its distinct ingredients, is a product of Scotland.