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Golf is a sport played worldwide which has prevailed through centuries without any real change to the game or its rules. The object is still to get the ball into the hole in as few swings of a club as possible.
The construction materials may have changed yet the range of golf clubs remains relatively the same with woods, irons, putters, wedges, and sand wedges to be found in a golf caddy.
But what does golf stand for? There are several theories available that act as the origin for the term. In this guide, we will look at a few definitions and where they originate from.
The Popular (Yet Misguided) Theory For What Golf Stands For
Certain theories ascertain that the word ‘golf’ is simply an acronym for the term ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’. You can find this on many a ‘Did you know….’ list as the reference seems so grossly out of date and out of fashion yet it still persists in some circles.
It is unlikely to be true, not because of how sexist it seems (even if it does date back to the late eighteenth century), but because of how few words are actually created by acronyms.
To consider the term ‘golf’ and to use that definition would be more akin to the name of society rather than the origin behind the name of a sport. Sure, ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’, does fit for the acronym yet the origin for the name of golf likely goes even further.
When Did The Game Of Golf Begin?
The game of golf as the modern version that we know today dates back to 1754 when it was first played in Scotland. It was at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews where they came up with the game’s rules and constructed the courses to play their rounds.
Indeed, it was at The Old Course at St Andrew’s in Fife where the 18-hole round was created in 1764 having been reduced from the original 22 holes.
St Andrews is still home to golf’s oldest tournament in existence which is The Open Championship dating back to 1860, also known as the British Open.
However, the game dates even further back to the fifteenth century in the same area of the Scottish kingdom of Fife where ‘golfers’ would hit pebbles with a bent stick or club across grassy fields which were populated with rabbit holes and sand dunes.
Fife can be found on the eastern coast of Scotland, between Dundee and Glenrothes, so finding sand dunes should not be a huge surprise.
The first mention of golf dates back to 1457 when King James II banned the game of ‘ye golf’ as it became a distraction to his troops learning archery.
That ban lasted to 1502 when King James IV lifted it as he started playing the game himself and golf clubs began popping up the next year.
In 1552, golf was further recognized in writing when the Archbishop John Hamilton’s Charter noted that the people of St Andrews played golf on the links (links being the oldest type of golf course known to be played on undulating sandy terrain which ‘links’ the coast to arable farmland).
Archbishop Hamilton also gave a charter allowing the local population to play golf and established a rabbit warren on the north part of the links.
The Old Course is generally seen as a site of pilgrimage for the golfing community as this is where the first golf course originated in 1574.
If you want to find out more about the history of the game then St Andrews in Fife is the place to visit as it is known as the Home of Golf. Not only can you visit the site of golf’s first major tournament, but you can also experience the British Golf Museum.
What Does Golf Stand For?
Once you realize that golf was being played in the fifteenth century then another theory for its name comes forward. The actual word ‘golf’ first appeared in the English language back in 1425 and could have derived from the Dutch word ‘kolf’.
This was a generic term for a stick, mallet, or club which were used for other sports not too dissimilar to modern games of hockey or tennis.
Though the word ‘kolf’ did exist at the same time as the game began, there is some doubt whether the two can be linked. This largely comes down to the fact that those Dutch games used a ‘kolf’ as an implement and it was not the name of a game.
It sure is tempting to think that ‘kolf’ had a role in the naming of ‘golf’ as they are only one letter out but the term did not make its way to Scotland.
If you do stick to Scotland then looking at the language does pose another theory that is close to the Dutch interpretation. There is a Scottish word called ‘goulf’ or ‘gowf’ which is known as a verb and means ‘to strike or cuff’.
As this is a verb and not an acronym or a noun there is a higher likelihood that this theory makes more sense. It’s also far easier to accept than believing that it was formed from the acronym ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’ as ladies do play the game too.
While many may still believe that the funny golf term stands for ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’, this can be considered an acronym that does spell out the word but little else. Indeed, the general consensus is that the term ‘golf’ has been derived from an old world to mean ‘club’.
The reference actually has some backing in Scottish documents which is where the game originates though the spellings do differ. Though King James II did refer to the game as ‘ye golf’ there were several spellings including gowf, gif, goff, goif, goiff, gowfe, gof, gouff, and golve.
The term ‘golf’ can be considered as purely a Scottish term meaning ‘to strike’ or ‘to drive forward with violence’. This certainly makes sense when you consider the clubs used to hit a ball forward towards the hole.
You could also find the word ‘golf’ as the name for several ‘stick and ball’ games in medieval Britain, and even in continental Europe. In this sense, the term ‘golf’ meant ‘club’ which also makes sense to describe the apparatus used to strike the ball.