Tom Fielding Golf School Japan
There must have been rules known to golfers dating back to the origins of the game. Otherwise, how could players have squared off in competition? What those rules were, nobody knows.
At least not until the mid-18th Century, when the first known written rules of golf were put into writing by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, now the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers based at Muirfield. The rules were written for the Annual Challenge for the Edinburgh Silver Club in 1744.
There were 13 of them, and here they are (with a few explanatory comments in parentheses). Note how many of these rules survive today:
1. "You must tee your ball within a club's length of the hole." (A diameter of two club lengths. Teeing grounds are now defined as two club lengths in depth.)
2. "Your tee must be on the ground." (Tees, back in these days, consisted of little pyramids of sand.)
3. "You are not to change the ball which you strike off the tee." (Look at that - the "one ball condition way back then!
Actually, holing out with the same ball with which you teed off - with a few exceptions - is in Rule 15-1)
4. "You are not to remove stones, bones or any break club for the sake of playing your ball, except upon the fair green, and that only within a club's length of the ball." (Hmmm, bones? Loose impediments, Rule 23)
5. "If your ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your ball and bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it, you may play it with any club and allow your adversary a stroke for so getting out your ball." (Origin of the 1-stroke penalty for a ball in a water hazard. Rule 26)
6. "If your balls be found anywhere touching one another you are to lift the first ball till you play the last." (Rule 22-2)
7. "At holling you are to play your ball honestly at the hole, and not to play upon your adversary's ball, not lying in your way to the hole." (Don't do something petty such as trying to hit your opponent's ball with your own. It's OK in croquet, not in golf.)
8. "If you should lose your ball, by its being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the spot where you struck last and drop another ball and allow your adversary a stroke for the misfortune." (Stroke plus distance, Rule 27-1.)
9. "No man at holling his ball is to be allowed to mark his way to the hole with his club or anything else." (Now incorporated in Rule 8-2.)
10. "If a ball be stopp'd by any person, horse, dog, or any thing else, the ball so stopp'd must be played where it lyes." (Deflection by an outside agency. Play it as it lies. Rule 19-1)
11. "If you draw your club in order to strike and proceed so far in the stroke as to be bringing down your club, if then your club should break in any way, it is to be accounted a stroke." (Definition of stroke)
12. "He whose ball lyes farthest from the hole is obliged to play first." (Virtually unchanged after all this time. Rule 10)
13. "Neither trench, ditch, or dyke made for the preservation of the links, nor the Scholars' Holes or the soldiers' lines shall be accounted a hazard but the ball is to be taken out, teed and play'd with any iron club." (The first written rules also include the first local rule, for what we would now describe as ground under repair.)
The Rules of Golf continued to be developed over time, taking a huge step forward in 1897 when the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews formed a Rules Committee.
Since 1952, the R&A and the United States Golf Association have met every two years to set down a uniform code of rules.
Sources: British Golf Museum, Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Historical Rules of Golf
The earliest surviving written Rules of Golf were compiled by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith, later the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG), on 7th March 1744 at Leith, Scotland.
The competition played under these rules was held on 2nd April, and involved ten competitors playing over the 5-hole Leith links. (These are Julian Calendar dates; the Gregorian calendar we use today was not adopted by Great Britain until 1752).
From 1744 to the mid-1800s, a number of leading golf clubs throughout the UK published their own Rules. Although these Rules were basically the same, enough differences existed such that there was no universal code for golfers.
For instance, all codes during this time had virtually identical rules for the teeing ground, the action of an outside agency, and for changing of a ball. But for a lost ball, a ball in water or a hazard, some rules imposed a stroke penalty, some did not; removal of loose impediments was allowed in some places but not in others.
Over 40 separate codes had been issued since 1744, the most important being those of the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith (later HCEG) and the Society of St. Andrews Golfers (later R&A).
In the later part of the 19th century, most clubs tended to align themselves with the R&A or the HCEG. The St. Andrews and HCEG codes were extremely similar, indeed the St. Andrews rules of 1812 are almost identical to, and adapted from, the HCEG version of 1809. In 1839 the HCEG adapted the St. Andrews version of 1829
In the early 1830s the HCEG was suffering from financial problems and nearly folded. At around the same time, 1834, the St. Andrews Society gained the patronage of King William IV and was granted the title of Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The R&A's ascendancy and the simultaneous decline of the HCEG's influence naturally led to the R&A being regarded as the pre-eminent Club of the time.
In the following decades, other factors helped promote golf - with the R&A to the fore; the rapid expansion of the railway system throughout Great Britain, including a branch to the town of St Andrews, a general increase in interest in sporting pastimes, and the introduction of the cheap and durable gutta percha golf ball.
The number of golf clubs in Great Britain increased exponentially in the late 1800s-- from 36 golf clubs in 1860 to 58 in 1870 to nearly 500 by 1890, over 1500 in 1900 over 2500 by 1910 -- and the increasing ease with which golfers could travel to other courses from around this time led to the need for a universal set of rules.
The Open Championship, started in 1860, was played under the rules of Prestwick (in effect the same as 1858 R&A) whenever played at Prestwick, and at St. Andrews the same rules were in effect, some differences only in the local rules. However, when played at Musselburgh in 1874, 1877 and 1880, the Championship was played under the HCEG rules.
The HCEG voted to play by the R&A rules in 1883, Royal Blackheath did the same in 1889. The R&A Rules of 1891 came close to a common code for all players, but although widely accepted, some clubs still clung to different codes. Such differences must have become a matter of concern with the increasing popularity of golf worldwide, and a desire to play the Open and Amateur Championships under rules familiar to all.
During the Amateur Championship held at St. George's, Sandwich, in May 1896 a meeting of delegates proposed setting up the R&A as the overall authority on the Rules of Golf. The R&A Rules of Golf Committee was formed in September 1897, and issued the first universally accepted Rules of Golf in Sept 1899.
The USGA came into being in February 1895, a name change from the Amateur Golf Association of the United States. They originally elected to play under the 1891 R&A rules and adopted the new code in February 1900.
The Gentlemen Golfers of Leith issued rules in 1744, and 1775; then as the HCEG in 1809, 1839, 1866
The Society of St. Andrews issues were in 1754, 1812, and 1829; then as the R&A in 1842, 1851, 1858, 1875, 1888, 1891
The Background Story - Part II
The golfing world accepted the 1899 R&A rules code along with the recently-formed USGA, who followed the R&A code, adjusted and clarified with its own decisions and remarks.
The first difference of opinion was not long in coming: the centre-shafted putter. More on that, and the on the differences in the size and weight of the ball in Clubs and Balls.
In addition to the differences over equipment, a number of other differences between the R&A and USGA grew over the years before World War II. The USGA went it alone with the publication of the 1947 rules - a reorganisation rather than widespread change.
The R&A 1950 rules followed the same theme, and the previously separate match play and stroke play rules were combined, sections laid out more logically. Both these issues formed the basis of the first joint code issued in 1952.
The explanation cannot be better put than the statement by the two authorities in the preface to the 1952 edition:
This edition of the Rules of Golf is the result of a joint revision by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the United States Golf Association.
For some years a growing desire for uniform Rules has manifested itself and this has now been achieved after special committee conferences in which representatives of Canada and Australia participated also.
It has been customary for both the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association to revise their Rules periodically and individually in the light of experience. However, there has been no regular machinery for co-ordinating their respective views. As a result, differences have crept into the Rules. Departures from uniformity are no new phenomenon, for in the early days each prominent club in the United Kingdom had its own Rules. Nevertheless, as the game spread, it became recognised that uniformity would be advantageous to all, and towards the end of the last century, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, as a result of requests from the main clubs in the British Isles, published the first uniform set of Rules.
The history of the present code dates to the end of the recent world war. The United States Golf Association had revised its Rules and the Royal and Ancient were in the process of doing the same. Because there had been intimations of a deep interest in standardisation of Rules, United States Golf Association representatives were invited to visit St. Andrews and conferences took place there in the Spring of 1951. In a most cordial atmosphere, the negotiating committees achieved agreement on this unified code which subsequently was ratified by the Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association, and by the membership of the Royal and Ancient.
The Main Aims. - At the conferences three primary considerations were kept to the fore:
First, the perspective was to be world-wide to meet the varying conditions under which the game is now played.
Second, to achieve this objective, there would clearly have to be "give and take" over items of differing importance to different countries.
Third, the negotiating representatives reminded themselves that, if legislation lags too far behind public opinion, the legislation loses effect.
These considerations account for some of the new code's unusual features reflected by both inclusions and omissions.
The Putter. - At the beginning of the century, there were no essential differences in the respective Rules of the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association. The first major departure from uniformity occurred with the introduction of the Schenectady putter in the United States. This was not accepted by the Royal and Ancient as a traditional form of golf club, but play with this type of club continued in the United States. Now, after nearly fifty years, it is agreed that this type has become traditional and universal use will be permitted hereafter.
The Stymie. - There were only a few other divergences in the Rules of play up to the late 1930s, when the United States Golf Association experimentally introduced its variation of the stymie Rule. By giving relief when balls were within six inches of the hole or within six inches of each other, it did away with an unpopular feature - the unnegotiable stymie. This type of stymie often resulted from a missed putt on the part of the opponent. The American Rule survived its experimental stage and until now has been in effect in the United States, although it was not adopted in other countries. Some five years ago, the Royal and Ancient took a referendum on the stymie amongst the governing bodies of various countries. The result suggested a more or less equal division of opinion for retention, abolition, and two other alternatives; i.e., the United States version on the one hand and abolition of stymies laid by the opponent on the other. The latter alternative means almost total abolition, as relatively few stymies are laid by the player himself. With opinion so widely divided on the issue of the stymie, there seemed little chance of achieving uniformity in a world-wide code by retaining it or adopting either of the other alternatives. Abolition of the stymie was therefore recommended and adopted.
The Ball. - There has been and still remains a difference in the size of the ball. This matter has been regarded in a somewhat different light from that of the Rules of actual play. Playing conditions differ in many parts of the world, and the ruling bodies held to the opinion that the smaller British ball is no more suitable for play in the United States than the larger American ball is suitable for play in Great Britain. It is hoped that in the future it may be possible to find some basis for standardizing the ball. In the meanwhile, and in this code, the size of the British ball is specified as not less than 1.620 inches in diameter and that of the American ball as not less than 1.680 inches with weight coinciding at 1.620 ounces. To give playing equality in international team competition, the United States Golf Association has legalized the smaller ball for use in such contests in its country.
The Penalties. - On the introduction of the 1950 Royal and Ancient revised code, there arose another major difference when the Royal and Ancient, as an experiment, made changes in penalties. The United States Golf Association continued with substantially the traditional scale. The Royal and Ancient had taken a referendum as regards the penalties for out of bounds, unplayable ball and lost ball, and they accepted the majority view that the penalty for all these contingencies should be reduced from stroke and distance to distance only. Playing experience however, soon showed that the removal of the penalty stroke was not an adequate penalty. Consequently, the Royal and Ancient decided to return to the traditional penalties, and so were of one mind with the United States Golf Association when penalties for the uniform code came up for consideration.
Maintenance of Uniformity. - In framing this code, attention has been particularly directed to clarifying the Rules, consolidating them wherever possible, and rationalizing the headings so that reference is simplified.
There is one final point. A unified set of Rules having been achieved, it is recognised that it can only be kept uniform by mutual agreement not to alter it unilaterally. If questions of alteration arise, the Royal and Ancient and the United States Golf Association will consult with each other and with the governing bodies in other countries, and will use all possible means to ensure the maintenance of uniformity.
HAROLD GARDINER-HILL, Chairman, Rules of Golf Committee,
Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews
ISAAC B. GRAINGER, Chairman, Rules of Golf Committee,
United States Golf Association
Despite the well-meaning paragraph at the end, changes between the codes did appear unilaterally: the USGA experimented with the distance-only penalties in 1960; the R&A, having done the same ten years earlier and rejected it, did not go along with it.
The USGA reverted in 1961, but tried again in 1964. Eventually they, too, saw that it was not workable and returned to stroke and distance in 1968.