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The word "golf" is recorded as long ago as 1457, in the statutes of the Scottish Parliament, when the sport was banned because it interfered with archery practice. The word was also spelled "gowf", reflecting the way the Scots pronounced it. Some say the word derives from an Old Dutch word "kolf, kolven" meaning club, clubs.
In the early days, golf courses had no standard number of holes. On 5th May 1858, new rules were issued by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, Scotland, for its members. Among these was the stipulation that "one round of the links or 18 holes is reckoned a match". At that time the course at St Andrews had 18 holes, and that became the standard for golf courses around the world.
Golf's origins are lost in history, but in its present form it is generally agreed to have been played in Scotland near St Andrews in the late 1400s. A lot has been said about fanciful links to a game played on frozen ponds in Holland earlier, but I think the connection with Golf is too tenuous to be credible. Golf as we know it was first recorded in Scotland in the region around Edinburgh in the 15th Century.
It became quite notorious then, and was even banned for a while by the King of Scotland, as golfers had become so obsessed with the game that they neglected their archery practice.
In the subsequent 500 years, the game has advanced from one played with simple hand made clubs and leather balls stuffed with feathers to the game we know today, based on clubs designed by computer using advanced materials such as titanium and zirconia. The biggest changes to the game have been in systematisation of the rules and playing field, and the technology employed in the clubs and the balls.
Actually hitting the golf ball towards the hole remains a dark art. It is as much a mystery now as it was in Fifeshire in the 1400's.
There are a number of factors that have influenced club design, particularly irons. These are the nature of the terrain in which they were used, the technology available to make them, the rules set up to govern what could or could not be used, and in recent years, physics and computer aided design. A major influence has been the golf ball itself. New club styles have tended to follow innovations in ball design.
Firstly, terrain. The early irons were used somewhat sparingly because they could easily destroy the "feathery" golf balls of the day (to about 1850). Most shots were accomplished by a range of wooden clubs. The "rutting iron" was used to extract balls that had landed in cart wheel ruts. Wooden clubs in a variety of shaft lengths and face lofts were used for most shots.
Second, technology. Iron clubs were made by blacksmiths until perhaps the 1870s. As a result they were rather crude, heavy implements with massive hosels (shanks). They were hard to use and when drop forging became widely available, the mass of the clubs decreased considerably. The words "hand forged" on the back of hickory shaft clubs in the 1900s was in fact a misnomer, as the only thing done by hand by that time was the impressing of the makers name and cleek mark.
The advent of drop forging in the late 1800s meant better iron clubs could be mass produced in factories. Wooden headed clubs were usually hand made by the local golf professionals until perhaps 1910, when factories started to make them due to the huge demand, as a result of golf's enormous growth in popularity.
The period from 1900 to 1930 was marked by many innovations in club design, such as the hollow faced irons (which didn't work), Walter Hagen's sand iron with the extended flange (still universal in one form or another, though without the concave face), a club that could be adjusted to give different lofts, the drilled hosels of the "Maxwell" irons intended to lighten the club head, and experimentation with a variety of alloys.