The first women’s golf tournament was held at Musselburgh in Scotland on the 9th of January, 1811.
According to Robin Williams, golf was invented in Scotland. His version of the story goes something like this, with two guys taking a stroll on the sand dunes of St. Andrews. One says to the other, “I’ve got a great idea for a game, I want to knock a ball into a gopher hole.” “Oh, you mean like pool?” says the other guy. “Pool? Hell no, I don’t want it to be easy; we’re not gonna use a straight stick, man.” “So you mean like croquet?” asks the second guy again. “Croquet! Sod croquet! I’m gonna put the hole hundreds of yards away!” “Oh, you mean like on a bowling green?” persists the questioner. “A bowling green! No way! I’m gonna put shit in the way, like trees and bushes, and high grass so you can lose your ball. Then, right at the end, I’ll put a little flat, green piece, with a wee flag, waving in the breeze to give you hope, but then I’ll put a paddling pool and a sandbox in the way, just to blow your mind!” “And you’ll do this one time?” suggests his incredulous companion. “Hell no, I’m gonna do it eighteen fuckin’ times!”
Of course, golf wasn’t invented by Scots, not really, albeit the modern game originated in Scotland, where it was known as ‘gowf’ or ‘gouf’. There are lots or nations or peoples who could claim to have laid down the origins of the game of golf. The Persians played ‘chaugán’ and the Romans, for example, played ‘paganica’ with a bent stick and a stuffed leather ball. The game spread with the Roman Empire, getting as far as Scotland by the time of the Battle of Mons Graupius. According to a Ming Dynasty scroll from 1368, the Chinese appear to have played ‘chuiwan’ with a club and the aim of sinking a small ball into a hole. And in 1297, the Middle Dutch speaking descendents of the Frisians and Saxons, in what had become the Duchy of Utrecht – a Prince-Bishopric of the Holy Roman Empire – were recorded as having played ‘kolven’ (‘colf’ or ‘kolf’) with curved bats and a ball. According to Steven van Hengel’s book, ‘Early Golf’, the people of Loenen aan de Vecht played ‘kolf’ by trying to hit the door of Kronenburg Castle in as few strikes as possible, starting from the Court House.
Golf has been played in Scotland since at least the 15th Century; most certainly some time before its first written record, which was its prohibition in an Act of Parliament in 1457. As the Act of James II stated, “ye fut bawe and ye golf be utterly cryt done and not usyt” (sic), golf must’ve become very popular in prior years, if not for decades previously. James II saw golf – and football – becoming far too popular and he was concerned that folks were playing games instead of practicing archery, which he considered far more useful. James’ successors and namesakes, James III and James IV, also tried to ban golf, but later on, the latter was converted to the game. And, in 1603, James VI reputedly played golf at Musselburgh, prior to journeying south to become James I of England.
Musselburgh has another Royal connection to golf as Mary I, Queen of Scots, is said to have played on the Old Course of Musselburgh Links in 1567, prior her surrender to the Confederate Lords. Mary Stuart was a keen royal golfer and the first woman known to have been recorded as having played golf. The claim made on Mary’s behalf is derived from the record of a charge made by the Earl of Moray in ‘Articles’ in 1568, in which he accused Mary of having played golf at Seton House just a few days after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley; a dastardly deed in which she was implicated. There is also a story that Mary I once lost a golf match to one of her ‘three Marys’, Mary Seton of Seton House, and that as a reward, she gave her Lady in Waiting a necklace. Interestingly, if height has any advantage in golf, both Mary’s had such benefit, with the Queen herself being over six feet tall. Mary Stuart is also credited with coining the term ‘caddy’, having brought the French tradition of an entourage of on-course assistants to Scotland and calling them ‘cadets’, after the French fashion.
Notwithstanding the claims of Mary I, the Old Course of Musselburgh Links is officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest golf course in the world – dated 1672. The ‘official world record’ appears as: “The Musselburgh Links, The Old Golf Course in Musselburgh, Scotland, UK, is the oldest golf course in the world. Documentary evidence proves that golf was played on Musselburgh Links as early as 2 March 1672 although Mary, Queen of Scots reputedly played here in 1567.” The documentation is key as Mary surely played on Musselburgh in the 16th Century (why on earth would she and Mary Seton restricted themselves to the grounds of Seton House?), but there is no documentary record to prove it. The documentary evidence for 1672 comes from the account book of an Edinburgh lawyer, Sir John Foulis of Ravelston. Sir John, who also kept copious records of his golf on Leith Links, played golf at Musselburgh in 1672. He lost in a match with his friends as his notebook records for the 2nd of March, 1672: “Lost at Golfe at Musselboorgh wt. Gosfoord, Lyon etc. £3.5/-, For three Golfe balls 15/-, For a horse thyre thither, 18/- (sic).” There is a reference to Ravelston’s game in ‘The Golf Book of East Lothian’, compiled by John Kerr, the Minister of Direlton, and published in 1896.
Obviously Ravelston and his mates weren’t the first to play golf at Musselburgh, but apart from the story of Mary I, there is no evidence to point to exactly when the course was first played. In those days, golf wasn’t played with established greens, but holes and cut areas for putting would be organised at irregular intervals. Both greens and tees for commencing play were one entity and not separated as they are today. The old links course at Musselburgh was originally seven holes, with an eighth added in 1832 and a ninth, called the ‘Sea Hole’ and now played as the fifth, in 1870.
In 1791, it is recorded that fishwives from Musselburgh played golf on the links, and records show that during the 18th Century a women’s golf competition was held annually on New Years Day amongst the fisherwives of Musselburgh and Fisherrow. However, the earliest known reference recording a competition for women golfers dates from the 9th of January, 1811. The world’s first ever tournament for women was held over eighteen holes on a pitch ‘n’ put course at Musselburgh and the prize for the winner was a creel and a skull (a small fishing basket). The runners up prizes were ‘two fine, blue silk handkerchiefs from Barcelona’, all of which no doubt ensured a bumper entry from the hard working women who were ‘Ladies’ for a day, in competing for the ‘Creel Trophy’.