Birdies, Bogeys and Betting: Golf Betting History and the Story of the Sport
If golf is your favourite sport to watch and bet on, then you’re sure to be enthralled by the story of its evolution and betting history. Below we’ve laid out the history of golf in a timeline to show how the sport developed from its roots in Scotland to the modern game. Golf betting history is equally exciting as the sport itself and we’ll cover that alongside the history of the sport.
Just like with any sport, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when golf first started. The earliest records mention a game that is similar to our modern game being played in Scotland in the 15th Century. Interestingly, the game was banned by then monarch James III in 1457, since many soldiers were distracted by the game when they should be focused on repelling a potential attack by the English. The game wasn’t permitted again until 1502.
Scottish Golf History: Origins
For the next 3 centuries, golf slowly evolved, spanning the continent sometime in the mid-1600s, where golf is first mentioned in New York, after being banned from the streets. Golf courses were very primitive throughout this period. They were what we refer to as links courses, however they were without greens and the holes were large and placed wherever the ground was flat enough.
The courses were different in another way than we know too. The standard 18-hole course was not introduced until the mid 18th Century and courses were not necessarily played in a pre-defind order. The game slowly formalised and due to the need for expensive equipment, remained a practice of the wealthy. Societies began to form around the mid-18th Century; the first in Scotland in 1744, followed by a club in London in 1766 and in 1780 a club in South Carolina became the first outside of Great Britain.
All golf was played as match play up until 1759, when the first mention of stroke play is made. The difficulties of scoring stroke play with opponents of varying standards remained for a century and a half however, as a handicapping system was debated throughout the next century and beyond.
The 1800s is when the game really started to turn into the sport we know now, although there were still lots of key differences. Some of the terms we associate most with the sport – such as birdie and bogey – were coined during this period.
The formalisation of the sport continued and well known professionals that are still remembered today began to emerge. Allan Robertson is widely regarded as one of the first professional golfers, who produced golf balls and clubs throughout the 1800s. These professionals were not like those today though. Rather, they made their living from challenge matches, for which they would often be backed by wealthy businessmen, who would bet against others that their pro would win. Even once championships began to be established, placing wagers against each other or taking part in challenge matches was a far more lucrative venture.
1860 – the Open Championship is Born
After the death of legendary golfer Allan Robertson, a Championship at Prestwick Golf Club is opened in his honour. This was the first iteration of the British Open, the oldest major and the only one to take place outside of the USA. The first Open was in 1860, where eight pros took part, with Willie Park Senior winning.
These wagers constituted a large part of the incomes of pros like Robertson. But the problem remained of how to play against an opponent of differing ability fairly. The debate on handicaps persisted throughout the century then, with an odds system used from mid-century onwards. The actual term handicap began to be used officially at clubs around the British Isles at this time too, leading to more tournaments taking place and the popularity of the sport booming.
Private betting continued to be a part of golf well up until the middle of the next century. But at the end of the 19th Century, gate money began to be taken at some tournaments, which then went into prize money for the victors. J.H. Taylor became the first Englishman to win the Open in 1894, when the competition was played on English soil for the first time. Taylor would be a great force in the golf world over the next 20 or so years.
Evolution of the Golf Ball
Golf balls made major developments throughout this period too. Wooden balls were used initially, then by using feathers that were boiled and surrounded by leather. Professional golfer Allan Robertson had a very successful business making these balls, nicknamed featherie. They were difficult to produce and very expensive. In 1849, the guttie ball was invented. This used a tree sap that had a rubber like feel amd due to its better flight and cheaper cost than the featherie, began to be used more. Golfers began to notice that a guttie flew better after it had been used and manufacturers began to purposely put dimples on new balls during production for the first time.
The dimple pattern was patented in 1905 before the guttie was followed by the first wound golf ball named the rubber Haskell, which dominated the market. In the 1960s, a synthetic material was used along with urethane for the ball covers. These materials became the standard, replacing the wound rubber ball and consisting of either 2, 3 or 4 layers.
The 1990s started off with a bang when the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) is formed in 1901. America form their own association in 1916 and the PGA Championship begins. This is followed by the PGA Tour starting in the 1930s as well as the Masters being played for the first time. Some modern legends of the game were playing around the middle of the 1990s, including Ben Hogan and the most successful golfer ever, Sam Snead.
In 1950, the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association) is formed. By mid-century, private betting on match ups was coming to an end, as tournament prize purses started to regularly reach $100,000. This is not to say it didn’t still happen. Betting match ups between players like Lee Trevino were popular as he became a regular on the scene. But with the pros finally able to earn big money on the tournament circuit, the best players all start to compete on the tour.
1912 – A General Standard for Handicapping is Established
After years and years of debate spanning a century, a general standard for handicaps is agreed in the USA in 1912. This allowed amateurs with a handicap of 6 or lower to enter tournaments, though debate still raged about how to rate course difficulty for many years after, until a system was introduced midway through the 20th Century.
There has been little change in golf from towards the end of the 20th Century to recent times. The senior tour was established, the rules on qualification for the PGA Tour were introduced in 1983, while who could forget Nick Faldo’s all par final round to claim victory at the 1987 British Open (or his monster put at the 1989 Masters to become only the second Englishman to win the event).
The longest putt in golf history occurred when Dave Pelz sunk a putt from 200 feet away at Whistling Straits and has gone down in the record books as holing the longest putt. Although I’m sure most of you will remember Sir Terry Wogan’s record breaking putt that was televised live from Gleneagles in 1981. Although Terry’s record was broken, British golf fans all have fond memories of that moment. At the final decade of the century, a young Tiger Woods enters the stage, dominating amateur events. By the turn of the century, Tiger is already established, with two Majors under his belt and on his way to smashing some records of his own.
Tiger went on to dominate the sport for some time, becoming the first player to hold all four modern Majors at once in a single season. There is some debate over whether Tiger really achieved the Grand Slam however, since the Majors were won in a season but not in the same calendar year. Either way, Tiger was dominant for the first half of the decade.
2001 – Tiger Woods Holds All Four Majors at Once
After Bobby Jones in 1930, Tiger Woods became the first player to achieve the modern definition of a “Grand Slam”, holding all four majors simultaneously in 2001. There is some debate about the title of the accomplishment however, since the titles were won in season, rather than a calendar year.
The longest golf drive in history is held by Mike Dobbyn, who hit a straight drive 551 yards in 2007. This took place in a long drive competition however, which is a sport dedicated purely to hitting the ball as far as possible. The longest drive recorded in a golf competition was hit by then 64-year-old Mike Austin, at a senior event in the USA. Austin hit the ball an impressive 515 yards and is recognised by Guinness Records.
The current crop of super youngsters includes Rory Mcilroy, who has given the game an exciting edge in recent years. As Tiger withdrew from the limelight, Rory took centre stage and has fulfilled his promise. As we lost some legends of the game, others were born, and we wait to see who will be the stars of the future.
While huge tournament purses mean that the match up wagers aren’t so much part of the lives of the pros anymore, that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared completely. High rollers, semi-pro golfers and wealthy business often compete in competitive matches with up to $150,000 a hole. This type of betting has been ever present in the history of golf and it remains so to this day.
The history of golf is a rich tapestry of characters and stories that has developed over hundreds of years. Golf betting history has its own equally exciting side plot, developing alongside the sport and changing over time. There have been some crazy bets along the way which you can read all about on our golf facts and trivia page.