Early Rules of Golf

In July, The Open Championship returns to Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.  If we owe the governance of the game of golf from the late 19th Century onwards to The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, then it is to the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh (later the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers) that we owe the earliest recorded Rules of Golf. 

Written in 1744 and known as the Thirteen Articles, these rules were conceived for the first Challenge for the Silver Club, played over Leith Links.  The rules were copied almost identically ten years later when a similar Challenge was instituted at St Andrews.  The rules appear on the very first page of the St Andrews Golfers’ first minute book and are entitled The Articles & Laws in Playing the Golf.  The first competition, played on 14 May 1754, is taken as the start date of what eventually became known as The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.

The first winner at Leith in 1744 was John Rattray, an Edinburgh surgeon.  It was Rattray’s signature that appeared at the end of the Thirteen Articles, which were enshrined in the minute book of the Edinburgh GolfersBy virtue of his victory he became ‘Captain of the Golf’.  Rattray won again the following year and for a third time in 1748.  In addition to cementing his place in golfing history as the signatory of the first written Rules of Golf, in the years separating his second and third victories, Rattray found himself playing a part, albeit against his will, in the Jacobite Rebellion.

Rattray was persuaded to tend the Highlanders wounded at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745.  When Prince Charles Edward Stuart decided to make his way to England, Rattray was prevailed upon to accompany the Jacobite troops.  He made it to Derby before returning with the retreating army to Culloden Moor, where he was forced to surrender himself.  He was imprisoned in Inverness and only escaped slaughter due to the fact that his role was to tend the wounded and not bear arms.  He was released thanks to the intervention of the Lord President of the Court of Session, Duncan Forbes, a friend and fellow golfer.  Forbes had played his own part in the campaign.  Following the 1745 Silver Club Challenge, he travelled north to try and persuade the Highland clans not to join the Jacobite cause.  He later died, on 10 December 1747, at Culloden.

The annual Silver Club Challenges were the bedrock on which early golfing societies were founded and flourished.  In the 18th and for most of the 19th century, each society was at liberty to follow its own rules and these were determined by factors specific to their own course.  In 1754, the St Andrews Golfers made a slight alteration to Rule 5 of the Edinburgh Challenge to read: “If your Ball come among water, or any watery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball, and throw it behind the hazard, six yards at least”.  In the Edinburgh version, the wording was “bringing it behind the hazard and teeing it”. 

This amendment was presumably to reflect the course conditions at St Andrews, where teeing would be unnecessary as the ground was firmer.  It could also have been that in the mid-18th century, teeing the ball simply meant placing it on a favourable piece of ground.  According to Rule 2: “Your tee must be on the ground”.

The regulations for the Silver Club Challenge, of which there were also thirteen, make it clear that it was a match play competition.  Again, the St Andrews golfers followed very closely the model established by the Edinburgh Golfers.  Any changes were simply to reflect the number and names of holes.  No.3 of the St Andrews regulations states:

After the figures are drawn, the Set or Match beginning with No.1 etc. shall go out first, with a Clerk to mark down every stroke each of them shall take to every hole; Then by the time they are at the Hole of Leslie, the second Set beginning with No.3 shall strike off, and so all the rest in the same order, each Set having a Clerk, and when the Match is ended, and the wholle golfers have played to the last hole, being Eleven holes, and played in again to the hole of hill, being in all 22 holes, then a scrutiny of the wholle Clerks books or jottings is to be made, and the player who shall appear to have won the greatest number of holes, shall be declared to be the winner of the Match, and if there shall be two, three or more that are equal, then these must play from the hole of Craig to the hole of Cartgate, and back again, by themselves in the order of their figures before the Match can be determined.

The scoring system – all against all match play – was also used at Leith.  There, the course had only five holes and matches were generally played over four rounds, so we can assume their Silver Club Challenge was over 20 holes.

A significant change was made by the St Andrews Golfers in 1759.  On 9 May, the minute book was signed by all of the players due to compete in the Challenge, but before it was played, an alteration was made to the format:

It is enacted and decreed by the Captain and Gentlemen Golfers present in order to remove all disputes and inconveniences with regards to the gaining of the Silver Club that in all time coming whoever puts in the ball at the fewest strokes over the field, being 22 holes, shall be declared and sustained victor.

This change in the scoring system necessitated the introduction of a new rule.  It was decided that in the event of a ball being driven into a road or other such place “so that it cannot be played out”, the player could lift it and throw it back at least six yards, allowing “his adversary one stroke for his so doing”. This established the principle of stroke play.

Even though the Rules have evolved and expanded over the years, there are elements of the original Rules that still have relevance today.  For example: Rule 10 of the Challenge, as it applied both to the Edinburgh and St Andrews Golfers states: “If a ball be stopped by any person, horse, dog or anything else, the ball so stopped must be played where it lyes”.  According to the current Rule 13-1: “The ball must be played as it lies, except as otherwise provided in the Rules”.

In addition, Rule 12 of the Challenge states: “He whose ball lyes farthest from the hole is obliged to play first”.  The current Rule 10-2(b) states: “…the ball farthest from the hole is played first”.

Such continuity signifies the relevance of the Rules to each generation of golfers, as well as to early golfing societies and clubs.   

By the time the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers hosted The Open Championship for the first time, at Musselburgh in 1874, its own Rules code had been amended four times (1775, 1809, 1839 and 1866).  Its 1883 code was entitled: Rules of Golf as Played by The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers on Musselburgh Links (Adopted from the Rules of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club). Towards the end of the 19th century the Honourable Company, like hundreds of clubs throughout the United Kingdom, regarded The Royal and Ancient Golf Club as the pre-eminent club and rules-making body and it was as a result of pressure from such clubs that The R&A agreed to formalise its governance role and establish the Rules of Golf Committee in 1897.

Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf - 7th March 1744. 

  1. You must Tee your Ball within a Club's length of the Hole.
  2. Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
  3. You are not to change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
  4. You are not to remove, Stones, Bones or any Break Club, for the sake of playing your Ball, Except upon the fair Green & that only within a Club's length of your Ball.
  5. If your Ball comes among Watter or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & 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.
  6. If your Balls be found any where touching one another, You are to lift the first Ball, till you play the last.
  7. At Holling, you are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and, not to play upon your Adversary's Ball not lying in your way to the Hole.
  8. If you should lose your Ball, by it's being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the Spot where you struck last, & drop another Ball, And allow your adversary a Stroke for the misfortune.
  9. No man at Holling his Ball, is to be allowed, to mark his way to the Hole with his Club, or anything else.
  10. If a Ball be stopp'd by any person, Horse, Dog, or any thing else, The Ball so stop'd must be play'd, where it lyes.
  11. If you draw your Club in order to Strike & proceed so far in the Stroke as to be bringing down your Club; If then, your Club shall, break, in any way, it is to be Accounted a Stroke.
  12. He, whose Ball lyes farthest from the Hole is obliged to play first.
  13. Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke, made for the Preservation of the Links, nor the Scholar's Holes or the Soldier's Lines, shall be accounted a Hazard; But the Ball is to be taken out / Teed / and play'd with any Iron Club.

John Rattray, Capt