Evolution of the GolfGreen

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The exact origin of the game of golf is unknown, but it is generally accepted that the game has been evolving for more than 600 years. Early evolution was a process of adopting elements of other related activities or games until golf was similar but unique.

By the fifteenth century, the Dutch were playing a game on ice with implements and techniques that closely resemble early golf clubs and golf swings (see Figure 1-1).

Figure 1-1: Origins of golf can be traced back to a fifteenth century Dutch game played on the ice, with the target being an upright stake, not a hole. (Painting by Bareno Avercamp, circa 1650)

However, the object was to strike a pole in the ice with the ball in the fewest strokes, and not to put the ball into a hole. It is reasoned that this ice game was also played on dry land and introduced in Scotland by Dutch seamen and merchants who were actively trading with Scotland, and who had time to kill while in harbor waiting for their ships to be refitted. The Scottish linksland was close by, and it was covered by pioneer grasses that were often stunted by the wind, salt air, and heat, or grazed short by wild or domestic animals (see Figure 1-2).

Evolution of the GolfGreen
Figure 1-2: When golf became established in Scotland in the 1600s, it was played on the unimproved and unmaintained linksland, so greens were not distinct from the rest of the golf course, and everything together was called a “fairgreen.” (Painting by Allan Stewart, 1919)

It is not known when the transition was made from striking an object post to putting the ball into an object hole, but it was some time before the first rules of golf were written in 1741. The very first rule of the first rules states: “1. The ball shall be teed no more than one club’s length from the hole” (see Figure 1-3). Later the rules were revised to read two club lengths, then four, then ten. Finally, someone somewhere began the profession of golf course architecture by simply separating the teeing ground completely from the area around the object hole. Some historians believe that this was Allan Robertson or Old Tom Morris in the mid-1800s at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Precisely when and how the teeing ground became distinct from the putting ground is unknown, but it was a critical step in the evolution of the game, as well as in the process of allowing the area we now call greens to begin its own distinct evolution.

Figure 1-3: The first rule of the first rules dealt with how close together were the object hole and the teeing ground for the next hole, so already greens were becoming the most important golf course feature.

In 1857, there were 18 known and established places to play golf in Scotland, which increased to 59 by 1880. While the Dutch game on ice has faded into oblivion, golf had taken root on the earth and is still prospering.

The next 120 years saw rapid changes in all aspects of the game, including demographics, personalities, techniques, rules, equipment, hazards, sites, conditions, golf courses, and not least of all, golf greens. The area around the hole or cup came to be treated with more care and concern than other parts of the golf course and slowly evolved into modern-day putting greens. From then until now, there have been a succession of approaches to constructing and maintaining golf greens, with each having the goal of raising the standard of putting green quality. Many of those old ways are being rediscovered because of today’s concern for environment, while others simply formed the foundation from which the art and science of greenkeeping has evolved. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to review this rich history and identify significant advances or discoveries, all the while keeping in perspective the impact of social influences that were prevailing during each of these periods.


The earliest verified record of a person being employed to care for a golfing green, or “fairgreen” as golf courses were once called, seems to be a receipt of payment in 1744 to an unnamed boy who was retained as “greenkeeper and caddy” for the sum of 24 shillings per year and a change of clothes by the Royal Burgess Golfing Society. Later, in 1819, a William Ballantyne was paid one guinea for the care of grounds for the Thistle Golf Club (see Figure 1-4).

Figure 1-4: An 1819 original receipt for an annual payment to William Ballantyne by the Thistle Golf Club, presumably to perform some greenkeeping duties.

What those duties entailed is not clear, but this does show that by this point golfers no longer wanted to simply play the linkslands as they found them, and were willing to pay out some money to preserve or improve them. It is reasonable to assume these early greenkeepers (see Figure 1-5) were not much more than farmhands, employed to be jack-of-all-trades repairmen, whose main golf course duties were to repair minor damage caused by animals, especially burrowing rabbits, and occasionally to change holes and tee markers; they were not necessarily involved with grooming the turf.

Figure 1-5: Greenkeeping was firmly established as a profession by the mid- to late 1800s, but the crews were small and their equipment was simple.
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