Golf - Meaning of Word Golf

A common misconception is that the word GOLF is an acronym for Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. This is definitely not true.

It is now accepted that the 'golf' is derived from an old word meaning 'club'.

The first documented mention of the word 'golf' is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned 'ye golf', in an attempt to encourage archery practice, which was being neglected. This royal ban was repeated in 1471 by his son, James III, and again in 1491 by his grandson, James IV. This may not have been links golf as we know it today.

1457 Statute golf

1457 Item it is ordanyt and decretyt that ye futbawe and ye golf be uterly cryt done and not usyt .. (It is ordained and decreed that football and golf be utterly condemned and not practised)

Before the creation of dictionaries, there was no standardised spelling of any word. People wrote phonetically. Goff, gowf, golf, goif, goiff, gof, gowfe, gouff and golve have all been found in Scottish documents. 

Most people believe the old word 'gowfe' was the most common term, pronounced 'gouf'. The Loudoun Gowf Club maintains the tradition of this terminology. In Gaelic the word is 'goilf'  and a golf course is raon goilf or cùrsa goilf. 

A minority of people hold the view that golf is a purely Scottish term, derived from Scots words 'golf', 'golfand' and 'golfing', which mean 'to strike' as in 'to cuff' or 'to drive forward with violence'. The meaning of the verb 'to golf' is recorded as being used in this way in dictionaries in the 18th century.

The terms golf, colf, kolf and chole which were the names for a variety of medieval stick and ball games in Britain and in continental Europe. They are all clearly derived from a common word in a pre-modern European language, following Grimm's grammatical law that details the clear phonetic similarities of these words.

Golf, colf, kolf and chole are all presumed to have originally meant 'club' and are associated with the Middle High German word for club, 'kolbe', (Der Kolben), and the Dutch word 'kolven' for the game of modern kolf. The history in the Rules of Thistle Golf Club documented this origin as far back as 1824.

In 1636, David Wedderburn, a Latin master in Aberdeen, used the word 'Baculus', which is Latin for 'club' as the title for his 'Vocabula', listing Latin terms for golf, which supports this derivation. The Vocabula gives us the first unambiguous mention of the golf hole in Scotland.


Aberdeen Queens Links - site of first golf hole in Scotland- with Broad Hill on left.

 The social 'club' apparently evolved from the same derivation in a verbal sense " to gather in a club-like mass", noted in 1620s, then later in 1640s as a noun, as an"association of people".

So golf, the game, the implement and the golfing society are all derived from the same etymological origin, meaning club.