Denver Bar Association
November 2002
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GOLF: Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden

by Judge John Kane


The myths and facts behind our favorite game

The talk in the locker room at the gym I use sometimes rises to a level suitable for polite, albeit politically incorrect, conversation. Just the other day, a friendly fellow announced that he had learned why golf is called golf. "It is an acronym," he said, "derived from the early days of the sport when it was strictly a man’s game. It stands for ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden,’ which used to be posted on the golf courses."

This bit of modern folk wisdom sounded an alarm in my intuition. The sort of thing that happens when a lawyer cites a case, and I think no court could have been dumb enough to hold that way. Of course, intuition is not always right and sometimes my skepticism receives a rude shock. Golf, it seemed to me, was far too ancient a sport to provide a basis for any acronym. Moreover, given that in earlier times, it was indeed totally a man’s world in which the law gave no recognition to a woman’s independent existence, there would have been no need for such a sign to be posted.

The Colorado Territorial Legislature was considered very avant garde in the early 1870s, when it authorized women to sue and hold property in their own name, but golf had been used to waste men’s time long before that. The locker room anecdote started to spoil my day so I decided to check it out with the hope of being able to focus on more important problems such as when the Rockies will play baseball and whether the Nuggets will ever play basketball.

The origin of golf, I learned, is the subject of considerable etymological controversy. There are those who hold to the belief that it is derived from the medieval Dutch word kolf, meaning a club or stick used in several games in the nature of tennis, hockey and croquet. But none of these games, the critics say, has been convincingly identified with golf nor is there any proof that kolf was used to denote the game or the implements.

There is some further speculation that golf is indigenous to Scotland. Scottish dialect employs the word gowf to mean a blow with the open hand, hence the verbal form meaning to strike. It is therefore suggested that when Highland shepherds were not otherwise engaged, they amused themselves by attempting first to swat a rock for distance and eventually striking it with a stick to increase the range.

The authorities are agreed, however, that golf first appears in late Middle English, which would mean grown men were acting like idiots destroying grass at least as early as 1400 A.D. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary relates a Scottish statute in 1457, which states, "And at the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly cryt downe and nocht vsyt" and in 1491 a statutory leap was made to, "Fut bawls gouff or vthir sic vnproffitable sportis." I note that legislators and lawyers spelled about as well then as their contemporaries do now.

In the 1500s in Scotland, the game was called gouf, and for accuracy’s sake it should have stayed that way. One thing we know for sure: The first golf organization was formed in Edinburgh in 1744 and was originally named "The Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh." The name was later changed to the "Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers."

There is simply no record of women in the 15th, 16th, or 17th Centuries having any interest at all in this "vnproffitable sportis." I am confidant that they had more sense and it was only in fairly recent times that women took up this mindless diversion of their male counterparts. I wouldn’t call that progress, but "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden" seems fanciful in the extreme.

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