U.S. golf was an $84 billion industry in 2018, up front $69 billion in 2011. Add in golf’s worldwide appeal and the industry easily tops $100 billion annually. But despite the obvious popularity of golf and its omnipresence globally, debate still rages over how to classify the game and its participants. Specifically, is golf a sport and its players athletes?
Early History of Golf
The origins of golf remain somewhat murky because several countries invented games that involved hitting a ball with a club at a target. The 11th-century French game “palle- mail” or “jeu de mail” and the 13th-century Dutch game “kolven” are arguably predecessors to golf. A claim has even been made that the Chinese recorded a description of the game in a text written during the Song Dynasty (960 -1279 CE).
The invention of golf as we know it today, with the crucial aspect of hitting a ball into a hole, is generally credited to Scotland in the 1300s. Historians say that golf was played at St. Andrews in Scotland even before the university was founded in 1411.
In the Middle Ages, the Scots were so captivated by golf that King James II feared it was interfering with the archery practice needed to help protect Scotland against the English. On Mar. 6, 1457, the Scottish Parliament banned golf with a decree that read, “[I]t is ordained and the decreed that the lords and barons both spiritual and temporal should organise archery displays four times in the year. And that football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped.… [W]e ordain that [those found playing these games] be punished by the local barons and, failing them, by the King’s officers.” The ban was lifted in 1502 when the Treaty of Glasgow temporarily ended the wars between Scotland and England. King James IV made the first recorded purchase of golf equipment in that same year and became an avid golfer.
St. Andrews, the home of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), originated the 18-hole golf course in 1764 when golfers felt that some of the holes on the then 22-hole course should be consolidated. To this day, 18 holes remain the standard for a round of golf. In 1897, the R&A was recognized by existing golf organizations as having the authority to determine the rules of golf. According to the official rulebook, “The Game of Golf consists of playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules.” The first golf club in America was St. Andrew’s Golf Course in Yonkers, NY, built in 1888. The Amateur Golf Association of the United States (now called United States Golf Association, or USGA) was formed on Dec. 22, 1894   
Definition of Sport
The question of whether golf is a sport hinges on the definition of “sport.” Merriam- Webster defines sport as “physical activity engaged in for pleasure; a particular activity (as an athletic game) so engaged in.”
John C. Phillips, professor of sociology at the University of the Pacific, asserted that people have an instinctual idea about what “sport” means: “[I]n one sense the word sport need not be analyzed. Anyone who speaks English knows what sport is and is not.” The topic has nonetheless been subject to significant analysis.
Sports philosopher Bernard Suits named four elements that distinguish sports from games. “First, it is a game of skill, which marks it off from games of chance.… Second, it is a game of physical skill…. Third, a sport is a game that has a wide following … Fourth, and last, a sport is a game that has achieved institutional stability.”
Sociologists Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan defined sport as “institutionalized, structured, and sanctioned competitive activity beyond the realm of play that involves physical exertion and the use of relatively complex athletic skills.”
Lincoln Allison, Founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Sport in Society at Warwick University, noted that the definition has shifted over time. “In English, the primary meaning of the word ‘sport’ changed dramatically in the period after 1880. Before that date, if you picked up a book on sport … it would certainly have been about some combination of hunting, shooting or fishing.” According to Allison, the modern concept of sport began to solidify around 1930. “And yet, for all that sport can mean … the core of what people understand by sport in its serious and interesting sense can be defined briefly: sport is the institutionalisation of skill and prowess.”
Definition of Athlete
Merriam-Webster defines “athlete” as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.”
The word, according to researchers Francesco Campa and Giuseppe Coratella. “comes from the Greek root ‘Athlos’ which means ‘achievement’ or ‘contest’ and a more complex figure than just the simple sportsman, since he/she embodied the greatest virtues of a human being. The first testimony of the term athlete is found in the Odyssey, when Ulysses was mocked by Feaci for not wanting to participate in sports competitions, and they accused him of being greedy, lacking virtue and consequently not being an athlete.”
Ross Tucker, sports science researcher for World Rugby, adds nuance to the definition: “You have to expand the definition of ‘competition’ to be broader than just competing against other athletes in that specific moment. For instance, is a person who climbs Mount Everest an athlete? I’d say so, because they’re pushing boundaries, which I think meets a definition of competition where ‘competitive’ means challenging oneself to perform better.”
However, some believe that everyone could be an athlete. Jim Afremow, sports psychologist, argues, “The reason why I think embracing an athletic identity is important for us is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves lead to expectations about our actions. And then those lead to those behaviors and actions, and that reinforces itself where it bolsters our sense of being an athlete.” He continues: “There is an athlete in all of us. It doesn’t matter where you come from or what your particular situation is. What matters is thinking of yourself as an athlete, having athletic goals and reaping the rewards of being more active.” Nike, the sports apparel company, echoes this idea in their mission statement: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Golf in the Olympics
For many, the Olympics serve as a barometer for whether an activity should be viewed as a sport and its players athletes. Golf was included in the Olympics in 1900 (men and women) and 1904 (men only) before being removed. The golf events in the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis, Missouri, consisted of 74 American and three Canadian men. In 1908, the golf events were canceled reportedly because of a lack of international entries and a conflict with the R&A. Subsequent years also saw a dearth of competitors that resulted in the game’s continued absence from the Summer Olympic Games. 
The first major push to return golf to international sporting competition did not come until 1992, when the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee announced its intent to get golf approved for the 1996 Games. The proposal was met with opposition from major golf organizations, who were reportedly concerned about having their regular tour events overshadowed. The Committee’s plan to hold the event at Augusta National Golf Club prompted concern because at the time the club had a male-only membership and just one black member, and so the proposal was withdrawn. On Aug. 20, 2012, Augusta announced that two women, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore, were accepted as members—the first women admitted in the 80-year history of the club.
Another bid to include golf was rejected in 2005, reportedly due to lack of support from the professional golf tours. A Sports Illustrated poll conducted in May 2005 found that 29 percent of respondents thought golf should be added to the Olympics, second to rugby, favored by 38 percent.
In 2009, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) members voted 63-27 to return golf to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rugby was also voted in for the first time since it was removed in 1924. IOC President Jacques Rogge voiced his support for the decision, saying “Both golf and rugby are very popular sports with global appeal and a strong ethic. They will be great additions to the Games.”
Some people who opposed including golf said that the vote was neither a reflection of golf’s merit nor an endorsement that it is a sport, but rather that the IOC wished to add golf because of megastar golfer Tiger Woods and golf’s potential for increased sponsorships and television earnings.
Olympic golf has been played at the following courses: Compiègne Golf Club (Paris, 1900), Glen Echo Country Club, Normandy, Missouri (St. Louis, 1904), Olympic Golf Course, Barra da Tijuca (Rio de Janeiro, 2016), and Kasumigaseki Country Club, Kawagoe (Tokyo, 2020). For upcoming Olympic Games, golf will be played at the following courses: Albatros Course at Le Golf National, Guyancourt (Paris, 2024), Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, California (Los Angeles, 2028), and Royal Queensland Golf Club, Eagle Farm, Queensland (Brisbane, 2032).
Golf in the Supreme Court
On May 29, 2001, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin that the PGA Tour had to allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to use a golf cart, despite the PGA’s claim that “the condition of walking is a substantive rule of competition” in professional tournaments. Martin was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a degenerative disease that caused Martin’s right leg to atrophy and made him unable to walk across a golf course. The Court noted that Martin was a “talented golfer” who won his state high school golf championship and captained the 1994 Stanford University NCAA champion golf team.
The decision, delivered by Justice John Paul Stevens, said in part “we observe that the use of carts is not itself inconsistent with the fundamental character of the game of golf. From early on, the essence of the game has been shotmaking—using clubs to cause a ball to progress from the teeing ground to a hole some distance away with as few strokes as possible.” The decision further stated that “golf is a game in which it is impossible to guarantee that … an individual’s ability will be the sole determinant of the outcome. For example, changes in the weather may produce harder greens and more head winds for the tournament leader than for his closest pursuers. A lucky bounce may save a shot or two.”
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that the issue of whether walking is essential to the game of golf was irrelevant, but noted that “Many, indeed, consider walking to be the central feature of the game of golf hence Mark Twain’s classic criticism of the sport: ‘a good walk spoiled.’””
Casey Martin earned $206,874 over the course of his career as a professional golfer and is now the golf coach for the University of Oregon. The debate over the fitness level required to succeed as a professional golfer continues, however. Those who say golf is a sport point to the athleticism of top golfers such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Woods has reportedly bench pressed 315 pounds, and much has been made of McIlroy’s improved results following his commitment to become more muscular. Those who say golf is not a sport point to the example of John Daly, a professional golfer who won two Majors even though he once weighed as much as 285 pounds and struggled with alcoholism.
As Popular Science succinctly framed the debate: “Is Tiger Woods proof that golf is a sport, or is John Daly confirmation to the contrary?” It even ventured an answer, suggesting it “probably depends on whether you’ve got a set of clubs in the garage.”
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