The game's ancient origins are unclear and much debated. Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, in which participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. Others cite chuiwan as the progenitor, a Chinese game played between the 8 and 14 centuries. Another early game that resembled modern golf was known as cambuca in England and chambot in France. The Persian game chaugán is another possible ancient origin. A golf-like game is, apocryphally, recorded as taking place in 1297, in Loenen aan de Vecht, the Netherlands. In December 1650, the settlers of Fort Orange (near present-day Albany, New York) played the first recorded round of kolf (golf) in America. The Dutch settlers played kolf year round.
The modern game of golf is generally considered to be a Scottish invention. A spokesman for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews said "Stick and ball games have been around for many centuries, but golf as we know it today, played over 18 holes, clearly originated in Scotland." The first documented mention of golf in Scotland appears in a 1457 Act of the Scottish Parliament, an edict issued by King James II of Scotland prohibiting the playing of the games of gowf and futball as these were a distraction from archery practice for military purposes. Bans were again imposed several times during the time, last time under King James IV of Scotland, but golf clubs and balls were bought for him in 1502 when he was visiting Perth, St Andrews and Edinburgh.
The account book of lawyer Sir John Foulis of Ravelston records that he played golf at Musselburgh Links in 1672, and this has been accepted as proving that the Old Links, Musselburgh, is the oldest playing golf course in the world. The oldest surviving rules of golf were written in 1744 for the Company of Gentlemen Golfers and their "Articles and Laws in Playing at Golf, became known as the Leith Rules and the document supports the club's claim to be the oldest golf club, though an almanac published about a century later is the first record of a rival claim that the Royal Burgess Golfing Society had been set up in 1735. The world's oldest golf tournament in existence is the Open Championship, which was first played in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club, in Ayrshire, Scotland.
There is evidence that Scottish soldiers, expatriates and immigrants took the game to British colonies and elsewhere during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the early 1770s, the first African golf course was built on Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone, by British slave traders. The Royal Calcutta Golf Club (1829), and the Mauritius Gymkhana Club (1844) are the oldest golf clubs outside of the British Isles. The club at Pau (1856) in France is the oldest in continental Europe. The 1860s is the period of the development of the Gutty, a golf ball made of Gutta Percha, and Golf began to spread across the rest of the British Isles. In 1880 England had 12 courses, rising to 50 in 1887 and over 1000 by 1914. The game also spread further across the empire.
By the 1880s golf clubs had been established in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Singapore followed in 1891. Courses were also established in several continental European resorts for the benefit of British visitors. In the United States several clubs established in the 1880s can make claim to be the oldest extant in the country, but what is not disputed is that as a result of two competing "National Amateur Championships" being played in 1894. In 1903 a group of British expatriates established the first golf club in Japan, at Kobe. In 1913 the Tokyo Golf club at Komazawa was established for and by native Japanese who had encountered golf in the United States.