March 30, 2023

Golf is known as a classy sport for a cultured player, but according to a new exhibit, it has a dark history linked to colonial exploitation.

Researchers at the University of St Andrews claim that the game was ‘imposed’ by the British Empire in colonial countries around the world in the 19th century.

Golf is linked to imperial exploitation by the British because balls were once made with rubber harvested from these colonial areas, they say.

Gutta-percha, a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, was harvested to make golf balls for the European market.

St Andrews is known as the ‘home of golf’ for its 600-year playing history, but the university has now explored the sport’s controversial ties in the new exhibit.

Golf balls were the product of colonial exploitation, according to the University of St Andrews, while the game itself was ‘imposed’ around the world by the British Empire (file photo)

Gutta-percha (pictured), a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, is a tree of the genus Palaquium. In the 19th century it was harvested to make golf balls for the European market

Gutta-percha, a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia, was harvested to make golf balls for the European market

The ‘Re-collecting Empire’ exhibit at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews is now open to the public and will run until October 22.


Gutta percha is a natural rubber material found in trees native to Southeast Asia and is a tree of the genus Palaquium.

In the 19th century it was harvested to make golf balls for the European market.

Due to its natural resilience, it was ideal to create a new ‘gutta ball’, which replaced the older ‘feather ball’, made of feathers and stitched leather.

Gutta-percha core revolutionized golf, according to British science historian James Burke.

It’s part of St Andrews’ pledge to “continue to explore the legacies of the Empire in our collections and explore how we can build a more equitable future.”

It is also part of a broader trend of academic ‘decolonization’ accelerated by the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

“The exhibition opens at a time when museums and galleries in the UK and beyond are rethinking the best care for objects in their collections acquired during periods of colonial rule,” said Dr Emma Bond, exhibition advisor and academic at St Andrews.

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“Multiple voices need to be involved in these important conversations so that museums can move forward in a more equitable way.

“I hope that Re-collecting Empire is the start of a productive and transparent conversation with these groups about how to deal with the legacies of the Empire that are present in the collections of the university.”

Golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century, although it was banned by King James II because playing was a distraction from military training.

Restrictions on playing the game were removed with the Treaty of Glasgow, which came into effect in 1502.

The natural bounce of Gutta percha made it ideal to create a new ‘gutta ball’ (pictured), which replaced the older ‘feather-like ball’ of feathers and stitched leather

Located in the town of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland, Saint Andrews Links is widely recognized as the ‘home of golf’


Good golfers learn to play the sport “inversely” by switching hands when holding the club, a 2021 study found.

From a sample of 150 golfers, researchers found that the successful players tend to hold their golf club in an ‘inverted stance’.

Traditionally, if a person is right-handed, he places his right hand at the bottom of the club when holding it.

Conversely, a right-hander who places his left hand at the bottom would play in a so-called ‘reverse’ stance.

Left-handed people who play right-handed — or vice versa — would have a better chance of excelling in the sport, as great championship winners Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth have shown.

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By the late 1800s, golf had spread to Ireland, the US and other parts of Europe, and it had also reached areas of the British Empire including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Egypt, South Africa, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

But the exhibition claims that both cricket and golf were ‘imposed’ across the empire when British enthusiasts set up clubs abroad.

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A display at the exhibition states: ‘By imitating and imposing British sports in colonized countries, golf and cricket were spread around the world.

“Natural resources from colonized countries were exploited to make sports equipment.”

The information is displayed next to the Karachi Golf Club Cup, the award presented by one of the many British-founded clubs in India during the days of Empire.

Gutta rubber grew most in Malaysia, formerly owned by the British, and some experts have said harvesting the rubber for Western markets caused ecological damage.

Victorian scientists had discovered that the rubber was a perfect and profitable material for covering budding telegraph wires.

Its natural resilience also made it ideal for creating a new ‘gutta ball’, which is said to have been invented in 1843 by St Andrews student Robert Adams Paterson, and which replaced the older ‘feather ball’ made of feathers and stitched leather.

The Re-collecting Empire exhibit also includes displays claiming that European textile mills made wares inspired by styles that originated in the colonies ‘overseas’.

The ‘Re-collecting Empire’ exhibit at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews is now open to the public and will run until October 22

The textile factories thus ‘exploit the original culture’ by exploiting their styles and selling them for a profit.

The exhibition is funded by Museum Galleries Scotland, which has also supported a Scotland-wide review of the national links to the slave trade.

Exhibits also include a copy of the Quran that once belonged to the Sultan of Mysore, a Tibetan stone, a Chinese bell used in sacred ceremonies, and a statue of a Buddhist monk.

Contributions also include personal reflections, notes, and quotes, as well as poetry and art, providing voices and perspectives “often excluded.”

“This exhibition is the result of a lot of careful thought and deliberation about how we approach the colonial legacies in our collection,” said Dr Catherine Eagleton, director of libraries and museums at the University of St Andrews.

“It’s an attempt to publicly explore these stories and try new ways of telling them, with the voices of those who are often excluded in the foreground.”


The game of golf as we know it today can be attributed to the Scots although there have been several stick and ball games throughout history.

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As early as the 13th century, the Dutch played a game in which a leather ball was hit with the intention of reaching a target several hundred meters away.

The winner would be the player who reached the target with the fewest shots.

However, the Scottish variant of the sport was distinguished by the goal of getting the ball into a hole.

When we talk about the modern 18-hole game, golf history dates back to 15th century Scotland.

The game is first mentioned in an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1457, which called for it to be banned alongside football.

King James II of Scotland banned playing games because it was a distraction from military training, so he found perfecting archery more rewarding.

After several more were banned in the 15th century and golf was labeled an unprofitable sport, restrictions on playing the game were lifted when the Glasgow Treaty came into force in 1502.

The oldest recorded rules for the game date back to 1744, when The Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers published ‘Articles and Laws in Playing Golf’.

Today in the National Library of Scotland, this ancient piece of golf history has brought the Muirfield club to fame as the longest standing club in golf history.

Scottish soldiers, immigrants and expatriates played a central role in the history of golf.

They were responsible for the spread of game around the British Isles in the 18th century.

However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the game began to gain an international presence, including in the British Empire.

The oldest golf courses outside of Britain can be found in nearby France, with the establishment of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club in 1829 and the club at Pau in 1856.

By 1880 golf had spread to Ireland, many other parts of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and South Africa.

Meanwhile, the game enjoyed increasing popularity in Great Britain. In 1880 England had 10 golf courses, which had quickly increased to 1000 by 1914.

Source: College of Golf at Keizer University