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Golf is a precision club-and-ball sport, in which competing players (golfers), using many types of clubs, attempt to hit balls into each hole on a golf course while employing the fewest number of strokes. Golf is one of the few ball games that does not require a standardized playing area. Instead, the game is played on golf "courses", each of which features a unique design, although courses typically consist of either nine or 18 holes. Golf is defined, in the rules of golf, as "playing a ball with a club from the teeing ground into the hole by a stroke or successive strokes in accordance with the Rules." Golf competition is generally played for the lowest number of strokes by an individual, known simply as stroke play, or the lowest score on the most individual holes during a complete round by an individual or team, known as match play.

The origin of golf is unclear and open to debate. Some historians[who?] trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, in which participants used a bent stick to hit a stuffed leather ball. One theory asserts that paganica spread throughout Britain and Europe as the Romans conquered much of the continent, during the first century B.C., and eventually evolved into the modern game. Others cite chuiwan ("chui" means striking and "wan" means small ball) as the progenitor, a Chinese game played between the eighth and 14th centuries. The game is thought to have been introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages. Another early game that resembled modern golf was known as cambuca in England and chambot in France. This game was, in turn, exported to the Low Countries, Germany, and England (where it was called pall-mall, pronounced "pell mell"). Some observers, however, believe that golf descended from the Persian game, chaugán. In addition, kolven (a game involving a ball and curved bats) was played annually in Loenen, Netherlands, beginning in 1297, to commemorate the capture of the assassin of Floris V, a year earlier.

According to the most widely accepted account, however, the modern game originated in Scotland around the 12th century, with shepherds knocking stones into rabbit holes on the current site of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.

A golf course consists of a series of holes, each with a teeing area that is set off by two markers showing the bounds of the legal tee area, fairway, rough and other hazards, and the putting green surrounded by the fringe with the pin (flagstick) and cup. Different levels of grass are varied to increase difficulty, or to allow for putting in the case of the green. While many holes are designed with a direct line-of-sight from the tee-off point to the green, some of the holes may bend, either to the left or to the right. This is called a "dogleg", in reference to a dog's knee. The hole is called a "dogleg left" if the hole angles leftwards and vice versa; sometimes, a hole's direction can bend twice and is called a "double dogleg". A typical golf course consists of 18 holes but nine hole courses are common and can be played twice through for 18 holes.

Early Scottish golf courses were primarily laid out on links land, soil covered sand dunes directly inland from beaches. This gave rise to the term golf links, particularly applied to seaside courses and those built on naturally sandy soil inland.

Penalties are incurred in certain situations. They are counted towards a player's score as if there were extra swing(s) at the ball. Strokes are added for rule infractions or for hitting one's ball into an unplayable situation. A lost ball or a ball hit out of bounds result in a penalty of one stroke and distance. (Rule 27-1) A one stroke penalty is assessed if a player's equipment causes the ball to move or the removal of a loose impediment causes the ball to move. (Rule 18-2)