A mural painting of Yuan dynasty-era chuiwan is preserved on the wall of a Water God Temple in Hungtung county, Shanxi province. The painting depicts a Mongolian official (on the left, wearing a fur hat), Han officials and assistants. The sticks and devices are fairly identical to those of modern golf.
The Scots may well have codified golf as we know it - including, after a few false starts, making it a game of 18 holes. But the jury's still out on who first came up with the idea of an open-air game that involves using a stick to hit a ball towards a target. The Romans played a game called paganica, in which a ball stuffed with feathers and wool was hit with a bent stick, while the Dutch played a stick-and-ball game called colf as early as the 13th century.
But the most intriguing – and in many ways convincing – documented evidence of an early version of golf comes from China. A game called chuiwan (捶丸) – chui meaning to hit and wan meaning ball – became popular in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and was featured in paintings as late as the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Players used ten clubs to hit wooden balls towards brightly coloured flags – sound familiar? They had a club for long distances, a precursor of the modern-day driver, and the tee was called the ji (基), or base in Chinese.
There was even an early equivalent of the R&A Rules of Golf: the Wan Jing (丸经) or Classic of the Ball, published during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). It lays out the rules, and places great emphasis on sportsmanship and correct behaviour – echoes of modern golf, where etiquette is such an important element of the game. There's also a reference in an ancient book to a magistrate of the Southern Tang dynasty (937–976) telling his daughter to "dig holes in the ground" so he could hit a ball into them using a special stick.
The old imperial paintings show clubs bearing a striking similarity to modern golf equipment – long, narrow shafts with distinct heads for striking the ball. One depicts the Ming dynasty's Emperor Xuanzong playing chuiwan on a course that's clearly marked out with flag sticks and that looks identical to a modern putting green.