Even today it's still very difficult to tell what are the true and deep origins of the game of golf. Different hypothesis are in opposition and all have pros and cons supported by distinguished historians. We just limit here to give our preference to the "jeu de mail" - but may be the "chole" was already a forerunner - see below for authorised sources.
  The "jeu de mail" (aka pall-mall game). Played in France since the 16th century, the "jeu de mail" shows many similarities with the game of golf, especially regarding rules and attitudes. It's for this game we know the earliest printed rules :  Lauthier 1717 (from which these two engravings were extracted).
  Different variants exist. The one which looks like very closely to the game of golf was called "mail a la chicane" and was played in the open country. This game lasted in the south of France (in the neighbourhood of Aix and Montpellier) until the early 20th century.
The greatest upholder of this theory is certainly Harry B. Wood ("Golfing Curios and the Like", 1910) and more recently Fred Hawtree ("Triple Bauge. Promenade in Mediaval Golf", 1996) who demonstrate how R. Browning (see below) was misleaded.  
The "chole" (or soule) was played in Flandres and in the North of France. It could have been practiced near Angers. Anyway, it's an appealing theory that was developped by Robert Browning ("A history of Golf", 1955) : there is evidence that the game was played in France since 1353. Then the scots came and help french soldiers fighting against british army during the battle of Bauge (1421). At that time they could have seen people playing "chole". In other respect, we know that James the 1st, king of Scotland, in 1424, had forbidden to play football and James II, in 1457, extended this prohibition to the game of golf. Those interdictions were taken not to distrub the archery from practicing their skills. It is now natural to think that golf took a huge extension in Scotland between these two dates : it was not necessary to forbid it's practice in 1424, it was a must in 1457. And the development occurs just after the battle of Bauge.
This game of chole is still played in the north of France and in Belgium :  Modern game of chole  
Het Kolven. During the 14th century, in the Low Countries, was played a game which is also very similar to golf. It is played in the open country and the player has to drive a ball far away, aiming a goal (a door, a tree ...).
It is also interested to notice some phonetic similarities between "golf" and "kolven" (by the way : "chole" could have been pronounced "kole" - as it is still an habit in the North of France to change the "ch" into "k"). More, during the 17th century, the only golf courses in Scotland were in front of the Low Countries, with which trading and commerce was highly developped. One of the oldest defendors of this theory was Robert Clarke ("Golf : A Royal and Ancient Game", 1875).  
Other games ? A ball, a stick, a goal to reach ... A lot of games not very well known exists. Let's just remind  paganica (in Rome), shinty (en South America), ti-khi (Laos) a kind of ritual "mail"...


It seems that the Scots are those who invented the hole - making the golf a game similar to the one we know nowadays. This is not absolutely sure but this hypothesis is the most commonly shared. All the games we listed above consisted to hit a target (a tree, a post, a door ...) but not to hole out a ball.  
On the other hand, it is undoubted that the game grew and developped really in Scotland to reach the form we know today.  
We already gave the first written reference to golf : in 1457, James II prohibited the game of golf. During the 18th century real structures appear : the first rules were written in Saint-Andrews on the 14th of May, 1754 (and were a replication of those written 10 years before in Leith). The first club is created in 1764 : the "Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers".


We just gave some key dates in the evolution of the game.
Additionnal details can be found in the chapter :   Golf History in Continental Europe  
PaysDateNom du club
India1829Calcutta (then Bombay in 1842)
Australia1839New South Wales GC
France1856Pau, first golf on the Continent
USA1888St Andrews GC, Yonkers, New-York
Hong Kong1891Hong Kong
Japan1903Kobe, Mont Rokko
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