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The Story of Golf


by George Peper

Where it began, no one knows. The origin is lost in the mists of time.
     It might have been on a country road in Normandy, or in an alley near the Roman forum. It might have been among sand dunes above the North Sea, or on a hillside overlooking Peking. It might have been in a field in Flanders or a courtyard in London or on the frozen surface of a Dutch canal.
     No one can say precisely where or when the game of golf was born, but one thing is certain: No other form of recreation has transfixed its practitioners with such engaging appeal.
     Today, as we approach the twenty-first century, hardly a country in the civilized world remains untouched by the glorious epidemic that is golf. Its lure is difficult to define and impossible to exaggerate-an obsession that can begin at any age and last a lifetime.
     The elemental appeal of golf stems from one of man's primal instincts: the urge to strike an object with a stick. Indeed, reasonable skill in club-swinging surely was key to the survival of the caveman. It's not hard to envision homo erectus hefting a sturdy tree limb to swat at stones or bones or whatever came into his path. In this sense, the notion-or at least the motion-of golf is older than civilization itself. Fundamentally, golf was not invented but was born within us.
     But it was civilization that gave the game its spin. Depending on whom we choose to believe, the first primeval golf shots were struck somewhere between two thousand and six hundred years ago. The earliest possible ancestor dates to the Roman Empire. It seems that the Roman soldiers were enthusiastic sportsmen, and one of the ways they kept in fighting trim was by playing paganica, a game in which they swatted at a feather-stuffed ball with curved sticks. But all evidence suggests that this was a team sport, and that the ball the troops were striking was moving, not stationary. Thus, if paganica was the forerunner of a modern game, it was more likely field hockey than golf.
     Illustrated scrolls from the early Ming Dynasty (mid- to late-1300s) depict something called suigan, described as "a game in which you hit a ball with a stick while walking." At least one scholar has suggested that the silk traders of the late Middle Ages might have exported this or a similar game to Europe, where it was spun and refined into golf.
     A stained glass window in England's Gloucester Cathedral, dating from the mid-fourteenth century, shows a figure wielding a stick in the middle of a distinctly golf-like backswing. Was this golf? Possibly. But it might also have been another stick-and-ball game, with the exotic name cambuca, which was known to be played in England at the time
     Across the English Channel, the French had taken to a rather genteel courtyard game called jeu de mail. Originally developed in Italy, it was a curious blend of billiards, croquet, and miniature golf, played with long-handled mallets and large wooden balls within a well-defined area. The object was to hit the ball through one or more iron hoops, using the fewest possible strokes.
     Jeu de mail caught on briefly in England where it became the rage of the ruling class under the name "pall mall." It was first played in London on the street with the same name, which now runs between Buckingham Palace and Piccadilly Circus. Back in 1629, King Charles I was an avid pall maller, and the court of St. James included an impressive one thousand-yard-long area for royal play.
     By the eighteenth century, however, this game had played out except in southern France, where a more expansive version saw the Basques hitting over hill and dale to targets such as the sides of barns and pasture gates. Shades of golf there, for sure.
     Meanwhile, in Belgium they were hooked on chole, a game with a delightfully spiteful quality. It was played cross country, usually in teams, with the players wielding heavy iron clubs to propel an egg-shaped wooden ball distances of up to four hundred yards. A target —a church door, a tree, almost anything—was established, sometimes as much as a mile away, and then the two teams bid on the number of shots needed to hit it. The low-bidding team led off by taking three strokes toward the target. Then the opponents—known as decholeurs—were allowed one stroke to send the ball into the nastiest possible trouble. Thereafter, the offense resumed pursuit with three more strokes, followed by one more for the defense, and so on until the bid was either hit or missed.
     But whether these games of the Renaissance era bore any resemblance to golf is of little consequence, because by that time golf itself was well entrenched along the eastern coast of Scotland.
     Indeed, the best candidate for a true forefather of the Scottish game comes from the people across the North Sea, the Dutch, who back in the thirteenth century were playing a game that bears a more than passing similarity to golf. And the name of that game? Colf, spelled c-o-l-f.
     As early as 1296 the Dutch had a colf course, and a formidable one at that. It stretched forty-five hundred yards for just four holes-except that they weren't holes, they were doors-to a kitchen, a windmill, a castle, and a courthouse. Four-door models such as this were undoubtedly typical, but no target was off limits to the colf-crazed Dutchmen, who pursued their balls through churchyards, cemeteries, and smack through the centers of their own towns, often wreaking havoc with the local citizenry. The winners usually collected a barrel of beer from the losing side, which means the original "Nineteenth Hole" actually was the fifth.
     Ultimately, when the toll of personal injuries and broken glass became insupportable, the "colfers" were banished to the countryside during the warmer months, and, in winter, to the frozen lakes and rivers where they directed their shots toward poles in the ice.
     Numerous richly detailed landscape paintings done by the Dutch Masters show us that colf remained popular in Holland for at least four hundred years. By the early 1700s, however, the game had mysteriously vanished.
     Where did it go? In all probability, to Scotland. After all, it doesn't take a Ph.D. in linguistics to make a connection between the words "colf" and "golf." The implements used were very similar, the balls nearly identical. And, above all, there is the compelling evidence of geography.
     By 1650, golf—spelled the way we spell it today—was well-rooted in the fabric of a dozen or so cities along Scotland's east coast. One look at the map shows that the coast was but a short sail from more than forty commercial centers of Holland. Trade between the two countries was brisk, dating back to medieval times, and evidence exists that the Scots exported wooden colf clubs to the Dutch (along with wool and other products), while the Dutch returned with rudimentary colf balls. And there are numerous paintings of the period showing Scotsmen in kilts playing a ball-and-stick game on the ice as the Dutch did.
     But, no matter where the seeds of golf were sown, without question it was the Scots who gave the game its unique character, the Scots who combined the elements of distance off the tee and deftness into the green, and the Scots who ingrained the notion of each player advancing independently toward the hole, without interference from his opponents. (The Scots were largely Calvinists, who knew that the greatest sins, deserving the greatest punishment, always came from within. How perfectly applicable to golf.)
     From the very beginning, this game was dangerously addictive. Indeed, the first written evidence of golf is a parliamentary decree banning it for reasons of national security. In 1457, King James II of Scotland declared "that futeball and golfe be utterly cryit doune and nocht usit." Back then, the Scots were at war with England and the principal weapons of combat were the bow and arrow. But it seems the Scottish lads had been neglecting their archery practice in favor of golf.
     Similar edicts were issued in the subsequent reigns of James III and IV . . . and were largely ignored. But when James IV married the daughter of England's King Henry IV, the conflict with the English suddenly ended-and so did the conflict with golfers. In fact, James IV himself became the first of a long line of royals who took to the links. In the account books of his court it is noted that funds were spent for the purchase of golf clubs and balls, and there also is the settling of a golf bet which the king lost. Legend also holds that in 1567 Mary Queen of Scots was so smitten with the game that she teed up the day after her husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered; this was, in fact, one of the charges leveled against her that eventually cost her the crown, her head, and a chance to win the rubber match.
     In 1604, the King of England appointed a royal clubmaker, and soon after that, a seven-hole course was laid out near London on the Black Heath by the River Thames. Nearly four hundred years later, Royal Blackheath still sits there, although it wasn't established as a club until 1766.
     Despite the royal seal of approval, golf in those days was an equal opportunity pastime, open to anyone with a couple of clubs, a ball, and the urge for some light exercise. One of the first written accounts of the game—a description of play on the Links of Leith, near Edinburgh—extols its democratic spirit.
     "The greatest and wisest of the land were to be seen mingling freely with the humblest mechanics in the pursuit of their common and beloved amusement. All distinctions of rank were leveled by the joyous spirit of the game."
     It was an informal, almost free-form activity back then, with no rules, few guidelines (although playing on the Sabbath was, for a time, illegal), and no tournaments or competitions except for casual matches among friends. All evidence suggests that the Scots played this disorganized brand of golf for at least three centuries.
     Just as disorganized, certainly by modern standards, were the methods used to play the early game. Instead of one way to swing there were as many swings as there were villages with courses of their own. The townspeople tended to copy the technique of the local champion, who usually hit on a set-up and swing that allowed him to conquer the vagaries of his local weather.
     The Scottish coast is constantly buffeted by sea breezes, so the most successful golfers learned to hit the ball on a low trajectory that kept it under the wind. To accomplish this, they learned to spread their feet far apart (as much as a yard), aim their bodies to the right of the target, position the ball well back in the stance, and bend their knees deeply. Then they whipped the club around their bodies (rather than up and down, as we do today) on a markedly horizontal plane that further encouraged low flight. The ball flew just a few feet off the ground, traveling only about 150 yards, and would then run a long way after hitting the hard turf of the windblown links.
     As the game spread, more methods and champions developed. Word of great play traveled from town to town. And, inevitably, a desire arose to determine the best golfer in the land. It was at that point that the game as we know it began to take shape. 

From The Story of Golf, by George Peper. Copyright 1999 by Cramer Productions. Excerpted by arrangement with TV Books. $45. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-242-7737, or click here.