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Chapter One: History

Golf is impossible to trace to a moment of inception. That’s because there never was a moment. Golf evolved, and in citing the origin of that evolution we may engage in speculation or rely on documented accounts. The problem with speculation is that legends and myths abound. The trouble with documentation is that written histories are typically in service of the political interests in power, viz., propaganda.

The earliest documented evidence of golf is in the Brussels city records office in Belgium. That document is a 1360 ordinance that prohibits the playing of colf, an early Dutch equivalent of golf that was played within the city walls. The 1360 ban was enacted to save urban citizenry from bodily harm and property damage in the wake of smashed windows and mud-spattered dwellings and people.

Dutch officials levied a fine of twenty shillings for disobedience and failure to pay resulted in the confiscation of an offender’s clothes, which could be redeemed upon payment of the fine.

The next document in evidence of golf’s origin is dated December 4, 1387, St. Barbara’s Day. Albrecht of Bavaria, Regent of Holland, yielded to Church pressure and sealed a charter forbidding gambling in Brielle, Netherlands. This ordinance, which made all wagering unlawful, exempted colf as it was one of the favorite games among the counts of Holland. Albrecht later gifted land to the city of Haarlem in perpetuity for a colf field, the first public golf course on record.

A Flemish Book of Hours from the 1500s in the British Museum shows how early colfers putted from a kneeling position close to the hole. The clubs illustrated had iron heads and the balls were of a brown wood.

With the exception of Haarlem there were no mown courses in golf’s early centuries and spring and summer play was nearly prohibitive due to the high grass. Autumn and winter months were the practical playing seasons as depicted in landscapes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Dutch portraiture of the period often showed children holding colf clubs and balls, but the Eighty Years War with the Spanish made it inappropriate to see a man handling game implements. The preferred pose for a man was as a proud soldier, or as a respectable tycoon engaged in economic warfare against the Spaniards.

Active trade between Holland and Scotland commenced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with Dutch ships docking at seaports on Scotland’s east coast. Ships of that era could not sail against the wind, which often meant that Dutch crews were stranded at Scotland’s eastern seaports for weeks and months at a time.

What is interesting is that golf remained on the east coast of Scotland until the mid-nineteenth century, which supports the notion that Dutch sailors brought golf to Scotland.

The earliest document in Scotland that references golf is a March 6, 1457 Articles of Parliament in which King James II decreed that fute-ball and golfe be utterly cryit doune and nacht usit. The King believed that golfe compromised the Scots’ readiness to defend against the neighboring English, who were superior archers. In addition to ruling golf illegal, the King mandated that all Scotsmen would practice their bow and arrow skills.

Few Scots were discouraged by the 1457 Parliamentary Act. Golfers defiantly persisted by taking their game to the pastures and dunes, playing with crude sticks and feather-stuffed balls. This defiance brought about stiffer anti-golf legislation in 1491 that not only fined the golfers, but also the landowners where golf was being played.

King James IV, who had ascended to the Scottish throne in 1488, was talked into actually trying golf in spite of his opinion that is was not a game worthy of a man’s skill and strength. With a condescending air the King brandished a club and attempted to prove his point. A few whiffs and near misses perplexed him and brought him out to the royal turf again the next day. The challenge to his pride kept him swinging, eventually with fair aplomb, until he died in battle in 1513.

James IV’s conversion to golfe did not have any legislative effects but enforcement subsided and popularity of the game soared.

James V carried the golfe tradition forward by having his own course built at Gosford in East Lothian. His favorite playing partner was the Earl of Wemyss and the king had a local rule that only wooden club heads could be used in order to prevent damage to his royal course. His enthusiasm for golfe was inherited by his daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots.

While at school in France, she called the boys who carried her clubs “cadets” and this became the origin for the term caddie, the French pronunciation making the “t” silent. Mary stayed and played at St. Andrews in 1563, raising the ire of critics who considered her golf activity unbecoming of a queen. These same critics saw Mary admonished during a trial in 1567 for her insensitivity in playing golf in the fields outside Seton only two days after the murder of her husband, Darnley.

In 1608 Mary’s son, James VI, who later became King James I of the United kingdoms of Scotland and England, longed to play golf while in England on a hunting holiday. He convinced the English monarch to lay out a course of seven holes at Blackheath near London. Royal Blackheath became the center of a heated dispute when Englishmen claimed it to be the first official golf club.

The dispute culminated about seventy-five years later with a challenge match for bragging rights to the birthplace of golf. James II, grandson of James I, had become the Duke of York but vehemently defended Scotland, specifically St. Andrews, as the original home of organized golf. The Duke and a cobbler named John Patersone proceeded to defeat soundly two English noblemen who played to defend Royal Blackheath’s honor. This was the first international golf match of record and it was played on Leith Links in Scotland.

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