From Whence We Came: The Origins of Golf

When I was fourteen my Dad gave me a hickory-shafted Brown-Vardon putter made in Scotland around 1910.  I’ve used it numerous times since when playing with other antique hickory weapons and gutta percha balls, and it always gives me pause to consider where the clubs have been and the history they have seen.  Yet even before the days of hickories and featherie and gutta balls, there existed other versions of the game most people know nothing of.  Numerous theories exist as to how golf evolved, and upon closer examination one can see that golf shares certain elements of various games. 

 We know that the Romans played a game called paganica, in which players with bent sticks hit a large leather ball stuffed with feathers, but for what purpose we do not know.  As far back as 872, at the coronation of King Alfred, there were accounts of people entertaining themselves by “driving balls wide over the fields,” in what might have been the world’s first long-drive contest.  The earliest traces of golf being played is said to date back to 1340, as captured in a sketch from a stained glass window in England’s Gloucester Cathedral.  It depicts scenes of the French Battle of Crécy and shows a man swinging some kind of club in a golf-like manner.  It was probably not actually golf, but the old English game of cambuca, which involved a club and a wooden ball. 

 Chole, a game which still survives in parts of Belgium and Northern France, resembles something between hockey and golf, and was first referenced in 1353.  It was a cross-country game played with an iron club and beachwood ball.  The “goal” was a cemetery gate, church door, large rock, or similar object, often located as far away as five to ten miles. Opponents bid on how many number of “turns” (of three strokes each) it would take to reach the goal, and if they didn’t reach the target in the agreed upon number of turns, the opponent was entitled to give the ball a whack backwards or into some bad patch of rough ground.

 Around 1400, another stick-and-ball game was played in Holland; kolven or kolf.  It was not a field game but was played in a walled space or court. Players used a straight faced club (called a “kolf”), usually made of brass, and a two-pound leather ball.  Two posts about five inches in diameter were set up on the end of a court anywhere from 40 to 130 feet apart.  The object was to hit the post at the far side and then return to do the same to the one on the near side.  The team to accomplish the feat in the least number of attempts was the winner.  It would also be played on ice, like hockey.  But as one golf historian put it, kolf is no more golf than cricket is poker.

 The French played a couple of games purported to have inspired golf; soule and jeu de mail.  Soule appears to have been something like the local French version of chole.  Jeu de mail was another cross-country stick and ball game, but played by a single player retaining his own ball throughout the contest.

In the end we are left with various theories, but the origins of the game of golf are hidden in the mists of antiquity.  One way or another, we know that the game did make its way to Scotland, as a 1552 charter established rights of playing golf and football on the grounds near the present day Old Course.  St. Andrews had the good fortune to be the ecclesiastical capital of medieval Scotland, with a port connecting it to European traders.    The theory goes that men passed the time by hitting a ball along the ocean shores to some far off target, until someone had the bright idea to dig a hole in the ground for the ball to be hit into.  Back and forth they’d go, playing this silly game, until the locals poked their noses in and asked what all the fuss was about.  And so was born competition.  As far as the name of the game is concerned, the old Scottish verb “to gowf,” means “to strike hard.”  The game we call “golf” probably came from that word.

When I read books on golf history, I am impressed to consider that someone so long ago recorded these events.  There is comfort in this history.  I only hope that one day, future generations will find the same fascination with what came before and imagine how Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods shot the scores they did with such “primitive” equipment, just as we marvel at how the likes of Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones could have ever broken 70 using the clubs and balls available to them.  For whether it’s a hickory shafted play club from the 1700s or a modern graphite shafted titanium driver, the player still has to execute the shot properly.  The human element remains – only the time and the players change.  The ball must still be put in the hole and there lies the equitable simplicity of this ancient game.


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