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The creation of Golf
The French apparently 'invented' golf and it seems that it is official. No lesser organs than The Times and The Scotsman have reported on the findings of Michael Flannery and Thomas Leech that golf was first played in 15th century France.

Michael Flannery and Thomas Leech are in the process of producing yet another book of golfing art with appropriate insights into the origins of the game. These two highly perceptive gentlemen base their claim for France as the birthplace of the game on a picture from a 15th century French Book of Hours. It is an illuminated plate contained in the Heures de la Duchesse de Burgogne which art historians believe was produced between 1450 and 1460 and which ultimately ended up in the hands of Adelaide de Savoy, the duchess of Burgundy.

Although reported as something of a coup, Sir Guy Campbell in fact discoursed on this topic in the early 1920s. Sir Guy, however, had nous enough to appreciate that the game depicted was simply one of many ball and stick games that have come and gone throughout history, as have over-interpreted claims of precedence in the origins of golf.

According to the Scotsman's report, Flannery and Leech back the claim made by Herr Gillmeister, a German academic and sports historian, that the golf played in Scotland in the 15th century was little more than a form of hockey. For those less well informed than Herr Gillmeister, the game that he refers to was, together with football, 'utterly cried down' and archery was encouraged for the defence of the realm. This was contained in an edict issued by James the Second in 1459 and as edicts go had little effect for it was issued again in a more appealing way some years later.

Our monarch was not referring to golf at all, according to Gillmeister, although the King specifically spelled it out in case future continental historians misinterpreted and got it confused with hurling or shinty. These games would hardly have been discouraged for they were not altogether bad because they often ended in violence and disorder, just the stuff for the infantry.

The sharpest of minds have never been able to resist the old chestnut of Flemish traders bringing the game to Scotland from the Low Countries. 'Kolve' or 'Kolf' are just too close to 'gowf' and 'goff', the early phonetic spellings of the game in Scotland. Claims for continental precedence are almost as old as the literature of the game and have been employed for equally as long to kick-start book sales. There is nothing like a sensation to generate hype, even although the sensation is a hoary, whiskered one.

Does anybody in their right mind actually believe that golf was invented? Is there anybody out there who thinks that somebody or some group of people sat down and had the idea of playing golf? Certainly no sane Scot to the best of my knowledge has ever claimed that the game was 'invented' in Scotland. What is surely undeniably true is that the modern game that we call golf came to be in Scotland. This was its birthplace and its nursery. It was the place where it saw its early development, where it came of age and from where it was disseminated to the rest of the world - even to France, specifically to the Garve de Pau in the early 19th century.

Golf evolved as every other game has evolved through time. Indeed, it could be argued that golf is currently evolving faster than ever for modern clubs bear less resemblance to those of only 50 years ago than does a mid-20th century club to those of 100 years earlier.

As recently as the 1850s the founders of Westward Ho! resolved to adopt the Scots game of golf, implying that there was an alternative at the time. We know little of what went before the mid-18th century because the game was but a trivial Scottish pastime, its play restricted to the links lands of the east coast of the country. What we can be sure of though is that the game that we play today bears as much resemblance to what went before as does a thoroughbred horse to a Clydesdale.

There have always been ball and stick games. The Roman scribes described several that the legions enjoyed and the European races would doubtless have become proficient in one or other of them in the same way that they adopted other Roman cultural attributes. We can be absolutely certain that all of these games, in one form or another, would find their way to St Andrews. As the major place of religious pilgrimage in northern Europe, the devout of the continent made their way to St Andrews to atone for their sins in the cathedral where St Andrew's bones were believed to lie. Without doubt they would have brought their ball and stick games with them and the academics and the clerics of this university city would have tried them all enthusiastically. What happened here in St Andrews was that the best and the worst features of these games were assimilated into what came to be known as golf.

With time and energy aplenty, the clerics of the cathedral and the academics of the university were surely responsible for driving the evolution of the game. The links lands and the gambling scions of the gentry exerted the selective pressures upon it and were the agents for dispensing it about the country. In the evolution of golf, the ball and stick games of France and the Low Countries are about as relevant as Neanderthals in the evolution of man - at the closest, a sub-species.

In recent times there has been something like a quest for the origin of golf not unlike that in the Dark Ages for the Holy Grail and it is equally as fatuous. It should be clear, even to the dullest and dimmest, that no one 'invented' golf for no one could have been that harebrained. It should also be clear that only the Scots could have brought the game into being for only the Scots are that sufficiently perverse.

Interpreting art works is certainly an intellectual exercise but it is not brain surgery or rocket science. Conclusions drawn should be stated as tentative for fear that they be accepted as fact. With a bit of flannel and timely press leeching, sensation without foundation can result and fictions become fact. One only has to recall the ventures of van de Velde (pictured above) to appreciate the lengths to which some people will go to create a sensation and such antics are simply not consistent with the foundations of golf.

©    5 - JANUARY 2004

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