The origins of golf – where did it all begin?

The origins of golf – where did it all begin?

The origins of golf are shrouded in the mists of time, with many uncertainties.  

What is certain is that no one knows for sure when or where golf first started.

St Andrews is recognised worldwide as “the home of golf”.

Although millions of golfers around the world perceive the “auld grey toun” as such, and many make “pilgrimages” to St Andrews, there is no certainty that St Andrews is, indeed, the original home of golf. 

In fact, there are older golf clubs in Scotland than St Andrews. 

Scholars allude to early stories and pictures of games that are similar to golf, being played around Europe in places other than Scotland.

This all adds to the confusion.

 

James II of Scotland, who banned the playing of golf in Scotland, in 1457, in order that they might practice their archery skills.

By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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What is the evidence?

Here is some of the evidence that scholars have put forward as contenders for the origins of golf.

Gloucester Cathedral

The first place to visit in seeking the origins of golf is the stained glass of the Great East window of Gloucester Cathedral where there is a sketch illustrating scenes from the battle of Crecy in France. This depicts a man apparently attempting to hit a ball in a golf-like manner. 

This dates from around 1350.

Some people have suggested that golf was therefore known in England around this time. However this is thought to be extremely unlikely, with the likely source of the depiction being the English pastime of Cambuca or the Flemish game of Chole.

This image shows a small section of the Great East stained-glass window at Gloucester Cathedral

Reproduced by the kind courtesy of Chris Smith and Gloucester Cathedral

Cambuca

Cambuca was an English pastime of the time, similar to the earlier Roman game of Paganica. In both cases the player stood side-on to the ball and attempted to hit it with the wooden club. In Paganica the ball was made of leather and feathers and in Cambuca it was made of wood.

Chole

Chole was an ancient Flemish game that was played with a beech-wood ball and a club made from a wooden shaft with forged iron heads. 

Chole could be a possible forerunner of golf and is still played in southern Belgium and so could well represent a stepping stone in the search for the origins of golf. It is a team game where the ball is hit by the team to a distant target, sometimes many miles away. The target might be anything – a tree, stone, tower, door or anything that takes their fancy. The team has three strokes to propel the ball as far as possible towards the target, they then stand back while their opponents then have the next blow in order to propel the ball as far away from the target as possible or into an awkward position.

However this sounds as if it was more like large scale croquet than golf.

The Flemish artist, Paul Bril, pictured the scene of chole players in 1624.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Jeu de mail

Jeu de mail was a French game that arrived in England around the 17th century and became very popular in London. The game, named Pall Mall in England, was played in a court called a Mall, which was usually around 14 feet in width, and up to 800 yards long. The Mall of London, today, was originally laid out to play the game. 

The object of the game was to strike a wooden ball with a small mallet like club through an “archet”, a small arch like structure at the other end of the mall, in as few strokes as possible.

This game had many similarities with golf, and although they did not use these terms, they had the equivalent of tees, caddies, green-keepers, professionals, clubhouses, penalties, handicaps and shouts of “Gare” meaning “Fore”.

Mary Queen of Scots was a keen player of both golf and Jeu de mail. There is a painting showing her playing golf at St Andrews in 1563.

But how Jeu to mail influenced the origins of golf we just do not know.

Mary Queen of Scots was a keen player of both golf and jeu to mail. This picture, by an anonymous Victorian artist, shows her at St. Andrews in 1563. Four years later she was seen playing golf at Seton House, shortly after her husband’s death, evidence that was used at her trial for complicity in his death.

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Kolf or colf

There is no doubt that there was a game called colf that originated in Holland that has many similarities with golf as we know it.

“Enjoying the Ice” from a painting by Hendrick Avercamp, c 1615, shows kolf being played on ice.

By kind permission of the Rijksmuseum

A researcher and author called van Henkel has traced Dutch writings back to a game of colf taking place on Boxing Day 1297, at Loenen aan de Vecht in northern Holland. The townsfolk played four “holes” measuring a total; of 4950 yards. The occasion was to commemorate the relieving of Kroenenburg Castle 12 months earlier. It is reasonably argued therefore that colf was already popular at this time.

However the targets were not holes but four doors – in a castle, a windmill, a kitchen and a courthouse. 

Landscape artists also depict people playing colf in Holland towards the end of the 16th century. These depictions are mostly of the game being played on ice, and eventually the target became a hole in the ice or ground with a pole marking the position of the hole. 

“Golfers on The Ice near Haarlem”, painted by Adriaen van de Velde around 1668,.

By kind permission of the National Gallery, London

Colf suddenly disappeared in Holland in the early 18th century to be replaced by Kolf, a much shorter version of the game, played on a course about the length of a cricket pitch (22 yards). 

There is no doubt that in the long version of colf the equipment was very similar to early golf in Scotland, with leather balls and long nosed wooden cleeks.

A Winter Scene with Two Gentlemen Playing Colf, by Hendrick Avercamp c 1615.

Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The home of Golf?

So did golf in Scotland evolve entirely on its own?, or was there some influence from these other games?

We can only conjecture as there are no definitive written records. 

It is very certain that there was trading and commerce between Scotland and Holland from the medieval times and likely therefore that there was some cross fertilisation of the development of golf in its early days. 

It is possible therefore that Dutch traders introduced colf to the Scots, who in turn refined it into golf. But it may also be possible that Scots traders introduced their golf clubs to Holland.

We shall never know the truth!

The origins of golf and its early history remain unknown.

What we can confidently state is that golf in its current form probably did develop in Scotland and we can very confidently state that Scotland is the home of golf as we now know it. 

Furthermore, the establishment of 18 holes as being the standard design for a golf course did originate at St Andrews in 1764.

The MacDonald boys playing golf, by Jeremiah Davison (1695–1750)

from F Maclean, Highlanders, A History Of The Highland Clans, 1995, Public Domain

Furthermore, the establishment of 18 holes as being the standard design for a golf course did originate at St Andrews in 1764. 

The first written mentions of golf were prompted by the desire of the Kings of Scotland to have an army that was ready and prepared for a war with the English. They wanted their subjects to practice archery rather than waste their time on games. 

In 1457 King James II of Scotland declared: 

It is decreeted and ordained, that the Weapon-schawinges be halden be the Lordes and Baronnes Spiritual and Temporal, four times in the zeir. And that the Fute-ball and Golfe be utterly cryed downe, and not to be used. . . . And as tuitching the Fute-ball and the Golfe, to be punished by the Barronniss un-law , , , , And that all men, that is within fiftie, and past twelve zeires, shall use schuting“. 

There followed similar decrees by James III of Scotland in 1471 and by James IV of Scotland in 1491.

James III of Scotland

Wikimedia Commons

What is clear is that golf was being played in Scotland in 1457 and had probably been played for many eons before that. But this does not help us in the quest for the origins of golf.

In the end, we will just have to leave it as an unproven assumption that the origins of golf as we know are in Scotland.

And why should we not?

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