June 14, 2006
On The Tee, In The Swing Again
Whenever I ask golfers about the origins of golf, the country of Scotland is somewhere in their first sentence.
As best I know, the ancient Scots were most likely playing golf in its most primitive form by simply swinging a club at a ball and moving from hole to hole in the fewest number of strokes. Take into account that this scenario was being played out roughly (no pun intended) by the middle of the fifteenth century. I also believe there was quite a great deal of alcohol involved.
In 1457, a full 35 years before Chris Columbus stumbled upon this large slab of land called North America, Scotland's King James II issued a ban against golf, as did his successors James II in 1471 and James IV twenty years later. I thought it more than comical to learn that the archers to the kings became so enamored with chasing the small ball that they forgot to attend to the practices which would enable them to better protect their royal charges.
It appears that the first-known rules for the game of golf were written in Edinburgh in 1744. While the Scots delight in taking credit for the game's creation, there is a ton of evidence to show that they were influenced by earlier, similar games. According to the U.S.G.A. Museum, their records indicate that, "While many Scots maintain that golf evolved from a family of stick and ball games...evidence shows that similar games were also played in France and Germany."
If you are into the origin of words, golf or "goff", it can be traced back to a medieval Dutch word, "koff", which translates to the word "club." Thus the Dutch can support their claim to the sport as they had been chasing around a small ball on ice as early as the fourteenth century. (Try mentioning any of this at a gathering of Scotsmen and see what happens.)
I have always been curious about why 18 holes made up an official round and discovered that the standardization can be attributed to St. Andrews. Prior to 1900, it wasn't at all strange to find courses that had whatever number of holes the property could manage. Somewhere around 1764, the course at St. Andrews set 18 holes as the official count, although it still took more than a hundred years for golfers to pay attention.
Eventually, rules were drawn up, and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews proclaimed that one round of links equaled a match and 18 holes must be completed. I suppose that the rest of Great Britain was looking for a role model to copy, so they adopted the ideas. Actually, it was probably easier on the players to have some kind of conformity while taking on a very difficult game.
If you look at most of our newer golf courses today, you'll notice that they advertise a links-type design. It just so happens that the coastal areas of Scotland have such sandy soil that growing crops would be almost impossible. Some ancient genius hanging on the family tree came up with the brilliant idea that a golf course could make good use of arable land. The rest became history.
Since these rather worthless pieces of land fringed the shorelines, sand traps became a natural part of the design. They were sunk deeply to keep the onshore breezes from blowing all the sand away. Not having figured this out on my own, I was shocked to learn that these bunkers were not meant to simply aggravate my already-challenged patience!
I guess it's all logical, yet it still makes me laugh to think about those ancient kings in their castles, scowling about their archers and footmen running wildly after a tiny ball instead of defending the mighty crown. Off with their heads!
Next time around, I'll take this column more seriously and begin to discuss some of our local courses which have their designs enmeshed within some of golf's most ancient designs. I tip my hat to one of Scotland's most cherished possessions. It's truly good to be back in the swing again!