An Evolutionary Process
The true origins of the game now called golf have been hotly debated over the years, as throughout history almost every civilisation has played some form of game with a club and a ball. Various competing ideas have been put forward as to its initial derivation and over the years there have been many different ways to play. Probably the one constant that is universally accepted, is that the original essence of the modern game can trace its origins back to the pastime of "gowf", as played on the links lands of the East of Scotland long before the 15th Century, which has over time grown into the great game of "golf" as we currently know it.
It was around the seaside towns of Aberdeen, St. Andrews and Leith on the outskirts of Edinburgh, with their expanses of rolling sandy grounds, or links, which lie between the sea and the town, that a game resembling today's golf really took hold and formed the discernable start of an evolutionary process which still continues right up to this day.
Since this time, there have been many changes within the game with the rules changing numerous times over the years, ever since the earliest surviving written rules created by the Gentlemen Golfers of Leith in March 1744. The balls have also been subject to developments, with the introduction at St Andrews, in 1848, of an inexpensive and more durable rubbery ball to replace the previously expensive and unpredictable feathery balls which would often not last even a one entire game.
Another significant milestone in golfing history was the creation in 1851 of the first purpose built golf course in Prestwick on the links of Monkton parish, followed soon after in 1860 by the first open championship on the same course. Since that time the game has spread right around the world from Europe to America and even through to China and Japan. The courses however still tend to imitate those earliest of Scottish creations, although American courses have leant towards longer fairways and softer greens. Competitions have also seen a massive growth in interest, following recent sponsorship deals and the introduction of televised coverage.
These days everyone seems to want to play. During the summer, courses become heavily used and parks throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK are filled with people knocking a ball about. There are purpose built golf courses all around the country, and there are specialist companies offering short golfing holidays who are now tapping in to the desire to play on some of the world's finest courses which are to be found in Britain.
Today the game of golf has significantly evolved from the primitive, haphazard and casual game it started out as, with the very earliest players initially having to carve their own clubs and balls from wood. Now modern casting methods mean that clubs can be made much stronger and more affordably making the game open to all who want to play, while research into synthetic and composite materials has lead to top end performance clubs using titanium heads and graphite shafts for those who can afford them. While most designers have sought to improve performance through subtle developments such as materials changes, other ingenious entrepreneurs have tried making clubs which contain a built in gyroscope or created a single reusable shaft and a selection of changeable screw in club heads, in order to out wit the rules.
Changes in ball design, official rules, the introduction of more competitive equipment produced by skilled craftsmen such as forged metal heads for niblick clubs which were prone to breakage, increases in the number of courses, and promotion by the media, have made what was a simple pastime in Scotland into a multimillion pound worldwide phenomenon.
There is no dispute that golf, or a pastime similar to the game we know today, has been played for centuries, but exactly how and when this game of club-and-ball first arrived to test and frustrate the human soul remains a matter of speculation. Some trace golf's origins back to the game of paganica, played in the time of the Roman Empire, while others see it as evolving from the French jeu de mail or the Dutch game of kolven.
Whatever the truth of these speculations, the pioneers of golf were undoubtedly the Scots. It was the Scots who developed the game on their seaside links and transported it with them all over the world. Inspired by their passion for the game, they taught other nations to play. But just as importantly, they provided the first implements for golf and the courses to play on, and they laid down the standards and basic rules that still, to a large degree, prevail today.
Like so many other forms of human activity, golf has no clear recorded origins. With little solid evidence available, accounts of the early history of the game often depend heavily on the writer's imagination. Accepting that, as Voltaire sagely observed, the ancient histories are but fables that have been agreed upon, there are many mythological starting points from which to embark upon an account of the game.
The danger of fable is that it is too readily confused with fact. Quite simply, there is no documentary evidence of golf, as we know it today, prior to the middle of the fifteenth century, and there is no hard evidence to disprove the most obvious and well documented theory that the game began on the east coast of Scotland. But the quest to find earlier evidence of the game in its present form has taxed the minds of eminent men over many decades.
Most research has centered on establishing the relationship between golf and other pastimes in Europe, and seeking support for the theory that one or another of them was the forerunner of golf. There have been so many different types of club-and-ball games throughout the course of history that speculation knows almost no limit. Although the lack of solid facts frustrates attempts to reach a substantial conclusion, however, it is both illuminating and fascinating to compare other club-and-ball games with golf, consider any areas of overlap between them, and judge their possible influence on the game's development.
Some historians have gone back as far as Ancient Rome and forged a link between golf and paganica, a game that was popular with country folk in the early days of the Roman Empire. Little is known about the rules of the game, but legend has it that paganica was played with a bent stick and a ball made from leather filled with feathers. The interesting connection here is that early golf balls were also made with feathers stuffed into leather covers, although the paganica ball is believed to have been about 4-7in in diameter, so its resemblance to a golf "feathery" is not that close.
The expansion of the Roman Empire north and west from the Mediterranean could well have carried paganica across Europe. The legions who supported the Roman governors were recruited from the country districts, and it would have been natural for the occupying forces to have indulged their rural pastimes in foreign lands as they did at home.
This theory suggests that paganica was at the root of the later development of various other club-and-ball games in northern Europe, particularly in France and the Low Countries, which have also been proposed as the forerunners of golf. The principal candidates among them are cambuca, jeu de mail, chole, crosse, kolven, and pell mell. Cambuca (or cambuta) was played in England in the mid-fourteenth century during the reign of Edward III. There are close similarities with paganica: cambuca players used a curved club and a ball made from feathers which, it is thought, was propelled toward a mark set in the ground. In 1363 a royal proclamation was issued banning able-bodied men from all games on feast days. The list ranged from cockfighting to football and "other vain games," but also included cambuca and club ball, which was a form of hockey. Instead, the men were urged, on penalty of imprisonment, to practice shooting with bow and arrow. Less than 100 years later, a Scottish Act of Parliament was to ban golf for the same reasons and threaten the same penalty of imprisonment for those caught playing it.
In the Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral in the west of England, also dating from the mid-fourteenth century, a headless figure in stained glass is depicted swinging a curved club. The object of his attention is a yellow ball on a green background. Although the figure is known as the "golf player," it is more likely the game in question was cambuca, since the window is contemporary with the game and the ban that went with it.
Another game that appears to have owed much in its origins to the Roman game of paganica was the southern French sport of jeu de mail. The game was played with a mail (wooden mallet) and a wooden ball. The mallet was quite flexible, and the ball could be struck substantial distances.
The object of the game was to play the ball along a designated course about a half a mile long to a fixed point. Jeu de mail seems to have resembled golf in being an individual game, with each player retaining the use of his own ball throughout the game. The winner of jeu de mail was the player who required the least number of strokes to reach the designated mark, which is obviously not unlike the basic concept of scoring in golf. A game in most respects similar to the ancient form of jeu de mail was still being played at Montpellier in the south of France around the start of the twentieth century. In his Historical Gossip about Golf and Golfers, published in 1863, A. Robb offers an interesting account of jeu de mail, describing it as strikingly similar to the game of golf. "The club is made in the shape of a hammer," Robb writes. "The handle is rather longer than that of a golf club, of the same size and thickness, and having a good deal of spring in it." The mail club was even designed to cope with a bad lie: "One end of the club is nearly flat, like the flat end of a hammer, with which the ball is usually hit, while the other is more sloped, so as to give a facility for striking the ball when it gets into a position of difficulty. Both ends are strongly bound with iron, which is necessary to give weight to the club as well as prevent the wood from breaking." The ball was also not unlike a golf ball, being "solid and round, made of the root of the box tree, about two inches in diameter."
A later version of jeu de mail was chole, which dates back to the mid-fourteenth century in Belgium and France. Chole was played cross-country, using clubs with long wooden shafts and balls that were made of either beechwood or leather, stuffed with whatever material was readily available. The ball was teed up for the first stroke, and spare clubs and balls were probably carried around for the players.
The game itself was played in open fields with the object of reaching a fixed point, often some considerable distance away, and touching it with the ball in a specified number of strokes. However, unlike golf, there was only one ball, which all players, including opponents, played. Three members of the striking side each played strokes to advance the ball toward their objective. Then a member of the opposing team was allowed to strike the ball back from where it had come, or toward any hazard that would impair the progress of the striking team. This backward stroke was called a decholade, after which the striking team was allowed another three strokes. Crosse seems to have been simply another version of chole. The name for the game is derived from the French word for a hooked stick. It is known that the heads of the clubs were made of iron, similar to golf clubs, but like chole, the game seems actually to have had more resemblance to hockey than to golf.
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