Golf on the Rhine: On the Origins of Golf, with Sidelights on Polo
By Heinar Gillmeister
International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.19:1 (2002)
Introduction: The claim of golf’s Scottish origins has rested on two pillars, if the Acts of the Parliament of Scotland from the reigns of James II and James IV may so be called. In a resolution of the fourteenth parliament convened in Edinburgh on 6 March 1457, the games of football and golf (‘futbawe and ye golf’) were banned with a vengeance (‘utterly cryt done’). In the resolution passed in 1491, football, gold and other useless games were outlawed altogether (‘fut bawis gouff or uthir sic unprofftiable sports’). In addition, both Acts enjoin hte Scottish people to practice archery, a sport which, it is claimed, might be put to good use in defending the country. In the existing golf ‘histories’, the above-mentioned pillars can also be said to have defined the limits of navigation for the Anglo-Saxon golf historians, not unlike the Pilalrs of Hercules of yore. The purpose of this article is to show that this claim of Scottish origin is unsubstantiated and to bring to the attention of golf historians new source material which proves the continental origins of Scotland’s national game. At the same time, the time-honoured view that polo may have been influential in the genesis of golf will be reviewed and it will be shown that, although there is no basis for such an assumption, polo nevertheless tips the scales in favour of a continental origin of golf in an intriguing and decisive way.
As early as 1360, the authorities of the city of Brussels issued regulations very similar to the Acts of the Scottish Parliament which threatened citizens indulging in the game of golf with either a fine of twenty shillings or the confiscation of their upper garment. (‘Wie met Colvern tsolt es om twinitch scell[inge] oft op bare ouerste cleet’). There are several conclusions to be drawn from this text. First, the Scottish term golf appears to be derived of Middle Dutch kolf, or kolve, which denoted a shepherd’s crook. Second, the Scottish Acts did not refer to the game of golf as we know it; even in its early days golf was so innocent that nobody would have had a reason to declare it illegal. The regulations in Brussels were aimed at the game of soule a la crosse which was notorious for the many injuries and fatalities resulting from it. The occurrence of the verb from tsolt, ‘plays the soule game’ (an inflected form of tsollen which corresponded to French souler) makes such this conclusion inevitable.