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An end to the nonsense
Some months ago, after having referred to golf as 'Scotland's Game' on this site, one Mr Knipers, a Dutch person, wrote to me at some length claiming that Holland had a greater claim to the game than did Scotland.

Making the fatal mistake of replying to Mr Knipers' letter, an increasingly tedious exchange between us has ensued and which has become increasingly personal. I would like to put this matter to rest forthwith.

For those who are understandably neither interested nor concerned about the perennial question of the origins of golf, let me simply tell you that the Dutch claim that the game was 'invented' in Holland and brought to the east coast of Scotland by Dutch traders. It would appear that a Dutch game called het kolven, which is played with a stick and ball in the back rooms of taverns and a longer version on ice, is claimed to be golf's progenitor. This game, in either form, is about as interesting as baseball and shares with that game the distinction of being only marginally more enthralling than watching paint dry. Golf bears about as much resemblance to het kolven as does haggis to hashish.

Few ethnic peoples are without a game that involves a stick and ball. It is fatuous to postulate a common origin for them all for each is the outcome of evolution. Their occurrence may have been spontaneous; the American Indians from whom, I understand lacrosse was derived, could have had little influence from Pangea, a form of hockey played by the Romans. Hurling and shinty, on the other hand, doubtless have a common ancestor with hockey, as does that form of the game played on ice. Their evolution must have been one of slow divergence for today these games are as different in character as is soccer to rugby.

Furthermore, all modern games are the products of gradual evolutionary change, each directed in its development by the peoples who embraced them and became devotees.

It is utterly idle to speculate that golf was 'invented'. We know that as late as the 1850's when the Westward Ho! Club in Devon was setting out its constitution, its founders 'resolved to adopt the Scots form of golf'. This is a tantalisingly enigmatic phrase in the club minutes but it surely simply means that the gentry of the West of England were resolved upon playing the 'long game' on their links land and not croquette or the short putting game that was already in its ascendancy among ladies and certain types of gentlemen unprepared to exert themselves.

The insistent claims of the Dutch for golf's origins stems largely from words that are supposedly coincidental in their language and in the parlance of the game, together with figures depicted in early paintings playing with a club and ball.

With regards to language, the Dutch word 'tuitje', meaning a heap of snow or earth used for propping up the ball for the initial stroke, cannot have given rise to the Scots word 'tee'. This word was earlier used in quoits and curling for the mark to which the game was played. In golf the teeing ground was originally two clubs lengths from the hole last played and in the earliest rules of the game (1875), the Hon. Company of Edinburgh Golfers laid down that 'your tee must be upon the ground'. Is that not prohibition of perching your ball up on a 'tuitje'?

Likewise, there is no plausibility in the theory that the now obsolete term 'stymie' derives from the Dutch phrase 'stuit mij', meaning 'it stops me'. For those too young to have experienced the agony of the stymie, it described the situation that occurred before ball marking was allowed on the green when an opponent's ball blocked one's way to the hole.

Today the term is commonly used in politics to describe someone placed in a political predicament. But in the Scots vernacular it simply means someone with defective vision, a purblind person or simply an awkward sod. It is also noteworthy that the phrase 'stuit mij' is not included in the technical vocabulary of het kolven. Golf borrowed no technical terms from the Dutch language but certainly a great many four-letter words from the Anglo-Saxon.

Players with club and ball depicted in 17th and 18th century Dutch paintings on ice and in the back rooms of taverns are certainly not playing anything resembling golf, as we know it. Nor are they particularly early at it. The early Scots had little time for painting anything other than a good likeness and even when they did they usually imported some continental cove to do it. After the Age of Enlightenment, and later still when they had sorted out the Industrial Revolution, they set about recording their golf on canvas themselves and we even today can associate with these pictures familiarly. I am not aware of any Dutch paintings of golf as such but I am very ready to confess the limitations of my knowledge of art.

The earliest record of het kolven is in a poem by Bredero (1585-1618). In this script it is noteworthy that ice-spurs are worn and that the 'kolver' may chose his 'schotse klik', his Scottish club of leaded boxwood. One hesitates, of course, to suggest that this might mean that the Scots bequeathed the Dutch their reject game that came to be known as het kolven in Holland.

Historical records from many countries reveal edicts against ball games. In Scotland, twice in the 15th century, parliament issued decrees against playing golf . In France, Belgium and in Holland too, attempts were made to ban ball games both for the safety of the public as well as to encourage the practise of archery, doubtless for the defence of the realm. There is no reason to suggest that these ball games were golf or even anything related, although one can be absolutely certain that each country had its own game with club and ball. It was only in Scotland that golf was specifically referred to in a parliamentary edict.

Golf is virtually innate in the Scots psyche for, as Garden G. Smith wrote in 1912: '...there seems to be no reason for doubting that, in all its essential particulars, golf is a purely Scottish product. Anything more typical of the slow, canny, yet strong and resourceful Scottish character than golf is not to be found in the whole range of Scottish institutions. Golf, in fact, in its conception and essence, is the very epitome of the elements which have given the Scottish character its strength and individuality. It is the game of the patient, self-reliant man, prepared to meet whatever fortune may befall him.


©    6 - AUGUST 2002



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