Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Origin of Golf, a Just-So Story Involving Shepherds and Pebbles

‘Pleasures are more beneficial than duties, because, like the quality of mercy, they are not strained, and they are twice blessed.’ – R. L. S.
I'm in the process of working up a post about Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, wondering just what my father, who'd been an avid golfer, would think of the place and its place in the world. To that end I've been looking through some of my father's golf stuff, including score cards from two rounds he played on the old course at St. Andrews, the mecca of the golf world, and his copy of the first edition of The Art of Golf by Sir W. G. Simpson, Bart. (baronet).


Sir Walter was a gentleman golfer, with all the weight of class and privilege "gentleman" carried in 19th Century Britain, and a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. The book has some 140 pages plus of instruction, including photos, which are precded by 40 pages of upper class British learning and dry humor.

Here's what Sir Walter has to say about the game's origins. Note the opening geological reference. Why? And, of course, the shepherds, how classical! The true story, we know, is somewhat different.

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Golf, besides being a royal game, is also a very ancient one. Although it cannot be determined when it was first played, there seems little doubt that it had its origin in the present geological period, golf links being, we are informed, of Pleistocene formation.

Confining ourselves to Scotland, no golfer can fail to be struck with the resemblance to a niblick of the so-called spectacle ornament of our sculptured stones.

Many antiquarians are of opinion that the game did not become popular till about the middle of the 15th century. This seems extremely probable, as in earlier and more lawless times a journey so far from home as the far-hole at St. Andrews would have been exceedingly dangerous for an unarmed man.

It is not likely that future research will unearth the discoverer of golf. Most probably a game so simple and natural in its essentials suggested itself gradually and spontaneously to the bucolic mind. A shepherd tending his sheep would often chance upon a round pebble, and, having his crook in his hand, he would strike it away; for it is as inevitable that a man with a stick in his hand should aim a blow at any loose object lying in his path as that he should breathe.

On pastures green this led to nothing: but once on a time (probably) a shepherd, feeding his sheep on a links - perhaps those of St. Andrews - rolled one of these stones into a rabbit scrape. 'Marry,' he quoth, 'I could not do that if I tried' - a thought (so instinctive is ambition) which nerved him to the attempt. But man cannot long persevere alone in any arduous undertaking, so our shepherd hailed another, who was hard by, to witness his endeavour. 'Forsooth, that is easy,' said the friend, and trying failed. They now searched in the gorse for as round stones as possible, and, to their surprise, each found an old golf ball, which, as the reader knows, are to be found there in considerable quantity even to this day. Having deepened the rabbit scrape so that the balls might not jump out of it, they set themselves to practising putting. The strong. but less skilful shepherd, finding himself worsted at this amusement, protested that it was a fairer test of skill to play for the hole from a considerable distance. This being arranged, the game was found to be much more varied and interesting. They had at first called it' putty,' because the immediate object was to putt or put the ball into the hole or scrape, but at the longer distance what we call driving was the chief interest, so the name was changed to ' go off,' or 'golf.' The sheep having meantime strayed, our shepherds had to go after them. This proving an exceedingly irksome interruption, they hit upon the ingenious device of making a circular course of holes, which enabled them to play and herd at the same time. The holes being now many and far apart, it became necessary to mark their whereabouts, which was easily done by means of a tag of wool from a sheep, attached to a stick, a primitive kind of flag still used on many greens almost in its original form.

Since these early days the essentials of the game have altered but little. Even the styme must have been of early invention. It would naturally occur as a quibble to a golfer who was having the worst of the match, and the adversary, in the confidence of three or four up, would not strenuously oppose it.

That golf was taken up with keen interest by the Scottish people from an early day is evidenced by laws directed against those who preferred it to archery and church-going. This state of feeling; has changed but little. Some historians are, however, of opinion that during the seventeenth century golf lost some of its popularity. We know that the great Montrose was at one time devoted to it, and that he gave it up for what would now be considered the inferior sport of Covenanter-hunting. It is also an historical fact that Charles I. actually stopped in the middle of a game on Leith Links, because, forsooth, he learned that a rebellion had broken out in Ireland. Some, however, are of opinion that he acted on this occasion with his usual cunning - that at the time the news arrived he was being beaten, and that he hurried away to save his half-crown rather than his crown. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that any one who in the present day abandoned a game because the stakes were not sufficiently high would be considered unworthy of the name of a golfer.

The rest of the history of the game, is it not written in Mr. Clark's book?

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  1. Note the opening geological reference. Why?

    The links by the sea occupy a distinct geological setting. Non- arable land near very environmentally sensitive dune formations (an issue with Trumps course in the N.E. has been the environmental impact here on a rare eco system of dunes ) I suppose it would be of significant interest in terms of design, water drainage etc.

  2. i.e a links is a specific type of course associated with a specific geology.

    1. Believe me, I know. Liberty National Golf Club, which is just about a mile from me on the shore of the upper New York Bay, is a links type course, though the links topography is entirely artificial. The course was constructed atop a garbage dump.

  3. A bit over a decade later Joseph Conrad would go all primordial in his imagery in Heart of Darkness. As I'm currently thinking about that text, THAT's what struck me when I read Sir Walter's little reference there, which surely has a bit of tongue tucked in cheek, as it tends to exaggerate our sense of just how ancient this game is. And, I can't help but hear an echo of "The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews" in that opening sentence (an engraving of the club house at St. Andrews, as seen from the sea, is on the title page of the book). What I'm wondering is if there was a spate of geological imagery in the air at the time. After all, evolution was being debated through the last half of the century and its tied up in geological imagery.

  4. It is amusing. It may also play with the notion of a primordial and recognizable Scottish identity perhaps? I also like how he provides 'rational' conjecture which is still a popular and traditional approach to folklore etc. used by some empiricists. It does seem to be parodying a distinctive way of writing as you suggest.

    "This seems extremely probable, as in earlier and more lawless times a journey so far from home as the far-hole at St. Andrews would have been exceedingly dangerous for an unarmed man."

    1. I've not more than glanced at the text. In particular, I've not read the instructional parts. But my impression is that the whole thing is like that. I know that Wodehouse included passages on golf in his stuff. It would be an interesting exercise to go through Wodehouse and see if there are echoes of Simpson. After all, Bertie Wooster is a parody of a Simpson-like character. Though Simpson apparently did actually do a bit of work for a living, despite the title. His father was a surgeon of some repute.He's the one who got the baronetcy.

  5. An interesting figure in this is Horace Gordon Hutchinson. He wrote extensively on golf. Not familiar with his work here more with his title "Dreams and Their Meanings, With Many Accounts of Experiences Sent By Correspondents and two chapters contributed mainly from the Journals of the Psychical Research Society on telepathic and premonitory dreams."

    A lot of his work is on archive org. I would hazard a guess his texts on golfing instruction may contain a large measure of psychological insight stemming from his other interests. I suspect he may prove interesting here.