Golf’s origins are shrouded in the mists and mishits of time and need not detain the bluffer long. It is polite to affect a respectful awareness of the history of the game, but too close a preoccupation may mark you out as a nerd.
Nonetheless, you should have a certain basic familiarity with its origins. Golf began in Scotland, and remains a Scottish verb – ‘to golf’. It is an essentially Scottish game which should be played in a stiff breeze over nice firm turf – on the cusp between pasture and tundra – at a pace sufficient to keep the blood flowing but without excessive wind chill. One of the game’s great drawbacks is the amount of space required per player – many thousands of square feet – compared with bridge (3 sq. ft.) or squash (just under 700 sq. ft.). You might mention the latter if only to provide an opportunity to quote the modern American satirist PJ O’Rourke who, in pointing out that golf is a superior game to squash, observed that: ‘You can smoke or drink on a golf course without interrupting the game, and you can take a leak – something you can’t do on a squash court and shouldn’t do in a swimming pool.’
Golf thus requires a sparsely populated region and preferably one with a harsh climate. Scotland – or at least its coastline, the only part of the country with the right type of grass – is ideal. Not many people fancy golf or any other outdoor activity on a typical Scottish summer’s day, to say nothing of spring, and this keeps the courses nice and empty, allowing the game to flow.
Irish golfing conditions are similar – not quite so cold, but wetter – and the game took an early hold there too, on the coast once again, the interior being waterlogged. On the testing Lancashire coast, or Fylde, it is often said that if you can’t see the Pennines it’s raining; and if you can, you should have your eye on the ball. This is another golfing heartland.
Over time, golf mania led to the demand for courses in drier and warmer locations such as Berkshire, the south of Spain and the south of France, where renegades from Wellington’s Scottish brigades not unreasonably put down roots on their way home from the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. Who can blame them?
Whether it was golf, marriage, diplomacy, or some other confrontation that the dashing nineteenth-century Prussian soldier philosopher Carl von Clausewitz described as ‘war by other means’, the game has its origins in the perennial conflict between England, Scotland, France and other fringe participants in what is now known as the Six Nations Championship (it’s a rugby contest apparently).
1421: At the battle of Baugé, during the drinks interval, the French entertain (or thrash) their Scottish allies (or mercenaries) at ‘chole,’ a hockey-like contest played with sticks and balls. The Scots take chole back to Scotland and rename it ‘hole.’ A new sport is born. One day it will be renamed GOLF, a multi-purpose acronym if you prefer Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden; Game Of Limitless Frustration; Great Opportunity to Lose Friends, etc. The actual etymological provenance of the name is uncertain.
1457: Golf is banned by King James II because it is too much fun to be allowed in Scotland. Also, it distracts the soldiery from archery. This misguided ban (could there be a better preparation for the long bowman than flighting a three iron into the Scottish wind?) was repeated in the early 1470s and again in 1491, so it was obviously disregarded.
1561: Marie Stuart, a keen golfer, crosses the Channel to become Mary, Queen of Scots, bringing with her several young male escorts or ‘cadets’, who compete to lift up her skirts and carry her clubs during the game, dispensing gallantries such as ‘nice ankle turn, ma’am’, ‘ne’er up, ne’er in’ and ‘perchance milady may receive a stroke at this hole’. Soon, all fashionable golfers want their own ‘cadet’. 1567 Mary is in trouble for playing golf too soon after the murder of her most recent husband. This is hardly fair. Several hours had elapsed. 1590 Sir Walter Raleigh drops his coat in casual water (a temporary hazard on the course) and invents smoking. Golf becomes even more fun, and Elizabeth I probably became the first golf widow.
1593: John Henrie and Pat Rogie are imprisoned for ‘playing gowff on the links of Leith every Sabbath the time of the sermonses.’ Who were they? (Keen golfers, probably. This is a relatively oft-cited early golf trivia fact. PG Wodehouse dedicated his golf book, Golf Without Tears: Stories of Golfers and Lovers, to them). Sunday gowffers seek to avoid detection by carrying the club upside down between shots and pretending it’s a walking stick. Hence the term: ‘Sabbath sticks’.
1603: After a game at Musselburgh, James VI travels south to become James I and doubtless draws up plans for the first Anglo-Scottish Golfing Union. Golf would soon be played on Blackheath in southeast London, and one day as far as Sandwich.
1618: James VI/I grants his subjects the right to play golf on Sundays.
1620: One hundred puritans, unwilling to remain in a country so licentious and debauched as to permit Sunday golf, set sail for America. Golf spreads like wildfire over there, but not for another eight-or-so generations.
1744: The Gentleman Golfers of Edinburgh organise the first championship and write the first set of Rules of Golf. The 13 commandments include ‘your tee must be upon the ground’ – a rule worth bearing in mind to this day.
1754: The Society of St Andrews Golfers is founded and decides to call its home town the Home of Golf. 80 years later it renames itself the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) and takes over the government of golf everywhere except America, where different rules apply. This schism may explain why the Ryder Cup is such an argumentative event.
1764: St Andrews converts its golf course from 22 holes to 18. David Hume, Adam Smith and other enlightened Scottish thinkers understand that a game of golf can only go for so long: 18 holes is enough for a good start to go disastrously wrong and for a hopeless duffer to fluke a par, and is as much golf as a man wants to play between an optimistic kippers-and-oatmeal breakfast and drowning his sorrows in whisky at lunchtime. Eighteen holes therefore became the allotted span, and courses have been designed this way ever since. Sometimes they go out and back, at other times back and out, or even round and round. No one cares, as long as it ends at the clubhouse.
1800s: Golf spreads to all corners of the British Empire. The conquest of Malaya led to the invention of the gutta-percha (gutty) ball which replaced the elegant but expensive and ineffectual ‘featherie’, which was a leather pouch stuffed with goose or chicken feathers. You will do your bluffing credentials no harm by knowing that gutta-percha is the latex produced from a tree commonly found in Malaysia.For many years all gutta balls were handmade. In the early days, the golf ball was smooth. Later, golfers noticed that as balls became old and battle-scarred, they flew faster and farther. (In 1905 William Taylor added a pock-marked or dimple pattern to the ball at the manufacturing stage.) Tee technology proceeded apace. Until the late nineteenth century, golfers filled their pockets with sand and when permitted to tee the ball, placed it on top of a carefully constructed mound. This took ages, and besides, golfers felt that the quarries (or bunkers) they excavated for teeing sand were large enough and further digging would only make the game more difficult, which ran contrary to the constructive spirit of the tee. Another solution was urgently required.
1889: First portable golf tee is patented by Scottish golfers William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas. The not very snappily named Bloxsom Douglas would soon face stiff competition from the Perfectum (rubber tee with a metal spike) and the ultimately victorious Victor (not very different from the Perfectum, but with a cup-shaped top). Bluffers who attempt to impress playing companions, friends and family by reviving the Perfectum vs Victor debate may not always find a receptive audience.
1891: The R&A achieves the long-overdue standardisation of the golf hole on the green. It would be the size of the first ever ‘hole cutter’ developed by the green keepers of Musselburgh, a municipal links course near Edinburgh, in 1829. Legend tells us that this revolutionary invention was fashioned from a section of drainage pipe left lying around the green. The diameter was 4.25 inches, which just happens to be the diameter of the golf hole around the world today. One way or another the final agreed size was almost certainly arrived at arbitrarily.
1914-1945: Two world wars had little impact on Europe’s best golf courses, Scotland and Ireland keeping their heads down more successfully than Normandy, Flanders and Dresden.
1961: Carter Bros Rug Co of Chattanooga, Tennessee, invents the Cocktail Golf rug, ‘for golfing executives who practise putting in the office.’ This brightens up office life to no end and solves absenteeism at a stroke.
‘The miniature three-hole golf course is a textured rug made of nylon with a putting course laid out in different colors and pile depths. The holes are three soft rubber practice cups. There’s a built-up rough around the edge, a smooth, flat fairway, depressed sand traps and even a water hazard in the center.’ The cocktail golf rug is a precious bluffing collectable more highly prized even than the cocktail flagstick.
1962: With the continuing technological advancement of the golf buggy, golf’s evolution was almost complete. The Ramble-Seat (‘for shopping, golf – and fun!’), model, for instance, was made for the average-sized American golfer, but needed an extra power pack and trailer before his golf bag, soda fountain and hot dogs could be accommodated. Bluffers must deplore the golf buggy, and you should complain about being forced to use them on courses (mostly foreign) with steep hills between holes.
1971: Research and development begins on the golf ball that won’t slice; it uses an asymmetric dimple pattern to ensure a self-correcting flight path. Marketed as the ‘Polara’ a few years later, it was soon banned (like most things that make golf easier).
1980s-on: Anything that makes golf easier is similarly banned. In perpetuity.
Read with at The Bluffer’s Guide to Golf.®