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The cradle of golf stood not in the Highlands...

... but in the Low Countries, claims a sports historian at the University of Bonn

Until the beginning of the British Open, everything had been just fine for the unsuspecting Scots who had always considered themselves the inventors of golf. But now Dr Heiner Gillmeister, English language lecturer and sports historian at the University of Bonn, in an article published in the prestigious London The International Journal of the History of Sport (Vol. 19, No 1, 2002) produced new evidence which must have been a shattering blow to their pride. It proves that not the Highlands, but the Low Countries were the cradle of their national game.

Scotland's claim to being the country of the game's origin rested on 15th century Acts of Parliament. In a resolution of 6 March 1457, football and golf were banned, and in 1491 Parliament even went a step further and forbade football and gold and other "unprofitable" games altogether. At the same time, Scotsmen were enjoined to practice archery since such an exercise could be put to good use in defending the country. "It is somewhat strange that a quiet sport such as golf should be mentioned together with football, a game which frequently was the cause of public riots, great damage and injuries", wondered Dr Gillmeister. His belief is that the term "golf" in those Acts never referred to golf as we know it, but to an equally dangerous predecessor of modern hockey played with a shepherd's crook.

That such must indeed have been the case can now be proved. Gillmeister's "chief witness" is a Scottish nobleman from St Andrews of all places, Sir Gilbert Hay who around the year 1460 wrote a romance dealing with King Alexander. "Here Hay decribed a game played with a 'golf-staff', a golf club, but in which the ball was driven to and fro between two teams", says Dr Gillmeister. "This description has very little in common with modern golf, but much more to do with hockey."

The term "golf" is derived from Dutch "kolve" or "kolf" which denoted a shepherd's crook. Flemish and Dutch miniaturists and painters have left pictorial evidence of the game from the middle of the fifteenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century. A most significant document testifying to the existence of golf in the Low Countries was discovered by the linguist from Bonn in a Latin primer completed in 1545. In it, a certain Pieter van Afferden attempted to teach Latin by describing scenes from everyday life. A whole chapter of the booklet is devoted to the game of golf, a sport in which players try to knock a little ball into a hole by means of a club. Van Afferden even mentioned five rules to which players have to obey. For example, a player must be allowed to swing freely, and his opponent therefore has to step back. Says Dr Gillmeister: "The text supports the view that golf had been played on the European continent and according to rather sophisticated rules long before it eventually made an appearance in Scotland."

It is not without irony, the German scholar observed, that van Afferden's book was translated into the German language as early as 1575. Even the Germans, who have quite a reputation for lagging behind their European neighbours in sports and games, apparently pipped the Scots at least as far as golfing literature is concerned. In Scotland, the first explicit description of golf appeared in 1636 only. Dr Gillmeister, who by applying the methods of historical linguistics formulated a theory of the origin of European competitive ball games, had this final comment to make on his most recent discovery: "My theory will not exactly be received with much enthusiasm in Scotland."

Contact: Dr Heiner Gillmeister, Department of English, University of Bonn, tel.: 0049 228 737624 or 0049 2232 45950; e-mail: [Email protection active, please enable JavaScript.]

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