Introduction: About Golf Histories
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
In 1982, Steven van Hengel, a Dutch banker, published a new interpretation of golf history that went off like a bomb in the golfing world. According to van Hengel, golf, rather than having Scottish origins, had begun at Loenen aan de Vecht in the province of North Holland, precisely on Boxing Day 1297. Groundwork for the acceptance of his thesis had been well-laid. Peter Dobereiner, contracted to write the Foreword to Early Golf, penned a glowing endorsement that surrounded the book in an aura of credibility and respectability: 'In the field of early Dutch golf, and that means early golf no matter how the nationalistic Scots may squirm, the ultimate authority is Steven van Hengel… Every fact which is hall-marked 'SvH' carries a guarantee of proof, it is unalloyed by guesswork and speculation'.
Peter was not alone in his enthusiasm. When it learned of van Hengel's conclusions, the normally staid Dutch establishment went weak in the knees, and spontaneously decided to finance an official government-sponsored touring exhibit to celebrate the miraculous news. His Royal Highness Prince Claus of the Netherlands opened the exhibition “Colf-Kolf-Golf”at the 'Markiezenhof' in Bergen op Zoom.
British golf writers and historians flocked to join Dobereiner in prostrating themselves before the altar of the new religion. Within a few years, pop golf histories were padding their thin historical content with an acknowledgement of the Netherlands as the birthplace of golf. One would have expected outrage, indignation, denial and counter attacks from the Scottish golf establishment – not to mention cabers hurled at the printing presses. Surely, the R&A, in a keening of the pipes would exile the renegade Dutchman from Caledonia, forever?
Nothing of the sort happened. The lion took it lying down. The staunchly patriotic Scotsman wrote: '(In) Early Golf, the Dutch writer Steven van Hengel put his case forward that the ancient roots of golf can be traced back to Holland. Even ardent Scottish golf historians tend now to agree with him.' No questions were raised about van Hengel's research, analysis or conclusions. No attempt was made to confirm his quotes or alleged facts. The Scots offered only sporadic token resistance to the kidnapping of 'their' priceless sporting heritage. Silence, or at best, whimpers – not bangs – greeted what turned out to be a preposterous hoax – a monumental distortion of sporting history perpetrated by an amateur golfer determined to impose his fantastical version of golf's origins on a worldwide public. He nearly succeeded.
I was one of many lulled into an initial acceptance of van Hengel's argument by the tacit acquiescence of the Scottish golf establishment. By 1988, when I began to research 'Golf Through The Ages • 600 Years of Golfing Art', I had read everything SvH had published, from his initial mimeographed 1972 booklet, through the exhibition catalogue and subsequent editions of Early Golf. On the surface, his book seemed to be a logical launching pad for the definitive iconography of golf I had begun, but something about Early Golf didn't smell right. Perhaps it was van Hengel's smugness, or contrived conclusions, or inconsistencies, exacerbated by an unconvincing, meagre and insular bibliography. His conceit of writing the book in English was annoying and often, confusing.
When I discussed my reservations with Richard Leech, a highly experienced publisher of scientific texts, he urged me to verify van Hengel's original sources, which boiled down to a limited body of literature, a map and a handful of relevant historical documents. During the next several months I enlisted the aid of archivists, experts and historians in the Netherlands, to test the foundation of the Dutch historian's argument – that golf (or 'colf' as he termed it) had been played at Loenen aan de Vecht, in 1297. Their research confirmed my worst suspicions. Golf had never been played there. The historical works he cited to prove that it had, contained no such references and the 'Map of Loenen with the colf course' which he published on page 17 of Early Golf, was a pure fabrication – a doctored Ordinance Survey map.
In 1997, I attended the sham 700th anniversary celebration of golf at Loenen aan de Vecht, where I seized the opportunity to discuss van Hengel's hoax with key figures of the Netherlands golf establishment. My questions and comments were met with embarrassment and evasion, accompanied by awkward laughter as they explained that the 'history' was meant to be just a bit of good fun. It wasn't until the December/January 2002, 3 issue of Golfjournaal, that an official retraction of the claim that golf had been first played at Loenen, was printed. The apologia was written by the distinguished historian and bibliophile, Dr. Ayolt Brongers, who over the years had been on the receiving end of my demands that the public be set straight on van Hengel's manipulation of golf history. Unfortunately, there is a still a misleading Dutch Wikipedia entry accessible in Internet that continues to tiptoe around the bogus history.
In less than a year of intensive research, I had become a cynic about everything that had been published on the origins of golf, which, unlike football, tennis, Pallone and even billiards, had traditionally been ignored by 'serious' historians. Over the following thirteen years, as well as reading most of what passes for golfing history, I immersed myself in every field remotely associated with ball games; literature, ancient texts, works of art, manuscripts, documents and sporting antiques by the thousands. It quickly became evident that the historical equivalent of Ponzi schemes didn't begin with Early Golf. Now, for the first time, I am pleased to share my conclusions from 20 years of research with readers.
Image top of page: Winter Landscape, Golfers on the Ice Near Haarlem by Adriaen Van de Velde, 1668. A player using a loen colve with its distinctive sturdy shaft and cast lead clubhead, prepares to drive his ball in a point-to-point contest. (Artwork courtesy National Gallery London and Golf Through The Ages)