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Golf
THE TRUE HISTORY
by
Michael Flannery

Part IV: Golf 1480-1625 - The Finishing Schools

FRANCE

Putting to a Hole on a Frozen Canal. Calendar page for January. Illuminated breviary from the School of Tours, ca. 1500.
Putting to a Hole on a Frozen Canal. Calendar page for January. Illuminated breviary from the School of Tours, ca. 1500. (Courtesy Muzeul Brukenthal, Sibieu, and Golf Through The Ages)
About 1470, visual evidence of the early golf-like sport, pallemail, ceases. However, in a most satisfying, amoeba-like fission, two ball games emerged to fill its shoes.

The first was pall-mall - in French, jeu de mail, or simply mail - played with wooden mallets and balls and a putter shaped like a long spoon known as the lève. The other was Flemish colf, a single-club game played with a shepherd crook-like club and small ball. Each would contribute essential elements to the new game of golf that would emerge in Scotland towards the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In 1907, James Cunningham in cooperation with the distinguished golf writer, Andrew Lang, one of the most important literary figures of his age, decided to bring his talent to bear on an English translation of Nouvelles Regles Pour Le Jeu De Mail, (New Rules for the Game of Mail), 1717, written by the French professional, Joseph Lauthier. The publication of rules for popular recreations acceptable to the establishment had long been a French tradition. As witnessed by the 1292 Taille de Paris (Part I of this series), with its unique documentation of the earliest artisan club and ball makers, the French can no more resist researching, analysing, recording and publishing data about their society, than a chat crème.

One can imagine William, sand from the beaches of Hastings still damp on his spurs, rubbing his hands while admiring his new conquest and thinking: 'Best get started on an inventory of this island and publish it in the Doomsday-Book'. Projecting potential tax revenues from a new fiefdom left monarchs as giddy as butterflies in a hash plantation.

Cunningham and Lang can be admired for their brave undertaking (dedicated to their friend, Harry Sterling Crawfurd Everard, who inconveniently kicked the bucket and left them to get on with the translation that Harry was supposed to do), for the ancient rules of mail were enveloped in linguistic armour which had become progressively arcane and impenetrable with each successive generation.

Although Lang never offered an explanation as to why he and Cunningham continued the project, one is tempted to think that finally two members of the British golfing establishment had grasped the fact that golf was not Scotland's Immaculate Conception, but the product of a long club and ball game evolution. Pall-mall, the last tangible link in the ancient sporting chain was a logical starting point. Then, too, there was a romantic side to mail that would have appealed to Lang. Hadn't Mary Queen of Scots celebrated the assassination of her husband, Lord Darnley, with a round of pall-mall in the fields nearby Seton?

Alas, poor old Cunningham had to make much ado about a text that defied golfing logic. Following a competent translation of Lauthier's Foreword, the content becomes increasingly cryptic, as reflected in Rule XXIII: 'When one player is at three more and another is about to play one off three, being in the pass, the one playing three more has no need to shoot because he is not longer in it.' Whew.

Eventually, Cunningham and Lang, four-putting Nouvelles Regles' tougher passages, limped through the round and their wee translation, New Rules for the Game of Mail, was published at St Andrews in 1910. Lang's Introduction (tainted by an anti-Semitic attack on an antiquarian book dealer who had crossed him) was proof that he learned little, and could contribute nothing to the understanding of golf's antecedents. He made no attempt to show the influence of mail in the use of a tee for the initial drive, handicapping weaker players, penalty strokes and a myriad of other conclusions that could and should have been drawn from Lauthier's text.

Smarting from the reverse Waterloo, Lang, in the best fox and grapes tradition, sought solace in his oft-quoted, appallingly parochial statement: 'The history of golf as it should be done demands a thorough study of all Scottish Acts of Parliament, Kirk Sessions records, memoirs, and in fact of Scottish literature, legislation, and history from the beginning of time'. This was, of course, sheer nonsense and not worthy of a historian of Lang's stature. Worse yet, the chauvinistic false scent encouraged generations of golf historians to waste their time following Lang's advice, when there was really nothing other than the history of Scottish golf to be found in the documents and literature he recommended. Although it required hard graft, informed sleuthing and a working knowledge of European languages, the history of the origins of golf was waiting to be discovered in the ancient countries separated from Britain by that narrow aqueous divide known as The English Channel - or La Manche - depending on which side of the water your ball is bunkered on.

ITALY

For centuries, mail in its many forms, was a staple of recreation for monarchs and aristocracy throughout Europe. Emphasising the game's importance is Lettera sulla pallamaglio (a letter about pall-mall), ca. 1553, written by Bartolemeo Ricci to Count Alfonso Calcagnini, nephew of Alfonso I, which contains the earliest detailed description of playing equipment for the game. The ball had to be perfectly turned, as large as, but not much more than a round egg, and made of a hard and solid wood, from corniolo, sorbo, olive and other trees of that nature. The size and shape of the ball made it easy to drive. The mallets described by Ricci differed from those used in the rest of Europe. Instead of having two flat faces with varying lofts, the early Italian mallets had only one lofted face for driving the ball, while the other was crafted with a small cavity - perhaps for a scooped and hurled scoring shot, or for getting out of bad lies.

The first kolf lesson, 17th century Flemish painting from an unknown master
"Madam, please keep your eye on the ball!" The first kolf lesson,
17th century Flemish painting from an unknown master.
(Courtesy Christies’ Images, London, and Golf Through The Ages)

Over the next two hundred years, artisans from Montpellier to Naples and Avignon to London experimented with woods including chestnut, boxwood and boxwood roots, medlar, ash, date palm and evergreen oak to perfect the playing characteristics of their equipment. The results were sensational: Carry was progressively longer - important on the mammoth malls of Den Haag, Tours, London and Turin, all of which stretched 1000 yards or more. Balls flew truer - vital on alleys a skimpy 10 - 14 feet wide, with low walls that kept only errant rolling shots in play, and rules that levied stiff penalties for out-of-bounds.

But there was a worm in the apple called mail. Equipped with high-tech equipment and perfectly tended, state-of-the-art surfaces, shots which were once a challenge became a piece of cake for better players - particularly the pros/palemardiers. (Inevitably, a parallel with modern professional golf springs to mind.) Rather than solving them, expertly balanced and matched equipment exacerbated mail's problems. As play became more and more predictable, spectator appeal diminished. Wagers - a feature of the game so important that they are addressed as the very first rule of the pre-1650, Les Loix de Paillemail (The Laws of Pall-Mall) - dried up. Gimmicks, including running after each shot, were introduced. The medicine wasn't strong enough. The once-healthy patient was in terminal decline.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 78) wrote: 'The game is extremely tiresome and subject to many drawbacks. One frequently sees people crippled by being struck by the ball: others succumb to pleurisy which lands them in the grave. The Turks, who have seen the game played here (France), say that our people are absolutely crazy to propel a wooden ball with powerful blows and then run madly after it, to drive it again from the place where it stopped.' The philosopher's final salvo was devastating: 'Of all the professions, it (that of the palemardier) is the most useless! A skilful player is no more than a despicable layabout.'

Much like poodles, once admired as fine hunting dogs, mail had become over-bred. Its sportive soul and irresistible charm had been progressively suffocated by fulsome etiquette, pedantic rules, perfect alleys and the dictates of fashion. Lauthier added to the malaise, when he carped: '...it is not pleasant to see persons of quality playing in public without jacket or waistcoat or without a wig'. When it came, confirmation of the game's demise was bitter but not unexpected. In 1752, two years before the founding of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St. Simeon wrote in his Memoirs: 'Mail is an almost forgotten game'. Louis XIV took great pleasure in watching mail being played. Only Le Noble Jeu de Mail de Montpellier managed to cling tenaciously to its hold on sporting favour. Yet even this ancient game was vulnerable to the vagaries of fashion and history. In 1939, as guns rumbling in the East presaged a new devastating war, a handful of spectators heard the final crisp click of chestnut on boxwood in Montpellier.

But hundreds of years earlier, another variant of mail was already being played passionately in the French and Italian countryside by men who rolled up their sleeves, sweated, cursed and laughed as they stamped through gorse and briars, muddy pastures, creeks, hills and dales. Playing on Nature's courses - free from dress codes, precedence and disapproving eyes - was an exhilarating experience. These were the pioneer players of mail à la chicane, a hardy breed of sportsman who defined the spirit of what would become golf. The laws of the game were enforced by an uncompromising code of honour. Despite regularly finding their boule in a lie that would have their modern brothers reaching for Valium - the keystone rule was merciless: 'Play your ball where it lies'. The earliest rules of golf (Edinburgh, 1744) paraphrased this particular clause, but retained the sense: 'You are not to remove stones, Bones or any Break Club, for the sake of playing your ball'.

Cavaliers contest a singles match of mail a la chicane. Willem Schellincks, 1678.
Cavaliers contest a singles match of mail à la chicane. Willem Schellincks, 1678. (Courtesy Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and Golf Through The Ages)

In a continuation of rules begun before the time of the Gauls, the Académie Universelle Des Jeux, Regles Generales Du Jeu De Mail (1739), wrote: For the game called Chicane, one plays in the heart of the countryside, on alleys, paths and everywhere where one meets; one usually commences with a teed-up drive after which one plays the ball from whatever stony or difficult lie in which it is found, and one finishes the round by touching a tree or a marked stone which serves as the goal, or in passing through certain narrow goals (détroits) which have been agreed, and he whose ball goes farthest, if the players are even, or the former, one-up, will have won.

As seen in Willem Schellinck's beautiful 1678 painting of a match near Rome, sometimes early players of mail à la chicane were blessed with a dry river bed in which they could build a course for summer play. Usually, however, they played across the countryside. Judged by today's standards, the 'courses' offered conditions approaching the impossible, while the equipment was hopelessly inadequate for the job at hand. Think about playing through stones, streams, bushes and rough - in the truest sense of the word - driving a 6-8 oz wooden ball with a mallet that has one face lofted about 5°, and the other, 15°! The art of shot-making had achieved its zenith.

Mail à la chicane blazed the trail for golf. The spirit, nature of play and even the rules of mail would be adopted by Scottish golf. The most distinctive moves away from traditional game of were seen in the modification of playing equipment and, eventually, the manner of making the scoring shot. A club (eventually multiple clubs) replaced the mallet, while the large wooden boule was replaced by a small, elastic, leather-covered, feather-stuffed sphere. The Scots, unlike Continental artisans, simply didn't have the necessary skills to produce small wooden balls that would fly true. But when all was said and done, the featheries turned out to be surprisingly accurate and carried much farther than their wooden counterparts.

In the absence of documentation and pictures showing how early golf was played in Scotland, we have no idea what type scoring shot was played, nor when a hole was introduced as the target goal. Generations may have passed before the first longnose putter was hurled into the whins after a four-putt green. Perhaps early Scottish golfers played to stones, churchyard doors or marks on trees - all, for hundreds of years, features of golf-like games.

Despite its obvious charm and passionate devotees, sometime in the mid-eighteenth century mail à la chicane silently disappeared from the sporting scene. The reasons were many, including urban expansion, a shift away from robust sports in favour of effete games such as billiards, and general changes in social practices and recreations. Meanwhile, however, a new club and ball game had emerged in Flanders, one that represented another giant step towards forming the character of golf, as we know it today.

FLANDERS

The Seven Deadly Sins, depicting Gula or Greed. Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516.
The Seven Deadly Sins, depicting Gula or Greed. Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516.
(Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Golf Through The Ages)

The Flemings, an independent-minded lot, have always been bonkers about ball games. As early as 1300, they were depicted playing medieval hockey and batting and fielding games. Better still, they have always had a dab hand when it comes to conceiving and making quality products. In Chronicles, Jean Froissart, in the midst of observations about the Hundred Years' War, noted that practically every sophisticated artisan-made product (such as saddles and bridles) came to Scotland from Flanders. So it was really no surprise when sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, illustrations in devotional books show that the Flemings were playing a new variant of golf, which they called 'colf', also the name for the wooden club with which it was played. The first depiction of the equipment is seen in a vignette entitled Gula (Gluttony), an admonitory Hieronymus Bosch painting of the 'Seven Deadly Sins'. The subject is a hungry colver (probably after a round on the Old Course at Ghent) attended by his doting child, wife and caddy, enjoying a snack at the nineteenth hole. In the foreground, a colf and a tennis-sized ball lie on the beaten dirt floor.

The next insight into Flemish colf is an eye-opener - a 'Eureka Moment' in the history of golf. For generations, the Scottish establishment has contended that the distinctive element that sets golf apart from all other earlier club and ball games is the putted scoring shot to a hole. An illumination from a Flemish prayer book dating from about 1480, depicts a kneeling golfer (the classic putting technique in Flanders), stroking a ball into the hole on a frozen canal. A copy of this scene painted in a breviary some twenty years later, confirms the existence of putting in Flemish colf. Other depictions - petering out about 1550 - show colf being played on ice and on land. Thus, two-hundred and sixty years before the earliest picture of golf in Scotland ('View of St Andrews from the Old Course' ca. 1740), we have incontrovertible evidence that putting (as well as driving and approach shots) was an integral part of Flemish golf.

Young Men Playing Flemish Colf. In the style of Simon Bening, ca. 1505.
Young Men Playing Flemish Colf. In the style of Simon Bening, ca. 1505.
(Courtesy Real Colegio de Corpus Christi, Valencia, and Golf Through The Ages)

The Flemings, who would eventually take their recreations with them as their diaspora led them to Scotland (and St Andrews, itself), had developed a game model based on un-opposed cross-county play, terminating in a putted stroke to a hole that was very close to the structure of golf, as we know it today. The major flaw was that their kolf - a one-piece wooden club, first illustrated in a match of hockey ca. 1250 - was severely obsolete. Compared technologically to French-built mallets - particularly those from Montpellier, the Rolls-Royces of playing instruments - the Flemings were still driving ox carts. But change was in the air. Just a quick skate away were their Low Country neighbours, masters of metal technology. The Dutch would herald in a new era of club making, using steam to bend and shape wooden shafts, while introducing the use of alloys and metals for clubheads, technology practically unknown in earlier European ball games.

THE NETHERLANDS

When not exploring, trading, colonising, fishing, painting, leading the wave of Humanism illuminating Europe, planting bulbs, firing kilns, making lace, being pious or celebrating boisterously, the Dutch - somehow always in step with the times - were playing games. Their recreational cornucopia is recorded in paintings, drawings, watercolours, engravings, sculptures and ubiquitous tiles known as wandtegeln. The games included tennis (kaatsen), ringball (beugelen or clooten), nine pins, bowling, stone throwing, badminton, sailing on beaches in wooden boats, and at least three variants of kolf (or colf), a single club game played year round.

A Game of IJskolf. Hendrik Avercamp, ca. 1625.
A Game of IJskolf. Hendrik Avercamp, ca. 1625.
(Courtesy Gemälde Galerie, Dresden, and Golf Through The Ages)

'Als het hard vriest, kolft men op het ijs.' The old proverb summed it up: 'When everything is frozen hard, one plays kolf on the ice.' Winter in the Netherlands, was a time for sporting activities, skating, strolling, sledding and socialising. Intoxicated by nature, the Dutch, en masse, took to the ice. The vast surfaces created by frozen rivers, inland seas and lakes, inspired new variants of kolf, which, when played on ice was called ijskolf, or kolf op het ijs. Some of these were based on pall-mall, played from the early 1600's on gracious, tree-shaded malls (the maliebaen) in Amsterdam, Utrecht, den Haag and other Dutch cities.

The same basic short and long variants they enjoyed on land were transferred to the cold unforgiving slippery surface that was the focal point of Dutch life until early spring. The equipment for the short variant of kolf on ice was the same as on land: A sheepskin-covered wool-stuffed ball called a kolfbal or cloot (which was also used for hand-tennis) and a kolf, its curved head clad in a sheath made of pewter, lead or a base alloy of lead and tin. Play was to improvised targets such as a stick or rowing- boat, or to a purpose-made target such as a stake (the staeken) or post (the paal), anchored or frozen in the ice. Kolvers are usually depicted playing in ordinary footwear, which limited the swing to a compact hands and arms stroke to avoid losing balance and taking a tumble on the unforgiving surface.

The combination of a soft metal club head and a soggy ball meant that the game could be contested on a modest surface, with no more than a few dozen yards between the initial shot and the scoring stroke - usually played near the banks of a canal, lake or river. The proximity to the shoreline attracted the curious, whom Dutch artists regularly included in their pictures. The soft cloot, when struck off line, posed no more danger to spectators than a snowball. Longer ijskolf variants which required a full stoke, depended on a thin coating of snow for firm footing; otherwise, the players were obliged to wear ice spurs (the i-spoor). Since kolf had been played for generations, written rules were no more necessary than for a game of cards in the tavern, or pulling sleds on the IJssel. Kolf op het ijs was a harmonious social game, a logical extension of the Dutch need to get together, play a round for a few beers, and uncomplainingly make the best of long winters, short days and constant cold.

Master Slijper holding a brass headed iron. Anonymous painter, North Netherlands, 1612.
Master Slijper holding a brass headed iron. Anonymous painter, North Netherlands, 1612.
(Courtesy Museum Enkhuizen, The Netherlands, and Golf Through The Ages)

While the short variant of ijskolf was never more than a putting game - although the final scoring shot into rowing-boats and targets on land required an elevated chip - the Royal & Ancient game owes a debt to the Dutch for the first true iron, a stout-shafted wedge with a sharply lofted brass head (messingsloffen) designed to be played off bare lies without shattering. Along with ordinary variants kolf, there was another exclusive type of kolf played cross-country and on ice by the Dutch upper classes- a game that would illuminate one of golf's greatest mysteries - the state of the Scottish game in the early seventeenth century.

In Scotland, evidence of golf in the form of pre-eighteenth century woods and balls simply doesn't exist. This, compounded by the fact that there is no visual or written record showing how the game was played, has created a Caledonian Dark Ages of golf. But analysis of Dutch documents and paintings from this period provides an astounding insight into what early Scottish golf may have been - a game already in possession of elegant, sophisticated equipment, refined stroke technique, cross-country courses, forecaddies, and much more.

In Part V, 'Golf Arrives in Scotland - The Dutch Connection', for the first time ever the secrets of the early Scottish game are revealed by Michael Flannery.

 

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine







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