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Michael Flannery

Part V: Early Golf in Scotland - The Dutch Connection


Early Scottish golf history is virtually non-existent - a historical haggis made up of scraps from letters, laws, accounts and diaries; a series of documentary nods and winks that leaves the reader to interpret whether it really was golf, as we know it, that was being discussed. Since there are no artefacts pre-dating the eighteenth century, nor are there pictures of golf in Scotland prior to c. 1740, we have no clear impression of the Scottish game in its formative years. Was it a multi-club game? Was it played cross-country? Was golf played on iced surfaces in winter? Did it involve putting to a hole? What kind of playing equipment did it use? For answers we must turn elsewhere.

'Boys Playing Kolf on a Road.' Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy, ca. 1624.
'Boys Playing Kolf on a Road.' Nicolaes Eliasz. Pickenoy, ca. 1624.
(Courtesy The Six Collection and Golf Through The Ages)

History demonstrates that like food and drink, legislation, medicine, music, clothing, transportation, literature, science and practically everything else, golf would have adopted characteristics from both earlier and contemporary models to form its nature. One of these, we know, was pall-mall, a passion of Scottish royals and nobility throughout Europe, a club and ball game which clearly influenced the manner in which golf would be played. But let's turn the sport-historical riddle around. Is it possible that golf, as played in Scotland over four centuries ago, was no longer derivative but, rather, already served as a role model for ball games popular in neighbouring countries?

To find the answer, we turn to the Netherlands, the year-round game known as kolf or colf, and the three 'A's: Afferden, Avercamp, and 's Amsterdamsers winter. When analysed together, these most diverse elements provide an astonishing insight into what may have been the state of Scottish golf in the 17th century.

Our story begins 464 years ago in Harderwijk, a sleepy hamlet in the Netherlands province of Gelderland. The sturdy medieval buildings, pastoral landscape and broad river caressing its shores, paint a deceptive picture, one that conceals brooding political unrest that would soon erupt into seemingly endless warfare.

The Netherlands was on the brink of an era of turbulence and bloodshed unprecedented in its history. In 1543, under the rule of Charles V of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and Duke of Burgundy, the Duchy of Guelders (Gelderland) had been the final regional sheep to be herded into a political flock known as the 'Seventeen Provinces' - a minute part of an empire that would eventually span four million square kilometers. The move was an early step in a volatile religious and political policy that in 1568, would ignite into the devastating 'Eighty Years War', which in its bloody terminal phase, ran in parallel with the Thirty Years War.

'Kolfing to Stakes', a short putting variant of kolf, also played on ice. Dutch ceramic tile, first-half 17th century.
'Kolfing to Stakes', a short putting variant of kolf, also played on ice. Dutch ceramic tile, first-half 17th century.
(Courtesy Jan Pluis, Kinderspelen op tegels, and Golf Through The Ages)

Bent over his sturdy oak desk, the thoughts of Pieter van Afferden, a 35-year-old Dutch schoolmaster, were far from war. After years of research and writing, he had finally completed Tyrocinium lingue Latinae, an ambitious Latin-Dutch phrasebook, to which, in the manner of Renaissance Humanists everywhere, he signed his Latinized name, Petrus Apherdianus. His thoughts may have been troubled. Was the subject matter sufficiently diversified and stimulating to have broad popular appeal? Would his fellow burghers be interested enough to buy the phrase-book? Would he find a printer of stature, who was prepared to make the substantial investment in paper, typesetting and bindings, and then promote and distribute the work throughout the Netherlands and the key foreign markets where scholars played a decisive role in successful sales?

Afferden had already contacted Johannes de Laet, a highly influential publisher and director of the Dutch West India Company. The imprimatur of the distinguished geographer and cartographer would practically guarantee success of any work. And in his heart, the young author felt that Tyrocinium filled a vital niche in the book market created by Guttenberg's introduction of moveable type in the Europe print industry. Mechanical printing had dramatically reduced the cost of books, while making them accessible to a broad public, and demand for self-improvement works was booming. Pieter van Afferden was certain that the content and novel format of Tyrocinium filled a vital niche in the marketplace.

Instead of hewing to the largely inflexible word and definition structure of the recent dictionaries written by Murmelius, Curius and Paludanus, Afferden's didactic work actually facilitated the use of Latin (the language of the educated class) in daily conversation. Its 47 numbered chapters offered complete phrases for a range of topics that covered the daily spectrum: health and home; meat, fish, bread, milk and beer; school and schoolbooks; animals, birds and insects; seafaring, commerce, divine service and the royal court. The final four chapters, De Lusu (The Games) were the icing - a 'How to Play' manual with terminology, rules and etiquette for the most popular of Dutch sports, including ball throwing to a hole; tennis played with the palm and racket; the wildly popular ancient game of ringball or cloish - the longest chapter in De Lusu; and, for the posterity of sport, Dutch kolf, presented as a dialogue between players. Chapter 24 gives us a strikingly detailed picture of early golf in the Netherlands, including banter that wouldn't be out of place on the Old Course today.

Although Johannes de Laet had died in 1549, the first Latin-Dutch edition of Tyrocinium was published under his imprint in Antwerp, 1552. The work soon caught the eye of Johannes Gymnich of the famous Cologne printing dynasty, who followed up in 1575 with the first Latin-German edition. Tyrocinium was a runaway best seller. By 1653, fourteen Latin-Dutch and nine Latin-German editions had been published. There is little doubt that its success in the Netherlands and Germany was due in part to Chapters 21-24, De Lusu devoted to the most popular adult ball games of Holland, equally popular across the border shared with Germany.

As the 25 phrases of the golf dialogue reveal, before teeing off players had to decide what type of club they would play. The choice was between a club with a lead head (clava plumbata), and a 'tough and useful club' (Clave lenta & commodious), possibly a one-piece wooden club such as that used in the Flemish game. The match - apparently stroke play - then began with a drive.

Examples of the text follow, with English equivalents of the Latin, German and Dutch phrases, offered from a golfer's perspective:
Move back a bit while I drive. Step back a bit, you're in my light.
What do you think of that? Not bad! That's a great shot!
Whoever misses the ball loses a shot.

I'm not far from the target (cuyl). I'm going for it! (When the Aberdeen school master David Wedderburn, wrote his own golfing dialogue about 1636, he lifted this phrase almost literally for the golf text of his own Vocabula.)

The match continues:
Who's up? Johan has the honours.
But I'm playing first. No way, that's not the way it's done. You wait your turn.

And finally, a phrase we can all identify with:
I didn't play badly. It just wasn't my day.

In Tyrocinium, we find clear evidence of a mid-16th century early form of golf - i.e. each player equipped with his own club and ball, playing in the countryside without physical opposition or distraction, until the final scoring shot, described by one of the players: "ick will den bal lichtelijck in doen" (I want to stroke the ball in). Were they putting? If so, was it to a hole?

'Winter Landscape with Snowfall near Antwerp.' An ijskolver plays an approach chip to a concealed goal. Lucas Valkenborch, 1575.
'Winter Landscape with Snowfall near Antwerp.' An ijskolver plays an approach chip to a concealed goal. Lucas Valkenborch, 1575.
(Courtesy Staedelisches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, & Golf Through The Ages)

From illuminations in Flemish and French devotional books dating from about 1480 to 1550, we know that a hole on ice or on a green was used for the putted scoring shot in the game of colf. The Dutch, however, seem not to have adopted this practice. The word used in Afferden's text is 'cuyl', meaning ditch, hollow or depression, which in 1575 was translated into German as 'Gruben', with the same basic sense. Chapter 22, entitled de Sphaeris missilibus or cloot werpen, describes a game in which the ball was thrown to a target hole. Here, Afferden, always precise in his descriptions, uses the term 'cuylkens' (a diminutive) rather than cuyl, to describe the target, a hole cut into the ground with a knife.

Clearly, the Dutch were playing a game which, seen in the context of Afferden's dialogue, had many features of golf. But was it truly golf as we know it today, or rather some variant of kolf played with soft balls and lead headed clubs - ill-suited for a true cross-country game? All known Dutch clubs at the time, were designed for short game variants, which is logical when we consider the limited, highly-cultivated and heavily-grazed, densely-populated land mass that made up the Netherlands.

By the mid-16th century, the Dutch had launched a new wave of clubmaking, incorporating state-of the-art technology, using traditional materials - lead and a lead-tin alloy for club heads, and ash for shafts. Analysing conventional club heads shows that they had a basically triangular section which meant that both faces were lofted, perhaps as much as 15°. Decorative grips made of tow or leather, often with fringes, offered a sure hold, particularly in winter, although players, with the exception of long driving and point-point variants of ijskolf, are usually pictured barehanded.

The underwater archaeological excavation of the 'Biddinghuizer kolfschip' (dating to c. 1540) shows there were already at least two other club variants available to kolvers. One had a solid cast head, the other, a sheath-like cast club head, both made of lead. The clubs, perfectly conserved, included models for adults and children in both left and right-hand variants. They offered one non-lofted face for putting, while the other face had a loft of about 30°, for elevated scoring shots.

'Somer'. A monkey with a smooth 'modern' swing prepares to drive a teed-up ball. Julius Saedeler, after Pieter van der Borcht, c. 1620.
'Somer'. A monkey with a smooth 'modern' swing prepares to drive a teed-up ball. Julius Saedeler, after Pieter van der Borcht, c. 1620.
(Courtesy of Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam, and Golf Through The Ages)

So despite an impressive choice of equipment, the question remains: Did the Dutch in the mid-16th century have the equipment necessary to transform a mundane short variant of kolf into a game that we would recognise as being similar to Scottish golf? The answer is no. Nothing in the extensive documentation and iconography of Dutch kolf until the first quarter of the 17th century, gives any hint of a true golf-like long game - although a copper engraving by Justus Sadeler, (1583 - 1620) after Pieter van der Borcht, shows a monkey with a fine left-hand swing driving a teed-up ball - indicating the requisite technique to propel a ball a long distance. But before reading too much into this unique illustration, we have to consider that it could simply have been a long-driving contest - perhaps based on Mail au Grand Coup - and not the tee shot of golf.

As we know, the absence of proof is not necessarily the proof of absence. Still it is with a sense of amazement that around 1620, we find indisputable evidence of a golf-like game being played on Dutch ice with long nose clubs and feather balls. The second key figure in deciphering the mystery of early Scottish golf was the most unlikely of candidates - a mute painter living in a village transformed by winter into a booming centre for sports and recreations on ice.


Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634), born in Amsterdam, was only a year old when his family moved to Kampen, a medieval village nestled along a dike near the shore of Zuider Zee. Hendrick's parents were cultured and well-travelled. In Kampen, his father first held the town post of apothecary and later became its physician, ensuring a comfortable life style and an opportunity for the 18-year old Hedrick to study art in Amsterdam with the Danish painter, Pieter Isacksz, where his silence in the studio led other students to nickname him 'The Mute'. In fact, it was a birth defect that made him turn to his sketchbooks, canvases and wood panels to communicate with his friends and family, and to earn a living from his artistic talent.

The nearby Zuider Zee (now IJsselmeer) became his open air studio - its giant surfaces transformed in winter when the Dutch moved en masse onto the ice. Avercamp became the most prolific and popular winter scene painter of the Dutch Golden Age - the first decades of the 17th century, known as the 'Small Ice Age'. His paintings are filled with strolling couples, ice sleds with oars, and vignettes of citizens going about their daily chores. Most important for us was his fascination for IJskolf, golf on ice. No other painter has left us such a precise visual documentation of a club and ball game. From the wealth of detail captured by the mute painter, we can extrapolate visual evidence of the probable state of Scottish golf in the early 1600's.

'Winter Landscape' (detail). A Long Variant of Ijskolf played with 'Scottish Cleeks' and Feather Balls. Hendrick Avercamp, c. 1625.
(Courtesy TeylersMuseum, Haarlem, and Golf Through The Ages)

About 1625, Avercamp painted the first of his depictions of golfers driving from the ice, using clubs remarkably similar to the earliest surviving 18th century Scottish long noses. (Although the artist usually monogrammed his works, he did not date them, thus dating - usually determined by the costume worn - is approximate, probably accurate to within 10 years.) Like the long noses, the small balls, too, recall what we know of early Scottish featheries. At the address, as a result of the clearly visible ice spurs (the i-spoor) worn to achieve firm footing, the players, are tipped slightly on their toes. The metal spurs, fastened in front of the golfers' boots, are designed to bite into the ice under the arches.

The kolver's stance is closed, arms and shaft extended at roughly 45° from his body, gloved hands close together in a 'natural' grip, with the ball positioned squarely in the middle of the club face. A forecaddie, eyes fixed on the ice golfers, cloth dangling from his hand, stands in the distance, signalling the line. Beyond the forecaddie is a ship, masts bare, perhaps frozen in the ice. Could this be the target?

'A St Nicolas Party' (detail). A young boy excitedly shows his presents, a 'Scottish Cleek' and a feather ball. Jan Steen, c. 1670.
'A St Nicolas Party' (detail). A young boy excitedly shows his presents, a 'Scottish Cleek' and a feather ball. Jan Steen, c. 1670. (Courtesy Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and Golf Through The Ages)

The drive (and perhaps all subsequent shots) was taken without a tee off the bare ice - a testimony to an extraordinary stroke technique - something we observed in 1676, in a painting by Willem Schellincks of Mail à la Chicane (published as an illustration in Part IV, Golf The True History).

Considering the fragile nature of the long nose playclub (driver), to avoid shattering it on the ice required consummate deftness of stroke. Although whipping (the tarred cord) which secured the scare (joint between the head and shaft) is not visible in this painting, it, along with other characteristic details of a Scottish long nose, is clearly evident in the delightful c. 1670 painting by Jan Steen, 'A Nicolas Party', showing a little boy proudly flourishing his feather ball and long nose club.

The chase quickens - the end in sight. We now know, unequivocally, that in the first half of the 1500s, a golf-like sport was being played in the Netherlands countryside. All that was missing before it could spread its wings and soar to the level of the Scottish game, was the right equipment - a high compression ball and a complimentary club. Thanks to the immortal art of 'De Stomme van Kampen', we know that by the early 17th century, such equipment was available and used in long variants of IJskolf on the frozen courses created by the 'Small Ice Age'.

'Master Slijper' - a solemn boy in a ruff collar poses holding a brass-headed kolf. Unknown North Dutch Master, 1612.
'Master Slijper' – a solemn boy in a ruff collar poses holding a brass-headed kolf. Unknown North Dutch Master, 1612. (Courtesy Museum Enkhuizen, and Golf Through The Ages)

At the same time, we are aware that the Dutch tradition of kolf making was limited to two clunky variants, the most popular of which was based on a lead sheath into which an ash shaft, bent with steam into the desired curve, was inserted. The second category of clubs featured cast-metal heads made of lead, lead/tin alloys or, less-commonly, brass - all basically unsuitable for a true long game. Dutch balls, often those used for kaetsen (hand-tennis/ paume), were low compression, stuffed with cow hair.

This leaves us confronted with a crucial question. If the clubs and balls Avercamp depicted in these pictures weren't Dutch, where on earth did they come from? It is not until the mid-seventeenth century that we have a definitive answer and the final piece of our puzzle.


Son of a merchant from a Huguenot family, Johan Six van Chandelier (1620 - 1695) lived a life most of us only dream of, gallivanting around Europe, while doing just enough business to justify his expense accounts with the tax collector. The talented merchant, who spoke fluent Hebrew and a handful of other languages, travelled twice to England - not really his cup of tea - and spent agreeable years basking in the warm charm of southern Italy. Many of his works, including Poetry from a Spa, were based on his experiences. In 1657, Poësy (Poetry), which included a chapter entitled 's Amsterdamsers winter - The Winter of the Amsterdam Citizen, a tribute to his birthplace, was published.

A Kolver playing the point-to-point variant of IJskolf. Semi-permanent goals indicate that the course was used through the winter. Note that the kolver is playing on skates. Romeijn de Hoogh, c. 1700.
A Kolver playing the point-to-point variant of IJskolf. Semi-permanent goals indicate that the course was used through the winter. Note that the kolver is playing on skates. Romeijn de Hoogh, c. 1700. (Courtesy Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam, and Golf Through The Ages)
At the time, the poem, which contains a narrative of a typical point-to-point match of IJskolf, was simply delightful literary entertainment. Today, it can be viewed as a golf-historical bonanza. The precise description of equipment and the manner of play, give us a vital insight into not just Dutch kolf in the 17th century but, by inference, the state of early Scottish golf. A part of Chandelier's text is devoted the two variants of IJskolf; a long-driving game and a point-to-point contest, both played over an extended course. The first stanza translates as follows:

The golfer ties his ice spurs on or finds something rough to stand on,
When slippery ice is snowless it laughs and mocks smooth soles,
After the sides have been drawn, standing surely strikes his ash with lead weighted or his Scottish cleek of boxwood, three fingers wide, one thick, with lead in it, the feather ball from the tee, invisible until its fall observed by fore-caddies.

We note that two different clubs were used to drive the feather ball (pennebal), in the long variants of Ijskolf. Both were weighted with lead in the Scottish clubmaking tradition. One type was possibly made of ash (the Dutch word 'esp' was used, which could also mean maple - a wood available from Dutch Colonists in the New World), while the other is described as a Schotse Klik (Scottish cleek), made of boxwood, measuring three fingers wide and one thick. These are close to the measurements of the earliest extant Scottish long noses.

Both clubs must have been exciting novelties to warrant such precise description in a sporting culture that had been making kolf stokken for at least 150 years. Judging by Avercamp's depictions, the Scottish cleek - racy, elegant and exotic - was a thoroughbred in a stable filled with plough horses. Since the weight of the Schotse Klik was concentrated in the clubhead, and the shaft was long, thin and whippy, the club could be swung with speed, generating great force at impact.

A boy wearing ice spurs plays a long-variant of IJskolf. Adriaen van de Venne, 1626.
A boy wearing ice spurs plays a long-variant of IJskolf. Adriaen van de Venne, 1626. (Courtesy Department of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, and Golf Through The Ages)

Cross-country ijskolf players either carried a rough mat or cloth to stand on when striking the ball, or wore skates or i-spoor to gain firm footing on the frozen surface. This enabled them to strike an elevated shot with such force that it flew out of sight - its flight traced by fore-caddies (the ballemerker). Since the customary hair-filled kloot, also used in tennis, would have offered only modest flight and distance, a new small leather-covered ball stuffed with feathers had been introduced. Had the pennebal (similar to the Scottish featherie) evolved to match the size and characteristics of the Scottish cleek, or was it the other way round? We'll never know but it is probable that the Dutch had been spared the evolutionary process, and had imported the tried and true duo together - equipment already being used for the long game of golf, played contemporaneously on the links of Scotland.

's Amsterdamsers winter continues with details of the wagers. Each player kept his score notched on A slender stick (the kerfstok), the first scorecard. Failure to do so meant disqualification: For he who does not mind his tally-rod shall erase the sum altogether. Thus we see that Dutch ijskolvers suffered from the same difficulty of remembering all their strokes that has traditionally afflicted golfers. Using a kerfstok solved the problem, while whittling probably helped high-handicappers keep their hands warm. Long variants of ijskolf were contested by teams, although as seen in Avercamp's art, in the first 25 years of the 17th century, singles matches were the preferred manner of play.

While Dutch documentation and pictures present us with a bountiful historical harvest, there are no images of golf balls or clubs in Scotland prior to about 1740, nor have any early clubs resembling the Scottish cleek survived - although some wooden clubs conserved from the 18th century closely resemble the type of playing instrument depicted by Avercamp and, later, Jan Steen. The evidence, although circumstantial, is compelling. We may surmise that by the first quarter of the 17th century, the Scots had developed and exported a club with a weighted boxwood head, that in skilled hands, could drive a compatible ball so far in the air, that it was invisible from the driving point at its fall.

An Eighteenth Century Long Nose Club by Hugh Philp, and Feather Ball. Note the similarity to those pictured in 'A St Nicolas Party', in 1670.

Based on the three 'A's - Afferden, Avercamp, and 's Amsterdamsers winter - we have a new perspective of what Scottish golf may have been at the beginning of the 1600's: a single-club game played with an elegant long nose club (the Scottish cleek) and feather ball (the pennebal); equipment designed for long drives and approach shots, both at the heart of the modern game. And Scots being Scots, while enjoying the game at home, managed to finance their pleasure and a wee dram after the match, by exporting clubs and balls to their neighbours in the Netherlands.

In the final Part VI, 'Scotland - End of the Odyssey', Michael Flannery takes a look at the early days of golf in Scotland, its near demise and recovery, and its exportation to a welcoming world in the hands of Scottish ex-pats.


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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