THE early history of golf, like that of most other ancient sports, is obscure and fragmentary, while its origin, buried in vague and voiceless prehistoric times, can only be guessed at. No doubt it all began in a very simple way. Far back in the dark ages, a warrior was exercising himself with his club one day, in time of peace. Seizing a round stone or block of wood, he hit it so hard and so truly that it flew over the neighbouring trees. After smiling complacently on his club, in pleased astonishment at the result, he hastened round to the other side to search for the missile. Having found it, he repeated the performance, and it is easy to picture him challenging his brother warriors to do the like. Easy also it is to fancy their attempts, the success of some, the failure of others, and the applause or jeers of the onlookers. After the longest hitter had in this manner established his reputation, certain cunning men of the tribe - men who had failed in the far-hitting contests - came to him and said, "Behold ! we see that our brother is strong, and that for strength there is none like him. And strength, truly, is a great thing, but so also is judgment, and he that hath strength without judgment is but as the ox that goeth in the furrows. Now, therefore, let our brother hit the stone so that it passes only between these two trees, or that it flies only to a spot which we have marked out behind the trees, and there remains, and lO ! we will lay the odds of 6 to 4 against him."
THE CLUB-HOUSE, ST. ANDREWS.
In some such manner, doubtless, was the first game of golf initiated, compact of strength and skill, a relaxation for the warrior's mind, "tired with war's alarms," and a method of keeping his body in condition against its renewal.
Seriously speaking, it is difficult to discover which nation may lay claim to the credit of inventing golf. People have been known to affirm that the game was played by the early Italians, and there are others who contend that the Dutch are our true golfing parents, sundry works of art being produced in support of both these contentions. The Italian myth has been exploded, as the drawing on which the theory was founded, was discovered, after all, to be a representation of a man slaying an ox, and not, as was at first enthusiastically supposed, the presentment of an early golfer hitting at a ball. The Dutch pictures remain, but it must be confessed that they are more of a testimony to the Dutchman's skill in art than a proof of his knowledge of golf, for the game, as he depicts it, is a very poor affair indeed. In one case it appears to be a sort of hockey, and in another it bears a strong resemblance to croquet, while it was obviously a matter of complete indifference what sort of ground it was played on. In addition, it must be remembered that, as various ancient records and statutes show, golf was played in Scotland at a much earlier date than the first Dutch pictorial representation of the game. Moreover, the Dutch were an artistic people and the Scotch were not, and it is absurd to argue that because the Dutch were artists and made pictures of the game, that therefore they were the first golfers. As well might it be claimed for them that they invented skating, bowls, and many other pastimes, which are represented in scores of Dutch pictures, but which have been common to many European countries for centuries.
It has been said, in referring to this question, that no trace of a hole, the characteristic feature of the Scottish game, is to be found in any Dutch or Flemish picture. This would have been a useful argument with which to support, if not to settle, the case for the Scottish origin of the game, but unfortunately it is no longer available. In a beautifully illuminated Book of Hours, in the British Museum, executed at Bruges about 1510, there is a representation of four golfers, one of whom is putting at an unmistakable hole. Exception may be taken to the player's costume, his manner of kneeling on the ground, and his grip of the club, but there is no doubt about the hole.
I do not think, however, that the presence of the hole in this early Flemish picture weakens, to any great extent, the case for the Scottish origin of the game. It only proves, what is not surprising, that the hole was also known in the Low Countries. But Dutch and Flemish golfers are depicted playing at many other marks, such as pegs, stones, and church and pot-house doors. This shows, at any rate, that in the Low Countries the hole was not de rigueur, as it always has been in Scotland, and that the game of the Hollander was a bastard one, without the purity and simplicity which have always characterised its practice in Scotland. There, the mark has always been the hole, the true hole, and nothing but the hole.
Although it may be impossible, from the facts at our disposal, to arrive at any positive finding, I submit that the balance of probability, and even of evidence, is in favour of the Scottish origin of golf. The game has been practised in Scotland, in all its essential particulars, for many centuries, and that with an ardour and persistency unknown elsewhere. If the Dutch or Flemings played any game akin to ours, it seems more reasonable to suppose, in view of their widely different practice and their feebler enthusiasm, that their game was only a clumsy copy of what they saw at Leith and Musselburgh.
Be these things as they may, golf in these islands has certainly come to stay, and the surprising thing is that, with the firm hold it has so long had in Scotland, it should have taken so long to become popular in England, and that its popularity there should have been so sudden and widespread. Fifty years ago there was but one golf club in England; to-day there are nearly 1,000, while everywhere, all over the world, where Scotchmen and Englishmen are to be found, golf clubs are springing up and the game is being enthusiastically prosecuted.