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The Origin of The Royal and Ancient Game of Golf

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With the site of the British Open at Turnberry in Scotland next month, it’s an appropriate time to review what is known about golf’s beginnings.

We know that the earliest written reference to golf in Scotland was in the famous Act of Parliament of 1457. We know as well, as Robert Browning writes in his book A History of Golf (1955), that

“from the Peace of Glasgow in 1502 to the Revolution of 1688, every reigning monarch of the Stuart line — two kings and one queen of Scotland, four kings of the United Kingdom — was a golfer.”

It’s not called “The Royal and Ancient Game of Golf” for nothing!

But what of golf’s actual origin, its “big bang?” Sir Walter G. Simpson in his book The Art of Golf, published in 1887, suggests the following “two shepherds theory:”

“A shepherd tending his sheep would often chance upon a round pebble, and having his crook in his hand, he would strike it away…On pastures green this led to nothing : but one on a time (probably) a shepherd, feeding his sheep on a links—perhaps those of St. Andrews—rolled one of these stones into a rabbit scrape. “

The shepherd then hailed another who attempts to duplicate the feat, but fails. They then deepen the rabbit scrape and begin practicing. Simpson continues,

“The stronger but less skillful shepherd, finding himself worsted at this amusement, protested that it was a fairer test of skill to play the hole from a considerable distance. This being arranged, the game was found to be much more varied and interesting.”

It makes a nice story. But an anonymous poet gives us an even better one in verse (from The Golf-Book of East Lothian (1896) by John Kerr:

When Caledonia, stern and wild,
Was still a poor unkilted child,
Two simple shepherds clad in skins,
With leathern thongs about their shins,
Finding that dullness day by day
Grew irksome, felt a wish to play.
But where the game? In those dark ages
They couldn’t toss—they had no wages.
Till one, the brighter of the two,
Hit on a something he could do.

He hit a pebble with his crook,
And sent the stone across a brook;
The other, tempted then to strike,
With equal ardour ‘played the like,’
And thus they went with heart and soul
Toward a distant quarry-hole,

With new success contented.
‘Twas thus the prehistoric Scot
Did wonders by an idle shot,
And golf was first invented.

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