When I first set out to write a book tracing the origins and charting the evolution of this strange sport in which a number of special clubs are used to hit a small, stationary ball into a series of widely spaced holes in the ground, I encountered pretty much universal reactions of befuddlement and disbelief from my fellow players that could probably best be summarized as, “Who gives a rat’s patootie about the history of golf? Just tell me how in hell to play the stupid game.”
I was tempted to respond by quoting the famous admonition made by the great philosopher George Santayana (16-handicap, played a big fade, a demon with the flat stick)—namely, that those who do not study history are condemned to study much more difficult subjects like trigonometry, Latin, or Russian literature—but I realized they had a point.
After all, this frustrating, infuriating, but ultimately captivating pastime has plenty of far more pressing mysteries to unravel than the question of where it came from—truly knotty problems like taming a snaphook, or battling the yips, or curing a case of the shanks.
And, honestly, who cares whether the head case who dreamed the whole thing up was a Scottish whackjob, a Dutch whackjob, or even a Chinese whackjob? We still have to figure out how to slash a ball out of hip-high rough, or blast a sand shot from an unraked footprint in a bunker, or hit a duffed drive off the ladies’ tee with dignity.
Well, the fact is that the numerous and often quite detailed accounts of the genesis and growth of golf really do have much of practical value to offer even casual students of the game, who can derive immediate and tangible benefits from little more than a passing familiarity with a few key items in the sport’s rich chronology.
For instance, if your tee shot on a water hole lands in the drink, you might want to remind your fellow players of the royal decree promulgated by King James in 1606 guaranteeing “safe, free, and fair passage over all ye waters and washes of ye realm, be they firths, lochs, tarns, burns, runnels, sloughs, fens, or bogs, for all and sundry, and for their goods and chattels, without hindrance, fee, or penalty, from now and for all time.”
Similarly, a golfer who finds his or her ball in an obstructed lie behind a large tree would do well to recall Admiralty Order 27 issued by the Sea Lords of the Cinque Ports in 1557 reserving prime stands of timber for future use as spars in ships of the Royal Navy and requiring all persons to take such steps as are reasonably necessary to preserve particularly fine woodland specimens from harm, including, of course, preventing the damage that could be caused by a blocked shot that chipped the bark of an obvious candidate for conversion into the mast of a frigate.
And a competitor facing a hopeless downhill double-breaking twenty-five-foot money putt on the 18th hole of a Sunday skins match might choose to cite the Edinburgh Council’s prohibition of 1592 against “playing golf in time of sermons” and insist on a draw, perhaps accompanying his opportune recollection of the ban on Sabbath play with a sharp slap to his forehead to display remorse at his prior forgetfulness of the obligation to engage in more appropriately pious pursuits on the day of rest.
Now surely, out of a sense of respect for the time-honored customs and centuries-old traditions of golf, and in recognition of the memorable exploits on the links of so many legendary players celebrated in its chronicles, you owe it to yourself and, yes, to the very spirit of this great game, to take a do-over on that tee shot that got wet, throw that stymied ball out into the fairway, and pick up that putt.
And in any event, always bear in mind that, as was so aptly remarked by the noted essayist and critic Ralph “Wild-o” Emerson (a scratch player but inclined to spray his drives, hence his nickname), the only reason it’s called “golf” is that all the other four-letter words were already taken.
© 2009 Henry Beard