A French bogey over golf's birthplace

FOR centuries, Scots have claimed it as one of their great inventions, a sport which was exported from these shores and conquered the globe.

But now Scotland’s proud reputation as the home of golf is under threat, from historians who claim the game was first played in France.

The latest aspersions to be cast on Scotland’s place as the originator of the game are found in a major new book, Golf Through The Ages, 600 Years of Golfing Art, which will be published in the UK next year.

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The pictorial iconography has gathered images from around the world which illustrate the development of ball and stick games over six centuries, culminating in the modern game of golf.

Authors Michael Flannery and Richard Leech believe that one of the pictures, from a 15th-century French Book of Hours, is the earliest evidence of golf as we know it today.

Their research would appear to trounce Scotland’s dearly held belief that golf as we recognise it was being played here as early as 1457, as well as claims made by a German academic last year that the Netherlands gave birth to the game.

The image on which Flannery and Leech base their belief is an illuminated plate from the Heures de la Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Book of Hours which art historians believe was created for a member of the French nobility between 1450 and 1460, before falling into the hands of Adelaide de Savoy, the Duchess of Burgundy.

The February calendar plate of the 15th-century book represents men against a backdrop of Loire Valley chateaux playing the ball and stick game known then as pallemail.

In the right hand border and foreground, three teams of four players are depicted contesting a game using a ball and sticks. To the right, one team stands on a gravel path or rough area, advancing a ball towards a short putting green.

In the foreground, two teams are playing on the short green. The players are aiming at a tapered wooden "piquet" or target-stake, which Flannery and Leech believe to be the location of the hole - the essential element of the game of golf.

Flannery points out that the game depicted in 1450 involves no physical opposition and is a multi-club game, using both the curved "crosse" and a "maille" made out of two pieces, rather than a single piece of wood.

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He told The Scotsman: "This picture has the elements that we associate with golf today - a multi-club game using a stick made from a shaft locked into another piece of wood, a ball, a target, a hole and no physical opposition. This picture leads us to believe that the French were playing golf as we know it at this time - and that Scotland did not invent golf."

Scotland’s claim as the true home of golf rests on a 15th-century Act of Parliament.

In a resolution of 6 March 1457, King James II of Scotland banned football and "ye golf" because the distractions were stopping his subjects from practising military skills such as archery.

The date of the edict is contemporaneous to that of the illustration in the French book.

However, Flannery and Leech back claims made last year by Heiner Gillmeister, a German academic and sports historian, that the so-called golf being played in Scotland at the time was actually a primitive form of hockey, or "crosse", in which teams competed for the ball in what often resulted in violent scenes of disorder. Like Gillmeister, they believe that game was brought to Scotland by Flemish traders, taking its name from the Dutch "kolve" or "kolf", a shepherd’s crook once used in some ball games.

Flannery, who was born in the United States and now runs a golf memorabilia and antiques shop near Frankfurt in Germany, told The Scotsman: "The golf banned by James II was in fact a form of crosse, a game which was being played across Europe at that time and being banned in many countries because it often resulted in violence and disorder.

"The game banned in Scotland bore no resemblance to the game we know today - the names just share a linguistic resemblance. The plate in the Book of Hours shows a sophisticated, leisurely game, played by people with time on their hands. Why would a king ban it? Around the time the violent game was being banned in Scotland, the French were playing golf as we know it in the Loire Valley."

Flannery points out that Scotland’s first pictorial representation of golf is View of St Andrews from the Old Course, a painting by an unknown artist believed to date from around 1740.

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Dr Gillmeister, a professor of English at Bonn university with a special interest in the history of sport, agreed that the Duchesse de Bourgogne plate is the earliest pictorial evidence of golf as we know it.

And he added:

"I do not think the Scots can argue any further that they invented the game - the golf that was banned bore little resemblance to the game we play today."

However, Sam Groves, the curator at the British Golf Museum at St Andrews, upheld its claim as the creator of the game.

Ms Groves said yesterday: "The British Golf Museum can only comment on the written evidence."

He added: "The earliest written reference to golf dates to 1457, when King James II of Scotland banned golf and football on the grounds that they were keeping his subjects from their archery practice."

• The book can be purchased by visiting the website www.golfthroughtheages.com

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