It is statute an ordinit that in na place
of the realme be there usit...Golfe or
uther sik unprofitabill sportis.
—JAMES IV to Parliament in Edinburgh May 16, 1491
It was a gray, drizzly day like most in Scotland, and there was I, a lonely shepherd, strolling along a swollen dune by the North Sea looking for a wee stance to hit wi' a bit crook. Clumps of heather were up to my knees and the yellow-tipped whin was up to my chest, and I was up to here with my sheep because the little dumplings had wandered away. I had this crooked stick, that I normally used to keep the dumplings in line, in my hand. You know. Firm left side, eye on the tailbone, slow backswing—and whap. But they were gone and I was just ambling along when I saw this chuckie stane, as it was called, this round pebble. I also saw this rabbit scrape, as it was called, through an opening in the heather and whin. So I said to myself, "Self, why don't you take your bit crook and try to knock this here stane into that there scrape? And stay out of the heather because, boy, it'll make your hand ring." Well, I guess I took it back a little outside, because I cut a low one right into the garbage and almost never did find it, but anyhow, this is how I came to invent the game of golf a few hundred years ago.
There are those, of course, who claim that I did not invent golf in another life, nor did any other Scot. Some say the Romans did it long before me and called it Paganica, which, between you and me, sounds like a joint over on East 56th with a big tab. Some say the Dutch invented golf, or a game called kolven, which was similar. But no way. Kolven has to be a roll of veal stuffed with cheese and chives. Some even say that the French originated golf under the name of jeu de mail, but, as any European traveler knows, this is a game for the big players in Monaco.
The fact of the matter is, golf is a Scottish game. It is naturally Scottish, as natural to our instincts as the seaside links land is natural to the setting. It was the Scots, after all, who took the game and did something with it when everybody else was busy making crossbows. We made the courses and the clubs, the balls and the rules, the trophies and the tournaments. We invented wind and rough, hooks and slices, bunkers and doglegs, and we were just getting ready to invent the overlapping grip when Harry Vardon, an Englishman, beat us to it.
We looked at the seashores, our links-land, and said this is where the glory's at. Let the wet wind blow in from Denmark or wherever it comes from. Let the incursions of the sea make the giant dunes and the tumbling valleys. Let the birds bring in the seeds that will grow our curious rough—the wiry, purple heather, the bulging whin, the fern we'll call bracken and the broom, that does not have thorns to distinguish itself from whin, or gorse.
No, I don't know what the Romans, the Dutch and the French were doing around the 1450s, but we Scots were playing golfe then and had been. At least we were when the kings would permit it, there being, from time to time, this nagging problem of national service. Had to go fight the English. Cancel my starting time.
There was an afternoon, I recall, when the game came close to being banished forever. As it happened, I was out on a moor at St. Andrews trying out a new Auchterlonie driving spoon at the 11th—the short hole, of course—when a king's guard rose up out of the whin and handed me a scroll signed by our monarch.
The scroll said, "It is decreetid and ordained...that the Fute-ball and the Golf be utterly cryit doune, and nocht to be usit."
"Guy never could spell," I said.
The guard pointed his crossbow at me and said that the king, Jimmy the Roman Numeral, meant business.