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Ever since the Dark Ages, when a few Scots ambled over the dunes with their het kolvin sticks, slapping a ball around in something akin to golf, no sport has more universally or irreversibly awed its players and fans. THE ULTIMATE GOLF BOOK captures the world’s ultimate sporting passion as it has never been captured before, with a lively, authoritative history, stunning illustrations, and perhaps the finest collection of original writing on the sport ever assembled between two covers.
Putting a fresh, contemporary spin on the centuries-old story of golf, Sports Illustrated’s colorful senior writer John Garrity has written a delightful, loose-limbed riff of a history that travels the globe and the links, covering the key personalities, events, advances in technique and technology, proliferation of interest, and curious mystery of this international obsession. Complementing the history are twenty personal essays from a diverse group of literary low-handicappers, musing on everything from the Age of Tiger, to the woes of the lowly club pro, to the charm of playing golf in the dead of winter, to giving up the game altogether. All of this plays out against the dramatic backdrop of more than 300 photographs and illustrations, many rare and historic, many commissioned especially for this volume, which is truly one of a kind.
From the tee to the green, the clubhouse to the nuthouse, THE ULTIMATE GOLF BOOK is a must-have for any serious student of the game.
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Charles McGrath is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. Formerly a writer and editor for The New Yorker, McGrath edited Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature and frequently contributes to the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and other publications.
David McCormick is a literary agent and former editor at The New Yorker and Texas Monthly.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1 Scotland
Golf began in the dark in a hole actually. Some dissipated characters in medieval Scotland were out on the dunes one afternoon with their het kolvin sticks, slapping a ball around. One of them aimed at a rabbit burrow or a sand-filled crevice. When the ball toppled in, golf was born.
Golf historians are equally in the dark. Looking for a link to the stick-and-ball games of continental Europe, they pore over Flemish woodcuttings and sketches by Rembrandt of men in wide-brimmed hats using a bladed stick to roll a ball the size of a melon across a courtyard. Researchers are similarly enchanted by the French game of jeu de mal, which employed a flexible wooden mallet and a wooden ball, and by the Belgian game of chole, in which teams of players hit wooden balls through a designated door or gate up to a mile away. (The Dutch word tuitje, for the small mound of earth upon which the ball was placed for the first stroke, is an obvious forerunner to the golfer’s tee.”) Masters of the obvious have pointed out that a Low Countries variant of chole, called colf, was played in the shade of windmills as early as the thirteenth century.
Here we have a case where the lexicographer trumps the historian. The Oxford English Dictionary defines golf as a game of considerable antiquity . . . in which a small hard ball is struck with various clubs into a series of small cylindrical holes made at intervals usually of a hundred yards or more . . . with the fewest possible strokes.” No one reading this definition can miss what separates golf from all the other games employing clubs or mallets and small hard balls. It’s that little dark place where the ball goes.
Once we accept that golf is about holes in the ground, we can reflect on the fact that the holes are dispersed over a vast natural terrain. For that we owe King David I of Scotland, a twelfth-century monarch whose idea of a good time was cathedral building. It was on David’s watch that the previously forgettable fishing village of St. Andrews, on the North Sea between the Eden estuary and the River Forth, became the ecclesiastical center of Scotland. As a sop to the local folk a hodgepodge of Picts, Celts, and assorted Norsemen David decreed that certain lands be set aside for the free use of ordinary people. These commons or greens included some worthless tracts of linksland” places where rivers meet the sea, producing a rugged dunescape of sand and wild grasses. Neither David nor the common folk foresaw a recreational use for these lands or knew, for that matter, what recreation” was. The linksland was simply a place where any Angus or Owen could set snares in the dunes, hoping to capture a rabbit for the dinner pot.
Nevertheless, King David’s decree established a pattern of land use that allowed for the development of golf, first at St. Andrews where in 1552 Archbishop Hamilton affirmed the right of all to use the links for golff, futball, schuteing [and] all other manner of pastime” and later in the lowland shires along the Clyde and Forth estuaries. It would also give the Scots about 750 years to perfect the game before the rest of the world took notice.
What the Scots came up with was a sport that requires minimal exertion and no physical risk but demands that the players police their own conduct to a degree unknown in most other games or in life, for that matter while enduring whatever discomforts nature dispenses in the form of wind, rain, heat, or cold. We need only glance at the first thirteen rules of golf, set down by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1774, to see how golf answers the Calvinist demand for sufferance in the face of sustained ill fortune. If you should lose your ball by its being taken up or any other way,” reads rule eight, you are to go back to the spot where you struck last and drop another ball and allow your adversary a stroke for the misfortune.” Rule eleven imagines an even more dire circumstance: If you draw your club in order to strike and proceed so far with your stroke as to be bringing down your club, if then your club should break in any way, it is to be accounted a stroke.” The game’s gloomy rules owe in part to Scotland’s national temper, which was formed through centuries of gory conflict with its neighbor to the south, England. James IV of Scotland, who died in 1513 at the battle of Flodden Field, was a casual golfer. His granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots, celebrated the violent murder of her estranged husband, Lord Darnley, by playing golf at Seton with the Earl of Bothwell, the man suspected of arranging Darnley’s death and then, some years later, Mary herself lost her head at the order of her coousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Thankfully, by the seventeenth century the crowns of England and Scotland were unified under the Stuarts, and gggggolf temporarily replaced war and the executioner’s axe as the arbiters of aristocratic disputes. The Duke of York settled a quarrel with two English noblemen in the 1680s by challenging them to a money match on the links at Leith, and like many a hustler after him, the duke showed up with a suspiciously talented partner: a shoemaker with a good swing and a sure putting stroke. The shoemaker, John Patterson, earned enough from the match to build a home in Edinburgh that stood for almost three hundred years.
As durable as Patterson’s house is the concept that allowed a duke to partner with a shoemaker in the first place. The Scots developed the idea that golfers constitute a society separate from their stations in ordinary life. A king, although sovereign in the realm, could play golf with and respect a tradesman. The tradesman, in turn, could gather with gentlemen of like interest to form a golfing society or club. The first of these societies, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, organized itself at Leith Links around 1744, and a similar group formed at St. Andrews a decade later.
Neither club owned a golf course the common land still belonged to all but the clubs staged competitions and other group endeavors. The pattern was set in 1744 when the town council of Edinburgh offered a trophy in the form of a silver club; the winner of the annual competition at the Leith Links assumed the title of Captain of Golf.” St. Andrews adopted the Honourable Company’s rules and took the club competition a step further by awarding each year’s winner a silver golf ball, which was then attached to the silver club. With time, the silver balls hung in grapelike clus-ters, leading to a curious ceremony called kissing the captain’s balls.” The golfers who were the first to gain royal sanction came, however, from neither Edinburgh nor St. Andrews; for reasons known only to King William IV, that honor went, in 1833, to the upstart Perth Golfing Society, established only since 1824. The Golf Club of St. Andrews promptly petitioned the king, pointing out that the Perth golfers were relative pups. William, it is assumed, rolled his eyes and sighed, but a year later he granted his St. Andrews subjects the right to call themselves the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. Almost two centuries later, the men’s-only R&A stages the Open Championship and serves as the rules-making body for all golfers outside North America.
Although it is accurate to call golf a Scottish invention, very few Scots actually played it. Working people had no time for games, and golf balls were prohibitively expensive. Perhaps thirty golfers were playing regularly at St. Andrews at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even smaller societies clung to life in Edinburgh, Perth, and Ayr, and in England at Blackheath. To grow, the game required a fundamental shift in economics. It needed a leisure class.
The Industrial Revolution provided that class. Up to the 1800s, goods in Europe were manufactured at the cottage level, with entire families contributing to the production of flatware, china, and woolens. The mechanization and specialization of the nineteenth century changed that system, and tradesmen found themselves able to delegate some of their work. As the textile bosses, crystal makers, and bankers took time off for recreation and networking, the ranks of golfers swelled. They, in turn, supported a growing number of golf professionals club makers, ball makers, and greenskeepers who lived solely off the game.
The most notable of these professionals was Allan Robertson of St. Andrews. Robertson, the son of a caddie, made feathery” balls in his kitchen with the aid of a young apprentice named Tom Morris. Robertson was also the best golfer of his time. He was the first player to break 80 at St. Andrews, and he and Morris beat all comers in a series of high-stakes foursome matches. His style was neat and effective,” the memoirist James Balfour wrote of Robertson. His clubs were light and his stroke an easy, swift switch.” The friendship between Robertson and Morris dissolved, however, when the older man caught his former apprentice playing with one of the new gutta-percha golf balls, introduced in 1848. (The rubbery gutty” was more durable and much cheaper than the feathery, and Robertson feared that it would destroy his business.) Robertson died of jaundice in 1859, at age forty-four, having reluctantly switched to the gutty himself. Morris, meanwhile, moved to Prestwick, south of Glasgow, where he designed a new twelve-hole course and served as professional and greens-keeper.
It was at Prestwick that the foundation of modern tournament golf was laid. On October 17, 1860, Morris and seven other professionals played three rounds, or thirty-six holes, for a challenge belt” of red morocco leather and silver. The winner was the whiskered Willie Park Sr. of Musselburgh, who edged Morris by two strokes. A year later, the Prestwick Golf Club responded to the complaints of excluded amateurs by declaring the belt competition open to all the world.” This time Morris was the best of a twelve-man field, beating Park’s 1860 score by eleven strokes to claim the first Open Championship. Morris would win the Open again in ’62, ’64, and ’67, but he was soon overtaken by his own son, Tom Morris Jr., a golf prodigy. Young Tom, whose wrists were so strong that he was supposed to have snapped hickory shafts simply by waggling the club, won the 1868 Open when he was seventeen. He then went on to win the next three, claiming permanent ownership of the championship belt and first possession of the silver claret jug, the Open trophy since 1877. Sadly, Young Tom proved to be, in the modern phrase, a candle in the wind. His wife died in childbirth in 1875, and the baby was lost as well. Three months later, on Christmas morning, Young Tom was found dead in his bed in his St. Andrews home, the victim of a lung aneurysm. Today a monument in the graveyard of St. Andrews Cathedral shows him addressing a golf ball, his coat buttoned up against the gale, a Scots bonnet on his head. Forever twenty-four.
Old Tom, on the other hand, lived into the twentieth century and helped consolidate the gains that golf had made in the Victorian era. As greenskeeper at St. Andrews and professional to the R&A, Morris lived above his own golf shop, just a few feet from the eighteenth green on the Old Course. Always in demand as a designer, he traveled Scotland by donkey cart, rail, and steamer to lay out golf courses for clubs and town councils. Two of his courses Muirfield and Prestwick became British Open venues. Morris would also gain credit for devising the modern loop system of two nines going out from and returning to the clubhouse a scheme designed to make the player adjust to different wind conditions.
You could argue that Tom Morris did the mop-up work on the edifice of golf. In his lifetime, the golf course assumed its modern form of eighteen holes with man-made hazards, mowed fairways, watered greens, and strategic playing options. The golf ball evolved from a fragile feather bag to a durable, dimpled sphere that could be driven long distances and spun for control. Club making entered the iron age as cleekmakers” created an arsenal of mashies, niblicks, and rut irons capable of handling practically any lie. The Open Championship was launched and stroke play adopted as the preferred format for deciding major championships. All these developments, if one needs reminding, took place in Scotland. By 1888 there were roughly seventy courses on the old sod, with simple links blooming on the springy machair of the Western Isles and very bad courses emerging on the denser, fecund soils of the Highlands and lake regions.
Meanwhile, the hole the be-all and end-all of golf sought its own sublime exactitude. For hundreds of years, the size of the cavity had been arbitrary, ranging from three inches to more than five inches in diameter. (At the Old Course, the hole reportedly matched the diameter of a standard St. Andrews drainpipe.) The hole’s depth was even less constant. When a golfer was ready to play his first shot to a new hole, he put his hand in the hole he had just putted into and took a pinch of sand upon which to tee his ball. It often happened,” the two-time British Amateur champion Horace G. Hutchinson reported with comic gravity, that one had to lie down so as to stretch one’s arm at full length in order to reach the ball at the bottom of the hole.” It was not until the nineteenth century that the Scots invented a device to cut uniform holes either at Musselburgh in 1829 or at Royal Aberdeen in 1849, depending on which golf historian you believe. In 1874 the Crail Golf Club introduced the metal liner, which kept the hole from collapsing and rewarded the player with a pleasing rattle when his ball fell into the cup. In 1891 the R&A finally proclaimed, with a confident authority reminiscent of the old monarchs, that the hole would hence-forth be 4 1/4 inches in diameter and at least 4 inches deep.” These dimensions, of course, made for a hole that was too small. Putting became disproportionately important, and fear and anxiety were validated as elements of the game. At the 1889 Open Championship at Musselburgh, for example, Andrew Kirkaldy made a careless backhanded swipe at his ball, poised on the edge of the fourteenth hole, and missed it entirely. Did you try to putt that ball, Andra?” a tournament official asked. Kirkaldy replied, Yes, and if the hole was big enough, I’d bury myself in it.” The next day he lost the Open to Willie Park Jr. in an eighteen-hole playoff.
As events would soon prove, it was not just Kirkaldy’s ball that hung on the brink. Within thirty years, the Scots would see their curious game spread like a benign virus to North America and beyond, and they would see it change, in the words of the American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind, from an occult Scottish passion into a universal pastime pursued wherever grass sprouts, and sometimes where it doesn’t.” The dark ages, in other words, were over.
Copyright © 2002 by Hilltown Press. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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