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Colf Lessons

The facts of our game’s history are clear—as a Scottish fog

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He had the build of a man who didn’t skip breakfast, a sturdy block of a caddie built for Scottish breezes. His waterproofs had been worn thin by bag straps and rain, and as we stood outside the pro shop in the mist, he leaned in close, as if to confess: “This is the real home of golf.”

Overlooking a beach that separated us from the fairways of an aged Old Tom layout, I was inclined to believe him, but my scorecard did not say St. Andrews. We were hours from the known Home of Golf, standing on the southern half of the Mull of Kintyre, a western outpost at the edge of the golfing world. I smiled, conceding that the place did seem a haven for golf, but my caddie pursued his point. “This is where golf began. Right here. At Machrihanish.”

I had once credited golf’s origins to bored shepherds on Scottish pastures, knocking around rocks with their upturned staffs. It was almost as foolish a notion as my inkling behind the origin of golf’s name, an acronym for Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden. It was an etymological tale so stupidly false that I dared not mention it while in golf’s homeland, where I would come to learn the actual meaning of the word from one of the great custodians of the game.

Before hauling our way out to Machrihanish, I had been busy chasing my ball around the courses of Scotland’s eastern Golf Coast. A friend had suggested I phone the club before my round at Gullane and ask if a Mr. Archie Baird could show me around his golf museum. I did so and the receptionist assured me that she would try to contact him and let him know of my interest in his collection. There was no sign at Gullane for any museum, nor any curator lurking about when we arrived. But as we waited outside, a short man with white hair stepped off the local bus and slowly made his way across the lawn to a door in the clubhouse. He unlocked it and welcomed us into a one-room journey through golf’s past, a space of strange and beautiful treasures.

1903: A painting of the golfer Tom Morris by Sir George Reid. Photo Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive
Old Tom Morris, shown in this 1903 painting by Sir George Reid, came up in St. Andrews, one of the homes of golf. Photo: Allsport Hulton/Archive

The room was stuffed with leather-handled mashies and rusty club-making wrenches, with ancient brown golf balls scattered around the floor, the walls covered with grainy photographs and headlines and course layouts. He showed us a top hat full of goose feathers, the necessary amount of fluff for boiling and stuffing into one expensive and labor-intensive featherie ball, versus the iron press he handed us that could crank out dozens of gutta percha pellets. Featheries were so dear that Baird showed me an old boot with a hole scooped out of the heel, engineered for the stealthy stealing of golf balls. Pilfered featheries fetched a fine price in the pub, and the shift to cheap gutties changed everything about the game, making golf accessible to the masses. But more important than the ball that grew golf was a piece of history hanging on Baird’s wall, hidden behind dusty tools and framed scorecards: It was a dark print of a Dutch painting, and it was the missing link to the mystery of how golf came to be.

Colf (meaning club) was a Dutch game dating to the 1200s that involved clubbing a ball over and through towns and countryside until successfully sending it through a designated doorway; if it was the precursor to golf, that means the windmill hole on your mini-golf course is a more accurate replica of golf’s ancestry than the Old Course. Property damage eventually pushed colfers from the towns to fields and frozen rivers, striking their balls toward poles instead of windows. The next time you hit a house with your tee ball, consider yourself a colf historian, and should you lose and have to buy drinks in the clubhouse, know that you are being faithful to the legacy of colf, where, as explained by George Peper in The Story of Golf, the losing side owed the winners a barrel of beer. 

Early Dutch art shows club-holding figures playing colf all over Holland, and it was on one such painting in Baird’s golf lair, as he pointed to two small figures in the bottom corner, that he proved the connection between the Dutch sport and the game that the Scots guttural variation would come to call golf: two colfers on the ice, dressed in kilts.

It was Scottish wool traders returning from Holland who brought colf back to the ports of St. Andrews and Edinburgh and East Lothian and found a home for the game in the dunes. Mention of the Scots colf variation was first recorded in the 15th century, when golf was banned for being a distraction from archery practice, and the linksland of St. Andrews is widely regarded as its initial playing ground. The Home of Golf, an hour north of Edinburgh on the east coast of Fife, where busloads of my countrymen make pilgrimages every summer to test the game’s ground zero. Had we been misled? Was there truly a far-flung western challenge to the HOG trademark in Machrihanish? A veritable Home of Golf schism à la Rome and Avignon?

If so, my caddie at Machrihanish was a bona fide heretic. He recalled a now-disappeared news story by Scottish golf-writing legend S.L. McKinlay in which McKinlay supposedly credited the origin of golf to ancient Irish monks in Machrihanish who played the Gaelic game of shinty there (a predecessor of field hockey, and still beloved in Ireland as the sport of hurling). Shinty sticks did look a lot like early golf clubs, and missionary monks were poking around Scotland’s islands well before any suggestion of golf in Scotland or colf in Holland. His case was compelling, in a why-not kind of way.

I had grown up on caddie-room folklore; it had never steered me wrong and was always more useful than facts, so I trusted my friend in Machrihanish. He knew it was the 5-iron and not the 8, so at least for today, he was right, and we were playing golf’s birthplace. Until we were in St. Andrews, of course, when we would be playing it again.

Tom Coyne is the author of A Course Called Ireland and A Course Called Scotland, both New York Times best sellers, as well as the forthcoming A Course Called America. He is an associate professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.