Is Golf's History Full Of Holes? A new book roils the tradition-bound sport with the claim that it was invented not in Scotland but in (gulp) France.
By David Rynecki

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The French are criticized for a lot of things--nasty museum clerks, the Maginot Line, Gerard Depardieu movies. Golf might not rank high on your list of reasons to dislike the French, unless you happen to be Scottish. It seems that France--not Scotland--is the true "home of golf."

This claim, made in the recently published book Golf Through the Ages, has rocked the golf world. The very notion that someplace other than Scotland should get credit for originating the sport has raised the hackles of columnists across the country. For most golfers, France's entire contribution to the sport can be summarized in a single name: Jean van de Velde. The suave, affable Frenchman was best known as the touring professional for EuroDisney. At the British Open in 1999, van de Velde held a three-stroke lead on the final hole. He proceeded to make a series of blunders that not only cost him the title but made him something of an international joke. At one point, after hitting a ball into a water hazard, van de Velde prepared to take off his shoes and socks to hit the ball, which prompted the sportscaster Curtis Strange to utter the now famous comment that the chance of his succeeding was slim to none, "and slim just left town."

It is hard to imagine that golf could be the invention of van de Velde's country. Brie, yes. The guillotine, yes. But this is golf--a game so sacred that when filmmakers set out to cast the part of legendary amateur Bobby Jones, they chose the same actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. The connection might have been lost on general audiences, but not on faithful golfers, who see the amateur Jones as the sport's own Christ-like figure for the way he swept across America and Britain winning trophies in the 1920s, and was then stricken by a debilitating illness when still a relatively young man.

So while there are other golf wars underway in the world (see "One Town, Two Rivals"), none has the fervor of this one. Scottish editorialists and commentators have denounced the mere suggestion that the game originated elsewhere. Such a claim is more than academic volleying--golf is woven into Scotland's history and economy. Dozens of villages from the Leith to Dornoch have erected monuments commemorating the country's leadership in the formation of the game. Tourists spend tens of millions of dollars a year in the country, largely for the chance to walk links such as St. Andrews and nearby Carnoustie, where golf has been played since the 16th century. Many books have been written in the past 50 years about Scotland's role in golf, including a fair number of melodramatic yarns such as James Dodson's Final Rounds, in which a son and his dying father travel to St. Andrews for a last match together. Unable to secure a tee time, they sneak out in the dark of night, without clubs or balls, and play an imaginary game across the hallowed fairways.

Though it has been years since a Scot dominated the game, Scotland's importance in the modern sport is unquestioned. Every decision involving sportsmanship, for example, still must pass muster with the governing body known as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. This month, as the best professional golfers in the world once again play the British Open, TV viewers numbering more than one billion will be fed a continuing commentary about Scotland's golfing heritage. The tournament itself, held this year at Royal Troon, was first played in 1860 as a 12-hole match at nearby Prestwick, outside Edinburgh, and is thought to represent the culmination of an evolutionary process that began in the 1100s when the Scots first applied stick to ball.

Curators at the British Museum in St. Andrews proudly display evidence of Scotland's claim. Though other countries played varieties of stick and ball games (the Dutch, for example, played kolf), curator Sam Groves says the Scottish game was different and that there is ample written proof of that--starting with a resolution passed by Scotland's King James II on March 6, 1457, banning "ye golf." The king apparently worried that golf was distracting the population from practicing archery while war was imminent. The ban was finally lifted in 1502, when, it is written, James I of England became a convert to the game. He soon afterward lost 14 shillings in a match with the Earl of Bothwell. A half-century later, the first round was recorded at St. Andrews, and subsequent rulers were frequently spotted on those early links. Among them, Mary Queen of Scots learned the game and--according to Scottish lore--exported it to France. She, in turn, brought back the term "caddie" to Scotland, a reference to the French military cadets who carried her clubs. The game became so popular that in 1641, England's Charles I (who soon after was beheaded) was on the golf course when aides informed him of a major Irish rebellion.

Now comes Golf Through the Ages and its fantastic claim that the game was invented by the French. The book is a lavish limited edition aimed at collectors, with prices for different editions ranging from $750 to $5,500. Authors Michael Flannery and Richard Leech say they have unearthed illustrations showing French nobles playing golf as early as 1450--seven years before King James's ban--in a rarely seen book of prayers called Les Heures de la Duchesse de Bourgogne. In this book, written for a festival to celebrate the virgin birth (games were often played on religious holidays), men are depicted playing in foursomes using clubs to strike balls toward a stick on a smooth putting surface. Other illustrations clearly show a hole as the target. What's more, Flannery and Leech say they unearthed evidence in tax records from 1292 in which a toll was levied on clubmakers and ballmakers who sold equipment to nobles outside Paris.

Leech, who at 69 is a well-regarded publisher of collectible books, and Flannery, 68, an American antiques dealer who married a Frenchwoman and now lives in Germany, are not shy about their claim. The key is the pictures. While Scotland's written record of the game starts with the King James ban, illustrations of the game in Scotland date back only to 1740. What Scots were doing with stick and ball in preceding centuries is open to debate. Leech and Flannery argue that the game played in Scotland in the 15th century was a rudimentary form of hockey--"violent, marked by injury and death, and nothing like modern golf," as Flannery puts it.

For years Scots have argued that what distinguishes their game from other stick-and-ball games played elsewhere was that the object was to drop the ball into a hole. On this point, the authors argue that they have found the equivalent of a smoking gun: Another illustration, from 1480, shows that a hole was used in the French game. Other Europeans have jumped on the point to oppose Scotland's claim. "I do not think the Scots can argue any further that they invented the game," Heiner Gillmeister, a German sports historian, declared in a Scottish newspaper.

So how did golf get from France to Scotland? By the exact opposite route that tradition holds it went from Scotland to France: Mary Queen of Scots. Leech and Flannery suggest that Scottish royals, who kept their court for many years in France, learned the game there and took it home to places like St. Andrews. These nobles were spotted swatting wooden balls with clubs they often carried with them on their travels, much as a vacationer going to a resort might do today. Golf was a way for the nobility to fill up dull hours when there was no war to wage. The site of the Old Course--which might very well have been used for playing hockey--eventually became devoted to the new game imported from the Continent. At length, it became a sport for the middle and lower classes as well. "Way down the ladder, poor slobs like you and me saw the nobles playing golf," says Flannery. "They couldn't afford the special balls and clubs, so they made their own balls out of sheepskin and made clubs too. That is what has become golf as we know it today. I know what the Scottish say about this but the evidence we found is pretty clear."