Paris Primer: The True Birthplace of Golf

Reading Time: 12 minutes

As with most sports, golf’s early history is still murky, debated, grasped as a matter of national pride, almost. Scots tend to lay claim to being “the home of golf”, in its spiritual-sense especially, but also, undoubtedly, for advertorial reasons. The Dutch, spearheaded by Steven van Hengel, have foisted their own claims as its birthplace, namely through the popularity of a game known as “kolf”, which was played on ice and resembles what we now know as golf. Some historians have cited the Romans as its originators, while others have singled out the Chinese game of “chuiwan” as the forefather of the Royal & Ancient game that has spread from Europe to Oceania, desert to jungle, earth to moon. 

A painting of the dutch game “kolf”, played on ice (courtesy thespec)

In 2009, Michael Flannery, an American-born antique dealer living in Germany at the time and a second generation member of St Andrews himself, threw his own two-cents into the ring: that golf originated in France! And what an intriguing case he makes that it did, erudite, fulfilled, entertaining, and exigent. 

Cover of Golf Through the Ages

Among the high-end bibliophiles of the golf world, Mr. Flannery is likely best-known for his book, Golf Through the Ages: 600 years of Golf History, which he co-authored with Richard Leech, who’s only given the limited biography of being a “veteran publisher of scientific texts”. Limited to 1999 copies, and available in either a hand-bound, leather-encased “Royal Edition” that originally sold for 900$ or an “Imperial Edition” that sold for 3000$, the book has fetched sums well-beyond my meager salary cap on the rare occasions that it has come up for auction since, or from the vintage retailers who still have it in stock. 

Mr. Flannery based his research, he claimed, on nearly twenty years of searching the world’s archives, museums, and private galleries for early depictions of golf, or stick-and-ball activities that resembled the sport we now know. His book garnered rave reviews, from academics, to golf-historians, to collectors, to magazine writers. “The most beautiful golf book ever. Destined to be the standard reference work for generations to come”, proclaimed noted Scottish golf historian David Campbell. Doug Pike, sports editor of the Houston Chronicle, cited it as “the mother of all golf books is grinding its way through what might be the most impressive publication process undertaken.” And Peter Thompson, five-time Open champion, stated that he was “overwhelmed by its production!

I first became aware of Mr. Flannery’s work thanks to Ian Murray, himself a passionate and first-rate historian of golf in Canada. Mr. Flannery, Ian told me, had initially reached out for information about early Canadian golf for a chapter Mr. Flannery was planning to write in his follow up to Golf Through the Ages, which, unfortunately for all of us, he left unfinished at the time of his death. 

Mr. Flannery’s work, and the few details Ian shared with me about his life that he learned through their own correspondences, struck a chord. Enough of Mr. Flannery’s research is readily available on the web to give a sense of the ground he covers in Golf Through the Ages, even if you don’t have the means to procure a copy of the book. 

From what I can gleam, the spark that set Mr. Flannery off was a claim made by Steven van Hengel, in his own book Early Golf originally published in 1982, that golf had originated in the Netherlands. Mr. Flannery, like all good academics, approached this bombshell claim with a suspicious eye, perturbed by, what he cites as, van Hengel’s thin list of historical sources, contrived conclusions, and inconsistencies, combined with a holier-than-thou smugness that irked him. Strangely, according to Mr. Flannery, the Scots, passionate and protective as they are of their national game, put up almost no resistance to van Hengel’s paternal claim. 

How golf may have been played on the shores of the Netherlands (courtesy Getty)

Impelled by this, Mr. Flannery embarked upon his journey towards enlightenment, becoming a “cynic about everything that had been published on the origins of golf, which, unlike football, tennis, Pallone and even billiards, had traditionally been ignored by ‘serious’ historians. Over the following thirteen years, as well as reading most of what passes for golfing history, I immersed myself in every field remotely associated with ball games; literature, ancient texts, works of art, manuscripts, documents and sporting antiques by the thousands. It quickly became evident that the historical equivalent of Ponzi schemes didn’t begin with Early Golf.”

By 1997, Mr. Flannery was armed with enough proof not only to disprove van Hengel’s “hoax”, but also bring forth his own verdict as to where the game originated: that being Paris and the Loire Valley – or the Valley of Kings. But first, Mr. Flannery’s findings in regards to van Hengel’s work were met by the Dutch golfing establishment “with embarrassment and evasion, accompanied by awkward laughter as they explained that the ‘history’ was meant to be just a bit of good fun. It wasn’t until the December/January 2002, 3 issue of Golfjournaal, that an official retraction of the claim that golf had been first played at Loenen, was printed. The apologia was written by the distinguished historian and bibliophile, Dr. Ayolt Brongers, who over the years had been on the receiving end of my demands that the public be set straight on van Hengel’s manipulation of golf history.”

Thinking back on my initial exposure to Mr. Flannery’s work, what especially attracted me was his frustration of dealing with, and desire to un-cloud the history of golf in his country from the ignorance, arrogance, dogma, preciousness, and sense of entitlement that I believe has similarly harmed and retarded the development of the sport here, in Canada. Heck, I would even say his work inspired me beyond that of any other golf writer. In his approach to the task Mr. Flannery, more or less, had done almost exactly what I’d been hoping to do in mine, from the same angle: the intersection of academic scholarship with fine arts and history. As Ian related to me, Mr. Flannery’s work was intended for a small coterie, which matched his love for antiques, the field where he made his living for the last thirty-some years of his life. 

Above all, Mr. Flannery is a wonderfully witty, darn funny, and often bitting and deprecatory writer, as evidenced by passages such as “Academic omniscience in full flower! In one brief paragraph the authors demonstrate unique insider knowledge of how shepherds did or didn’t while away their hours; establish that a hole was the target goal in early golf (it wasn’t); and, with no supportive documentation, conclude that the early game was both aristocratic and expensive. A little knowledge…”. 

Or, “one can imagine William, sand from the beaches of Hastings still damp on
his spurs, rubbing his hands while admiring his new conquest and thinking: ‘Best get started on an inventory of this island and publish it in the Doomsday-Book’. Projecting potential tax revenues from a new fiefdom left monarchs as giddy as butterflies in a hash plantation.”

Or, “Despite the absence of any documentation showing that a golf-like game had been played in the British Isles before 1457, Robert Clark, the learned Andrew Lang, Horace Hutchinson and Robert Browning were among the golf historians who, hook, line and sinker, swallowed the ‘Immaculate Conception’ theory of golf. Based on a single, undefined written word – they giddily committed to the legend that Scotland was the birthplace of golf.”

This passage gets us to the second foundational myth, or theory of conception, that Mr. Flannery sought to debunk in his work: that the now famous edict enacted by King James II, of Scotland, in 1457, “(th)at ye fut bawe and ye golf be” banned in fact referred to a sport that somehow resembled, or would resemble, the Royal & Ancient one we now know. As mentioned in the previous passage, countless scholars and historians have cited this edict as concrete proof that golf, or a stick-and-ball-and-hole game closely resembling it, was being played in Scotland at the time. In short, James II had banned “ye fut bawe and ye golf” because, he felt, that it took away from the time that young Scots should have instead been devoting to archery practice, and also contributed to a number of injuries, thereby weakening his much-needed armies, in number and in skill, amidst the volatile political theater of the fifteenth century. 

Early art depicting a club-and-ball game (courtesy Golfs Links to the Past)

Yet, as Mr. Flannery highlights, “in 1956, writing in The History of Golf in Britain, Guy Campbell, captured the absurdity of their capitulation to fantasy and wishful thinking: ‘And before this Act …nothing? Nothing at all! Indeed, but for this embargo, so far as Scotland is concerned, it is as if the game might never have been…. A game that was such a national obsession must have had an origin… but since… Scottish lore can supply no reference either to myth or origin, we must seek a line elsewhere. Fortunately, this can be found on the Continent…” Despite so many converts to the “immaculate conception theory”, as he terms it, there exists no other proof to back this belief that “ye golf” meant then what we now could consider “golf”. There were, Mr. Flannery assures us, “such club and ball games, but not in Scotland.” In fact, Scottish “evidence of golf in the form of pre-eighteenth century woods and balls simply doesn’t exist. This, compounded by the fact that there is no visual or written record showing how the game was played, has created a Caledonian Dark Ages of golf.”

15th century “fut bawe”

Through an examination of supporting pieces of legislature and through his research of the art of the period, Mr. Flannery has proven that “ye golf”, the sport banned by King James II, “had nothing to do with golf but was, instead, directed at the violent hockey and football-like games that had raged on the continent since the thirteenth century, and become a threat to order and archery in Scotland.” This, among other things, explains why James II so feared the injuries that resulted from “ye golf”.

In short, Mr. Flannery’s thesis is that golf had no moment of “immaculate conception”, whereby a game we could now cite as “golf” materialized out of thin-air; rather, its conception occurred over a long stretch of time, gradually taking shape, morphing to its new environments and the class realities of those who played it, until eventually becoming the Royal & Ancient game. 

Where such club and ball games were prospering in the fifteenth century, however, and had been prospering for the four centuries prior to it, was in Paris, then as now, the cultural center of the world. And, as Mr. Flannery declares, “the relatively advanced economic and cultural climate of Paris, compared to the rest of medieval Europe – were fundamental reasons why France emerged as the cradle of sophisticated ball games. These included not only tennis and billiards, which we have mentioned, but cricket, bowls, pall-mall, and other early club and ball target games that led to golf.” Analyzing a “La Taille de Paris”, which was essentially a survey taken for reasons of taxation by the office of King Phillip IV in 1292, Flannery discovered a number of artisan club and ball makers, who provided the equipment necessary for the games that would eventually evolve into golf.

Of course, the idea of whacking a ball, or rock, across a field with a stick towards a target is something that traces way back, probably to medieval times. However, the earliest records of ball and club games are found in “Lettres de Remission.” Eventually, in a prayer book illustrated in Paris about 1400, for the first time we see a game in which each player has his own club and ball, playing a match without physical opposition. This morphed into what would become known as “pall-mall”, a game that would captivate European upper-society for the next 300 years, and is the foremost genesis for what would become golf.  

By the late 16th century, pall-mall would be played by most of the nobility and upper-classes of England and Scotland, after having been imported by European merchants who were exposed to the game in France and elsewhere in Europe. In turn, malls would spring up throughout London and other important cities, including Edinburgh. Flannery notes that “the malls themselves were magnificent constructions, the grandest of which was at Den Haag in the Netherlands – a mindboggling 1073 metres or over 1100 yards long! And that of the Reggia di Veneria (the Royal Hunting Lodge) in Turin, was over 1000 metres long and ‘U’ shaped. Gracious rows of trees, sometimes double rows, ran the length of the sides to provide shade.”

A typical Joueur de Mall

Moreover, he claims, that “much like a private golf club today, the mall had a ‘pro shop’ (loge du maître) which included a cloakroom, served refreshments and offered club and ball rental. In the event of damage or loss, the fine was fixed by the professional (mâitre de mail or palemardier), who, like pros today, gave lessons and assigned caddies (laquais or port lèves) to the players. Since the caddies, like their Scottish descendents, were not adverse to improving the lie of their players’ ball, they were required to stay outside the mall.” 

An typical “Pall Mall” alley (courtesy of Wendy R Jacobson)

Eventually the popularity of pall-mall would diminish due to high-cost, arcane rules, advances in technology that made the game too easy for most, and gimmicks, such as points scored for speed, that were in turn introduced in order to combat them. Sound familiar? “Much like poodles, once admired as fine hunting dogs, mail had become over-bred. Its sportive soul and irresistible charm had been progressively suffocated.” However, the game morphed, from one that was played on perfect alleys to one played across rugged fields and imperfect pastures of the French and Italian countrysides, instead. As Flannery summarizes, “Golf would not be golf without the trailblazing of jeu de mail. Its substance and spirit are based on the royal and ancient French game which contributed the concepts of unopposed singles or team matches – each player with his club and ball – caddies, pros, clubhouses, penalties, handicapping, the cry, Gare that led to Fore, the use of a tee for the initial drive, greenkeepers, and much more.”

At the same time, as a result of Scotland’s and the Netherland’s close political and economical ties, the Flemish game of “Kolf”, in particular when it came to putting and clubmaking, would also have a profound influence on the evolution of the Royal & Ancient game, but in my case, it’s Paris that I’m interested in, so the story of how golf became golf will end here. 

Initially, I had planned to go to England and Scotland, to play a few courses while visiting some friends scattered up and down the kingdom; for reasons that are unimportant, however, plans changed and I’ve opted instead to go to Paris for a week, sandwiched in between the two I’m going to spend in Germany and Croatia, where much of my family resides. 

Ah Paris, that lonely, mythical refuge of the lost generation. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Stein, and our Morley Callaghan, best known, perhaps, for having knocked out Hemingway in a boxing match umpired by Fitzgerald and whose book That Summer In Paris I’ve read a dozen times with only increasing admiration. Ah Paris, the refugee where countless confused, adriff young writers have gone to find inspiration from its sights and sounds. Ah Paris, home of Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Hugo, Balzac, Zola, Proust, Celine, Sartre, Goddard, and Modiano. The Revolution. La commune. L’Arc de Triomphe. Quartier Pigalle. Les boulevards. Les Deux Magots. Ah Paris, a city, as Guy Debord claimed, “so beautiful then that many people preferred to be poor there than to be rich somewhere else”. Ah Paris, savage, serene, peaceful, violent, classy, dirty, nobble, and skuzzy.

Which amongst us hasn’t dreamed of Paris, of mornings wasted in its saw-dust hotel rooms, and of long nights sipping elixirs along its cobblestone streets. 

As Luc Sante surmised in his wonderful The Other Paris, “unlike most modern cities, Paris was defined by its edges.”

“Paris est une fete,” declared Hemingway. But is its party still raging? Or has it turned into a languid, weary purlieu, stuck in that time of night when your drunkenness is morphing into your hangover as you sit silently around the kitchen table, with drinks unappealing, head fuzzy, eyes bleary, legs heavy, watching the morning sun rise out the window, realizing that you could’ve gone to bed two hours earlier and not missed a thing, your next morning self already loathing and cursing your current self for not having done so?

Obviously, my rolodex falls short of being able to summon a miraculous someone to whisk me through Morfontaine’s fabled gates and into its enchanted forest and turf, but getting onto, what are generally considered, the next best three courses in Paris area has been relatively easy task: Chantilly, Fontainebleau, and St-Germain. All three are “private”, but nevertheless accept outside play during the week, a wonderful model, I think. Moreover, they all answered my emails rather quickly, within a day.

Fontainebleu (courtesy of Albrecht golf guide)

And I haven’t even had to break out my French grammar, yet, believe it or not. In truth, I am not sure what to expect – my expections are high, though, I can’t lie. An itinerary consisting of two Tom Simpsons and a Harry Colt, is nothing to slouch at – add in potentially a Coore and a Whitman at Medoc, and maybe a Hanse and a Von Hagge at Les Bordes, and this has the making of a darn good golf trip, one centered around a city that cannot be topped. I look forward to chronicling my journey for the site.

Author’s note: all quotes are taken from “Golf: The True History”, written by Michael Flannery, and published by Golf International Magazine: avail here,


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