THE DUTCH INFLUENCE ON GOLF

"The Honourable Commissary and Magistrates of Fort Orange and the village of Bererwyck, having heard divers (diverse) complaints from burghers of this place against the practice of playing colf along the streets, which causes great damage to the windows of the houses, and also exposes people to the danger of being injured and is contrary to the freedom of the public streets."

-- Dutch ordinance issued at Fort Orange (Albany) in 1659.

Colfer on Ice

A colf player with a leaden club on the ice, circa 1700. A pen and ink drawing made by J. Brown after an engraving of Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) in the collection of the National Cabinet of Prints, Amsterdam.

Get Colfer Note Cards in the NNI Shop.
 

If you ask who invented the game of golf, be suspicious of a simple answer. The credit for golf in its modern form is generally given to the Scots, but they certainly did not invent it from scratch. Like most human games and rituals, golf evolved over centuries and was likely invented in its simplest form—club, ball, and goal—by several different peoples independent of each other. As a spokesman for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Scotland claimed in 2006, "Stick and ball games have been around for many centuries, but golf as we know it today, played over 18 holes, clearly originated in Scotland."

The focus here will be the ancient Dutch game of colf and its likely influence on the modern game of golf. In 1972, the research of Dutch golf historian Steven J.H. van Hengel caused controversy when he argued a strong connection between Dutch colf and Scottish golf. Van Hengel traced colf back to the Low Countries around the end of the twelfth-century. The game appears in many Dutch paintings and art: evidence of its popularity.

Colf was a 'long game' played in the streets, courtyards, and other open areas. During the Little Ice Age of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, it was also played on frozen canals, rivers, and lakes. This game (or a variant of it) eventually moved indoors, bringing the sticks and balls with it. 

The etymology of the word golf gives us some clues. Much like the evolution of the game, the evolution of the term is much disputed. Experts speculate that the word 'golf' derives linguistically from the Dutch word ’kolf’ or ’kolve,’ meaning ’club.’ In the Scottish dialect of the late 14th or early 15th century, the Dutch term became ’goff’ or ’gouff,’ and only later in the 16th century ’golf,' an ancient Scottish verb meaning 'to strike.'

There was a very active trade industry between the Dutch and the ports on the east coast of Scotland from the fourteenth through seventeenth-centuries. Some scholars suggest that Dutch sailors brought the Dutch game to the east coast of Scotland where it eventually became the game we know today. 

The Dutch are also credited with bringing the game to America. One of the earliest known mentions of the sport on the continent was a Dutch ordinance issued at Fort Orange (Albany) in 1659. The game in this passage has been translated as 'golf.' But the sport is very likely colf. 

"The Honourable Commissary and Magistrates of Fort Orange and the village of Bererwyck, having heard divers (diverse) complaints from burghers of this place against the practice of playing colf along the streets, which causes great damage to the windows of the houses, and also exposes people to the danger of being injured and is contrary to the freedom of the public streets; Therefore their honours, wishing to prevent the same, hereby forbid all persons to play golf in the streets, under the penalty of forfeiture of Fl. 25 for each person who shall be found doing so."

Further evidence of the sport in the Dutch colony is found as early as 1650. In his article Material Culture in the Seventeenth-century Dutch Colonial Manuscripts, New Netherland Research Center director Charles Gehring describes the game:

"The game was played with a ball approximately 5 inches in diameter filled with wound wool. They had leather covers stitched with copper thread. The balls were stuck with clubs made of elm or ash about 54 inches in length. The club head could be constructed of forged iron or lead cast on the stick. Wooden clubheads were sometimes covered with copper. The object of the game compares with modern golf; however, the target could be a hole, post, tree, or even a door. In the winter decorated posts were fixed in the ice, and according to seventeenth-century paintings small boats frozen in the ice often were used as goals."

Gehring can be seen briefly discussing the game at the beginning of a talk given in 2012. 


Suggested Reading

For more on the Dutch influence on golf see Steven J. H. van Hengel's 1982 book Early Golf and Charles Gehring's essay "Material Culture in the Seventeenth-century Dutch Colonial Manuscripts," in New world Dutch studies : Dutch arts and culture in colonial America, 1609-1776 : proceedings of the symposium.

About the New Netherland Institute

For a quarter century NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. Directed by Dr. Charles Gehring. More

 

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