While some historians maintain that the first golf ball was lofted in the Low Countries (the Dutch word kolf meaning ‘club’), and others point out that the Romans played a sport using a bent piece of wood and a ball made of feathers, it’s generally agreed that it was the Scots who defined the rules, and obtained official recognition for the game in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. And, as my Frenchman has just chipped in to say, the course of history shows that the game of golf is not devoid of Gallic influence too; for not only do links exist between golf and Mary Stuart, future queen of Scotland who, in the sixteenth century, introduced the game to France, but the word ‘caddie’, he maintains, is a derivation of the French word cadet (junior) used to designate the young men who helped players carry their clubs at that time.
Our Anglo-Saxon golf-playing readers might be tempted to think that The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ multitudinous rules and regulations leave golfers no option but to be a model of correctness on the fairways and greens of our planet. Regrettably, this is not always the case. For this nit-picking complexity provides the French golfer with an infinite number of opportunities to torture them into complying with what he wants them to say. Take an experience I recently had.
Now, my Englishman’s inborn modesty does not prevent him from encouraging in me the belief that I am a considerably better golfer than my neighbour, Monsieur Martin. Yet, whenever we play together he usually manages to win. Just how does he do it? The case of the rotten stake says it all.
The other day Monsieur Martin and I played a round of golf together. Now, honesty compels me to admit that, on this occasion, Monsieur Martin played well enough to merit our scores being level as we teed off at the eighteenth. Now the eighteenth hole of our local course is a relatively straightforward par three of around 160 yards, the only hazard being a small, deepish bunker placed just in front of the green with two thick bushes along its right side. Even though Monsieur Martin and myself hit reasonably straight drives, neither of our balls were to be seen when we walked up to the green. After some searching, we finally located mine which had rolled so far beneath the low-hanging branches of one of these bushes as to render any form of club-based extraction impossible. I had, therefore, to resign myself to declaring my ball unplayable, picking it up and dropping it with a one-point penalty. My initial dismay was, however, somewhat attenuated by the fact that Monsieur Martin’s ball had suffered a similar fate, as it was reposing beneath the other bush.
‘Ah, a penalty for you also, mon cher Martin!’ I exclaimed.
‘Mais pas du tout, mon vieux!’ Monsieur Martin retorted, after bending down and lifting up the overhanging branches of the bush to reveal an old, rotting, barely-visible wooden stake still attached to its trunk.
‘Vous voyez,’ he triumphantly declared, ‘my bush is still staked. I can drop my ball without a penalty point!’ *
Whereupon Monsieur Martin proceeded to drop his ball and finished on a par – thereby winning the round by one stroke. Afterwards, over a drink in the clubhouse, it was certainly my Englishman who prompted me to ask whether he would have informed me of the stake’s presence, had it been my ball which he’d found under that bush.
Who knows?’ he replied with an enigmatic smile.
* My environmentalist readers will be pleased to learn that, in order to protect young staked trees, bushes and shrubs from the risk of collateral damage when a golfer attempts to strike a ball lying in close proximity, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrew’s rules stipulate that it may be dropped at a distance (in accordance with a strictly defined procedure), with no penalty point. It goes without saying that in the above case, though technically-speaking the rule still applied, the tree had attained a degree of maturity which had long since caused the stake, and consequently the rule to have lost all raison d’être.