The Game of Colf

by John Symborski

Of the 4,500 books written about golfing have a brief history of Dutch or Scottish golf in the "old days", much of which is copied from earlier sources based upon meager evidence and a few period illustrations. Victorian myths inspired the creation of a game in the Low Countries called "het kolven", which never existed before that time in the form in which it was described. A Scottish legend holds that shepherds invented the game by knocking pebbles into rabbit holes with their crooks. Oddly enough, the hunting laws of Dreieich near Frankfurt am Main in 1338 stated that shepherds had grazing rights into a forest for as far as they could hit a pebble with one stroke of their staff. The lengths of these "drives" were delineated with stone markers called "hirtensteine", some of which may still be found today near Frankfurt.

Concerning golf itself, no one can document when it was invented or exactly where it was first played. There are, however, two ball games that can be considered forerunners of golf; Mail or palle-maille, and Chole or chouler a la crosse, which should not be confused with Lacrosse. In Mail, a wooden mallet was used to strike a wooden ball in a manner similar to golf. Variants from the Middle Ages were refined in 17th century France by the adoption of 58 rules. It was played thereafter in the vicinity of Montpellier until World War II. Chole is a field game in which a wooden ball is struck with a stick having a metal spoon-shaped head, and is still played in the South of Belgium along the French border during autumn and winter. A Leyden ordinance of 1455 refers to it as "smashing with spoons", but the rules are much different than the immediate ancestor of modern golf - the game of Colf. It is likely that early Colf began by the use of Chole clubs and some of the rules of Mail, especially "Mail a la chicane." Medieval spelling is anything but uniform, as Colf can be found in the records as: spel metten colve, colven, kolven, colffven, colfslaen and others. It is fortunate for the historian that town officials did not approve of the game in light of the property and personal damage done by the players. The main cause was that the wooden ball originally used had a tendency (then as now) to veer off course, breaking windows and injuring passers-by. Thanks to the efforts to control it, the game can be traced to the beginning of the 14th century when the first laws appeared on the books.

An Infamous Beginning

The first documented game of Colf took place on December 26 in 1297 at Loenen aan de Vecht in northern Holland. The young noble Gerard van Velzen, the Lord of Kronenburg, killed Florence V, the Count of Holland and Zeeland, at nearby Muiderberg on the 26th of June in 1296. Gerard fled to Kronenburg castle, a solid tower fort on his manor partly combined with Loenen. The castle was besieged until famine forced a surrender exactly six months after the crime. Gerard and his co-conspirators were broken on the wheel when they came out. One year later a curious tradition was begun to commemorate the triumph of justice in the affair, which continued on that day for over 500 years. Four players on each side used Colf clubs to strike wooden balls for the minimum number of strokes over four parts of a set course. The game started at the House of Justice in Loenen and was played to the kitchen door of Kronenburg castle, which was likely the door where the defenders had emerged. There the new Lord of Kronenburg gave a cask of beer to the winners of this first "door" and apples were showered down on the spectators as a reminder of the siege. The next part of the course ran along the Vecht river to the door of a mill that was a manorial possession. The miller did not have a forfeit since he was a fellow villager. The third target was Nuis te Velde, Gerard's other castle across town, for more beer and apples. Aside from the forfeits, the Lord of Kronenburg was responsible for any breakage during play. The 4500-meter course, which can be walked to this day, then ran back to the door of the Courthouse. Noting recent experiments and considering that the ball would not have been holed (or rather "doored") on the first attempt, the scores may have been in the 60 to 70 range. When the castle was demolished in 1831 causing the first goal to disappear, the traditional game was abolished.

Law and Order

In 1360 the magistrates of Brussels issued the following: "Whoever plays ball with a club, that is at 20 shillings or at their upper garment". Many cities in the Low Countries enacted numerous laws in an attempt to banish the game within their walls due to the damage and disorder resulting from it. Confiscation of clothing was one means of collecting a fine if someone could not pay it in coin. Amsterdam went further in 1480, declaring that anyone caught playing Colf in the Nes (a long and straight street) would forfeit all the clothes they wore and were to be left naked in the street. On Saint Barbara's day (December 4th) in 1387 Albrecht of Bavaria, Regent of Holland for his mad brother William V, sealed a charter for the city of Brielle. It had an anti-betting ordinance that excluded "Kaatsen (hand tennis), backgammon by day and not by night, to play the ball with the club without the fortifications of our aforesaid city, and shooting with the arch". Kaatsen, a game now only played in the Netherlands, Belgium and Southern France, was once quite popular throughout the region. In a majority of Colf laws, Kaatsen is mentioned side-by-side with Colf since there are similar consequences for public order and security. Kaatsers never used wooden balls which would have been too hard on the hands. They used white leather balls which were very tightly stuffed with cow hair and were identical to those in use today. Experiments with Colf club replicas have demonstrated that Kaats balls have a far better line of play and are not permanently deformed as are energy-absorbing wooden balls and are much easier to find in the grass. (only the city of Haarlem had a mowed playing field.) However, since Kaats balls were more expensive than wooden ones, early Colfers adopted them only if they could afford to.

A Growing Business

The earliest known depiction of Colf is in an illuminated Book of Hours ca. 1500, which is in the British museum and is known as the "golf book." A four-ball is shown in progress with three wooden balls and one smaller white Kaats ball. A close examination of this picture, as well as most of the surviving artwork up to about 1620, reveals the players to be children. They often kneel on one or both knees while putting a ball into a hole in the ground. In this form, Colf had been tamed enough for children to play. Judging from the lack of new Colf law enactment by the year 1500 and the depiction of it as a game for children for an hundred years thereafter, the historian may conclude that mainland Colf was largely abandoned by adults during the 1600s. How much the deprivation of the 80 years war with Spain or the heightened decorum of the Renaissance affected the popularity of Colf is difficult to estimate. Nevertheless, a prosperous trade in Colf balls as well as clubs grew during that century. Ball making had commenced earlier in Midelburg, Bergen op Zoom, and Steenbergen, and were joined in time by Goirle in Brabant, Rotterdam, Delft and Amsterdam. In Goirle, the first ballmaker is mentioned in a document of 1552. From about that time until nearly 1800, most of the village made a living from the making of balls and are known locally as "ball stuffers" to this day. In 1588 Sebastian van Warendorp, an army commander for the Duke of Parma in the Spanish war, held the village of Tilburg near Goirle for the ransom of 12,000 balls. As a first installment, the citizens of Goirle collected 6,500 balls that were immediately available. The city fathers of Delft were more concerned with pollution. In 1586 they ordained that ball makers were not to wash the "hair serving for the balls" in city waters since they "infected and soiled" them. The washing was (and still is done to rid the hair of cow dung. Around 1520, Clubmakers Alley in Leyden got its name. Clubmaking in and around Leyden became a thriving craft for well over a century. As late as 1800 an inscription remaining over one of the houses read: "Praise God above all, here one sells You club and ball".

The Scottish Connection

Documentary evidence for the playing of Colf in Scotland dates from 1457, when the game was still popular among adults in the Low Countries. Looking at a map showing the early development of the game in Scotland, all the places where Colf was played were located on the Eastern coast around points that traded with the Netherlands. The relationship between the two nations has been a long and happy one, never clouded by a war. To this day the arms of the kingdom of Scotland and the county of Holland are the same: gules, a lion rampant dexter on a field of gold. Surviving registers in the Netherlands record more than 4,800 marriages of Scottish mercenaries and Dutch women between the years of 1574 and 1665. Another established fact is that there was a two-way trade between them concerning the game of Colf. From 1485 through most of the 17th century, there was a massive export of balls from Holland and Zeeland to Scotland. James VI of Scotland (also James I of England) wrote in 1618, "No small quantitie of gold and silver is transported zierlie out of His Hienes kingdome of Scotland for bying of golf ballis." (sic).

From about 1625 to just after 1700, the Scottish "cleek" was imported and used in Holland. This new type of club had about the same design as a modern fairway "wood". Thus, during the 1600s when adults may have generally shunned the game on the mainland (except for sailors who continued to play Colf by shooting at posts in the harbor ice during winter or on moist beach sand at other times), the game was carried on in Scotland where it was relatively new. There it was eventually to become modern golf after nearly disappearing in the late 1700s, which is another story.

The Resurgence in Holland

Artwork depicting adults playing Colf in the Netherlands dates from 1617. After this date the volume of such art soars dramatically. The new passion for Colf went far enough that players took their equipment with them when abroad. A pen drawing from Rome in 1622 shows two players where one is in the rough and the other is giving him a "line" as is done today. Colf even crossed the Atlantic. The Small Board of Justice of Fort Orange and the village of Beverwyk (now Albany, NY) saw fit to issue laws in 1659 prohibiting Colf along the roads at a fine of 25 guilders. In 1731, three of the many ballmakers in Goirle sold a consignment of 17,700 balls to Maastricht. Most of the Colf clubs still made in Holland had the head cast in lead around the end of a wooden shaft and they appear similar to the modern "iron". The most expensive clubs were indeed of wrought iron. Scottish "cleeks" were also popular, but nowhere is there a picture of a person bearing more than a single club. A translation from the poem "The winter of an Amsterdam Citizen" from J. Six van Chandelier's book "Poetry" printed in 1657 reads:

The colfer ties his ice-spurs on or finds some rough thing to stand upon, for skiddy ice, if it snowless proves, laughs and jests at smooth-soled shoes. When the sides have been drawn for the clash he braces himself and strikes his ash lead-weighted or his boxwood Scottish cleek, three fingers wide, and one thumb thick with lead in it at the feather ball, not seen from the driving point at its fall, but noted by ball-markers in the host. And colfing on, by striking a post, or striking most far, or by strokes of the club, winning whities or a gallon in the pub, notching (the strokes) on a branch so slender which each in the front of his coat will tender. For he not minding his talley-stick shall void his score away very quick.

The End of the Game

Soon after 1700 the game of Colf, which had varied in popularity for hundreds of years, virtually disappeared on the continent. There were no laws concerning it or depictions of it after that time. Just as quickly, a new game had replaced it. Using a reduced sized Mail court of about 20 meters long with a post at either end, a new short game of Kolf was invented. Most of the playing areas were eventually placed under roof and the clubs and balls became larger and heavier as the game developed into the indoor precision contest still played today by a few clubs in Noord-Holland. It is somewhat surprising that modern golf evolved from Scottish Colf at all. Even in Scotland the game did not become popular until the development of the gutta-percha ball in 1848. Until then it had been kept alive on the Eastern cost by several golfing societies comprised of Freemasons, which never had a collective membership exceeding 500 between 1750 and 1850.


There are three books in English that draw on the numerous foreign-language primary sources; "Golf in the Making" (Crawley, U.K. 1979) and "Royal Blackheath" (Crawley, U.K. 1981) both by Ian Henderson and David Stirk, and "Early Golf" (Drukkerij Tensinkl Netherlands 1982) by J. H. van Hengel (Library of Congress number 75-299006). These books effectively supercede all previous English-language sources given the quality of scolarship contained therein.