Early Golf Book Review
Early Golf: Royal Myths and Ancient Histories
by Neil S. Millar
Teachers’ Comments: A terrific book for golf history enthusiasts.
Oxford University Press
For golf history enthusiasts (like myself), Early Golf is a must read.
In the book, author Neil Millar takes on the myths and legends of the dawn of golf from the fabled 1452 golf ball purchase to the golfing habits of various kings and queens to the origins of the game itself.
As the author writes: “one of the central themes of this book is a re-examination of some of the more implausible stories that have become embedded within the history of early golf.”
Each of the chapters in the book addresses long held beliefs about the early history of the game. For example:
- The 1452 Golf Ball Purchase: a myth
- Golf was played as early as 1413 at St. Andrews: Unsubstantiated
- James III played golf: No evidence
- Mary, Queen of Scots played golf: probably not
Other topics: James II – VII, Catherine of Aragon, Charles I and II, golf balls, clubs, caddies, golf societies, women’s golf, the spread of the game from Scotland and the murky origins of the game itself.
Millar’s conclusions on each subject in the book are convincingly documented and often go against “established fact.”
Indeed, it is interesting to me how many “facts” about golf’s history can be traced to the early 1800s and no further. What seems to have happened is that some golf “historians” either misinterpreted early evidence or made up stories altogether. Later writers would then cite the flawed interpretation without examining the original.
In this manner, a golf book that came out in 1980 might cite a book published in the 1960s, which based its information on material from the early 1900s, which in turn referenced an essay written in the early 1800s. Unfortunately, that writer in the 1800s got it wrong to begin with.
As with a game of “telephone,” the message becomes less accurate the further it is removed from the source.
Millar’s contribution to golf history is in returning to the source material. What did the bill of lading actually say? Was the 15th century manuscript correctly copied by later writers? Is that 17th century poem actually a “forgery” created by 19th century writer? (As I learned in another book I read recently, there was a concerted effort by some in 18th and 19th century Scotland to create a “national literature” even if that meant manufacturing ancient stories and poetry.)
As a history teacher, I appreciate Millar’s decision to go back to the source material. I spend a great deal of time working with my students on what we call “primary sources.” Truly understanding history involves going back to at least some of the primary documents.
Early Golf leans more into the academic than the entertainment side of golf books, but I think it is well worth the read. Millar’s style is thorough, but not dry, and he helpfully offers a summary of findings at the end of each chapter.
I recommend this book, particularly for those with a love of the history of the game. Indeed, if you think yourself well versed on golf history (or would like to think so), this is required reading.