Friday, April 26, 2013

Did Sheep Dung Lead to the Invention of Golf?

The answer to the question in the headline is "no." But there is a legend, apparently, that golf's origins go something like this:

"Golf may have first been played by shepherds somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland. While walking their flocks through the Highlands, the shepherds carried with them herding staffs called shillelaghs. These shillelaghs were fashioned from tree limbs and typically had a large knob on the top end. Used also as walking aids, these sticks helped the shepherds traverse the rocky, rain-soaked and often muddy hillsides. They also used them to move their flocks from pasture to meadow, and as weapons when protecting their herd from common predators such as wolves.

"There were certain mountain pathways in the Highlands that were more important than others. These were the paths that would lead to water, be it either a simple running stream or a deep well somewhere in the wilderness. These common pathways would often become littered with intermittent droppings of sheep excrement. To clear the way, the young herders would casually flick the chunks of dung out of their way using the knob-end of their shillelaghs. When they came upon older, dried out chunks of manure, they would take more forceful swings with their shillelaghs, and then marvel at the dung as it flew high and far, down into the valleys. They called their new diversion 'shootin’ the shite.' Ultimately, 'shootin’ the shite' evolved into the game we today call golf."

That excerp is from a Philadelphia newspaper in an article about Merion, site of the 2013 U.S. Open. That newspaper apparently didn't realize that it was publishing an expletive by printing the word "shite."

This origin story for golf is not true; that should be clear to anyone with any sense of the game's history. It's one of those silly stories that someone invents later as a joke and then, over time, is transformed into a legend. That a newspaper printed the story credulously is a sad commentary on the modern state of journalism.

But had you ever heard that story before? I hadn't. Which surprised me. I thought I was familiar with all the legends about golf's origins, and with most of the "urban legends" about other golf origins (where the word mulligan comes from, why golf courses are 18 holes, etc.). But I'd never heard the one about the sheep crap.

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