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Publication epitomises aspects of great game.

Webb Ellis picked up the ball and with fine disregard for the rules etcetera . . . that's rugby history. Simple.

Most of the games that we play today have traceable origins and producing histories of them is often just a matter of embroidery. But golf! There's a can of worms.

Golf started in Scotland. Or it started in China. Or in Holland. One of these days someone is going to find a peculiarly shaped stick by a pile of ancient bones in the jungles of Brazil and we'll have another "home of the game."

Golf's history is one of the wonders of the science (for such it has become) of retrospective inquiry. And we cannot get enough of it. Somebody, next, is going to write a history of the golf historian.

I have a catalogue in front of me, published by Grant Books, of Droitwich, which acquaints us with 284 golf books and I gave up counting the number of them that are annalistic studies or are based on the most cordial reminiscence.

At the top of their list, just published, is Challenges and Champions, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club 1754-1883 (published by the R&A, distributed by Grant Books, cloth limited edition pounds 35 or the "strictly limited" Society of St Andrews Golfers edit ion, leather bound, pounds 145). This is a momentous tome and the reason it stops at 1883 is that there are another two volumes to follow, the third to coincide with the R&A's 250th birthday in 2004.

This, it would seem, is intended as the definitive history. The R&A commissioned it and they entrusted its compilation to John Behrend, a past captain and current president of the British Golf Collectors' Society and to Peter N Lewis, director of the Bri tish Golf Museum and historian to the R&A. Their work is an act of pure scholarship.

Histories of golf may abound on the bookshop shelves but Messrs Behrend and Lewis have found access to material not previously known about. As it says in the blurb it is " . . . a book that all those interested in the history of golf should read."

History, we gather, is also made by an accumulation of many little things. And it's not so much a proposition, it's a declamation: if anything's old, it's interesting. You will want to know - won't you? - that among the regular winners of gold medals at Leith and St Andrews in the first two decades of the nineteenth century was one William Oliphant. Well done, William.

And you will be fascinated to know that the first "honorary" member of the Gentlemen Golfers was the Italian balloonist, Vincenzo Lunardi who, having landed his contraption in a field near Cupar in October, 1785, was invited to St Andrews and despite fal ling off his horse and injuring a knee, tried his hand at golf. It is recorded that ". . . he could make nothing of the game and took 21 shots to complete the first hole." Vincenco, apparently, enjoyed the grand ball in the evening rather more.

To be sure, should you pride yourself on your golf library, it will be massively incomplete if Messrs Behrend and Lewis's opus does not have a place in it.

Have you noticed? Golf books these days are big and glossy. They are supposed to be for the coffee table and it has got to be a pretty sturdy piece of furniture that can hold them all.

On to this market now comes This Sporting Life GOLF, written by journalist Bill Elliott (David & Charles, pounds 18,99). It, too, has its share of historical content and I'm sure that Elliott's line is abuzz with those anxious to inform him that Royal Po rthcawl is not, as he says in large letters, in Gwent.

Knowing the author as I do, I am somewhat surprised by the amount of space he devotes to other people's views on the game. Much of the content is attributive and the strength of the book is based on the names of the characters he talks to.

There's a lovely interview, for instance, with Marley Harris who once stood in a queue in Harrods, noticed a sign on the wall To the Golf School, followed it, kicked off her shoes, had a trial whack and in a blink became one of the outstanding women amat eurs of her day, winning the British Ladies twice, the English Ladies once and on top of a mountain of other honours, played three times in the Curtis Cup.

And Elliott has got a friend, fellow journalist Mark Wilson, who was a friend and neighbour of the incomparable Henry Longhurst and he recounts, with much sorrow, the time after the great golf writer and broadcaster was stricken by his terrible illness.

One Wednesday, he called to see his neighbour, who was now very frail. And as Wilson was leaving, Longhurst took his hand and said: "Mark, I think I'll go on Friday. I've had enough.'' As usual, Henry called it spot on.
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Author:Blair, Michael
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 10, 1998
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