The origin of golf has long been debated. Some historians trace the sport back to the Roman game of paganica, which involved using a bent stick to hit a wool- or feather-stuffed leather ball. According to one view, paganica spread throughout several countries as the Romans conquered much of Europe during the 1st century BC and eventually evolved into the modern game. Others cite chuiwan (ch’ui-wan) as the progenitor, a game played in China during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and earlier and described as “a game in which you hit a ball with a stick while walking.” Chuiwan is thought to have been introduced into Europe by traders during the Middle Ages. However, upon close examination, neither theory is convincing.
Other early stick-and-ball games included the English game of cambuca (a term of Celtic origin). In France the game was known as chambot and may have been related to Irish hurling and Scottish shinty, or camanachd, as well as to the French pastime (derived from an Italian game) of jeu de mail. This game was in turn exported to the Low Countries, Germany, and England (where it was called pall-mall, pronounced “pell mell”).
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As early as 1819 the English traveler William Ousely claimed that golf descended from the Persian national game of chaugán, the ancestor of modern polo. Later, historians, not least because of the resemblance of names, considered the French cross-country game of chicane to be a descendant of chaugán. In chicane a ball had to be driven with the fewest possible strokes to a church or garden door. This game was described in the novels of Émile Zola and Charles Deulin, where it went by the name of chole.
Chicane closely resembled the game of kolf, which the Dutch golf historian J.H. van Hengel believed to be the earliest form of golf. Many traditions surround the game of kolf. One relates that it was played annually in the village of Loenen, Netherlands, beginning in 1297, to commemorate the capture of the killer of Floris V, count of Holland and Zeeland, a year earlier. No evidence supports this early date, however, and it would seem to be a clear anachronism.