Tea Time on QI: Golf Myths Galore

24 February 2023

Are QI really the 'myth busters' they think they are? In a recent programme, QI promulgated more golf history myths in one minute than all the golf histories over 100 years, (including inventing two myths of their own.)

QI on BBC TV prides itself on debunking unproven historical and scientific 'facts'. If it cannot find contemporary or reasonable evidence, it declares them myths. But in 'Tea Time' (Series T: Episode 14) earlier this week, it repeated several untruths on golf history and created two new ones of its own.

Firstly, QI said that the answer to 'Where is the Home of Golf' was Edinburgh on the grounds that the rules of golf were created there in 1744. Apart from this not being the question, it is not a tenable answer. The golf competition for which the rules were created was in Leith, which was a separate Burgh at the time. More pertinently, it has been recently shown in Early Golf by Neil Millar that St Andrews is first proven location of a golf match in 1504, which is, therefore, appropriately the Home of Golf. 

If QI had left there, it would have been bad enough, but they went on to claim connections between golf and Roman Paganica, Chinese Chuiwan and Dutch Kolven. All are myths. 

Paganica was the third largest Roman ball, probably somewhere between the size of cricket ball and a small beach ball. It was allegedly firm and filled with feathers, but there is no discernible connection over hundreds of years to the golf ball or its antecedents. Significantly for the golf claim, these Roman balls were used in hand-ball games. There is certainly no record of clubs being used with the paganica ball and reputable classical sources agree: - 

"..it seems likely that the golf connection was solely made on the basis of balls filled with feathers (as were early golf balls); no mention of a ‘club’ really, so, as often, a likely spurious connection."

Nothing can have been less like golf,…” and "There is no trace of any sort of racquet or bat;.."

 A few years ago, a mosaic was unearthed that several scholars considered to be a depiction of 'paganica'. A glance at it should remove all doubt about its possible connection to golf.  While these scenes may be seen on Copacabana beach, they have never been witnessed on the greens of St Andrews. 

Paganica Villa Romana Bikini Grils

Villa Romana mosaic depicting Paganica according to classical sources

By all QI criteria, this is a monumental myth.

The claim that Chuiwan from ancient China is an antecedent for golf has been dealt with at length in a book that dismissed any provable connection, as discussed here. While it is theoretically possible that elements of Chuiwan may have been involved in Colf, this can really only be through industrial espionage, which is unproven and unprovable. By QI criteria therefore, this remains a myth. 

Worst of all is the claim for 'kolven' played in the Netherlands being an antecedent for golf. This is demonstrably false due to the the simple fact that kolven post-dates golf! Although elements from 'colf' in the Netherlands may have found their way to Scotland, the game of links golf as we know it was created there. We have insufficient details about colf to be certain about it, but it seems to have been a target team game played outdoors on rough ground or on ice. 

In any case, colf died out in the Netherlands towards the end of the 17th century. It was revived in the 18th century as 'kolf', a game played in a defined area between two poles, mostly indoors or under cover. Rev Walker describes kolf in his entry in the Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99, by which time it bore no relation to golf. Kolf, in turn, also waned, but was later revived as 'kolven', which is still played in the Netherlands today. All these details have been covered in depth by Geert and Sara Nijs in their several publications

'Kolven' (and even its immediate predecessor kolf) post dates the beginnings of golf by several hundred years and bears more resemblance to cricket than it does to golf! 

All are myths under QI rules!

Post Script

QI have form in golf myths. In their book 1,339 QI Facts (2014), they claim the earliest golf balls were made of wood, referencing a derivative website, which repeats myths from other derivative websites. There is no evidence to support this. 

These are not their only offences. When Stephen Fry left QI, there was a round-up of falsehoods to date, admitted by the broadcaster. (One has been corrected in the recent series.)  


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