Remembering the mother of golf, in the cradle of the game

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2010

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND A singularly female portrait hangs in the golf museum at St. Andrews, her pearly face and jeweled headdress surrounded by grizzled, bearded Old Tom Morrises and tweedy Harry Vardons. There are a lot of bogus legends about Mary, Queen of Scots, but her enthusiasm for golf is historical fact: She was so keen on the game that she was accused of cold-bloodedness for playing a round just days after her husband was assassinated.

She was almost 6 feet tall and rode a horse like a man. These are just a couple of the more surprising aspects of the queen, who has been chronically mischaracterized as a weak feather-headed siren, because it's the fate of historical losers to have your history written by enemies and detractors. Mary Stuart (1542-1587) lost badly: She was deposed from her throne by ungovernably chauvinist Scottish lords, and beheaded by her rival Queen Elizabeth I. But while she reigned, she cut a superb figure as an athlete.

The most avid golfers have heard of her traditional association with the game, but even they might be surprised to learn her real character.

She loved St. Andrews, where she kept a small vacation cottage and often stayed incognito, doing her own shopping and cooking, and playing golf along the links by the Firth of Forth. She may well be responsible for the origin of the term "caddie": She had probably learned to play as a princess reared in France, where military cadets carried the royal clubs. It's thought that her accented pronunciation of the term was further bent by a brogue when she came to Scotland to assume the throne at barely 20 in 1561, after the death of her young husband, King Francis II of France.

This was the Scotland she tried to rule: In 1546 the Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews, David Beaton, burned a local Protestant, George Wishart, by tying him to a stake and strapping him with bags of gunpowder for maximum effect. In response a group of assassins sneaked into St. Andrews castle, tied Beaton to a chair and stabbed him, then hung him from the wall with bedsheets, and for good measure, a spectator urinated in his mouth. Then they packed his body in a salt chest and threw it in a dungeon carved out of a seaside cliff.

No wonder she played golf. To visit St. Andrews incognito was clearly an escape from incessant Catholic-Protestant tensions and continual revolts by a mutinous peerage. Her closest friends were her four ladies-in-waiting, also named Mary, one of whom, Mary Seton, may have played with her. According to tradition, the queen lost in match play to Mary Seton at Musselburgh and gave her a necklace as a prize. According to biographer John Guy, the Queen and her friends showed "a passion for frolics or high jinks that inverted sexual or social stereotypes."

She was continually outdoors exercising, at hunting, hawking, and archery, or playing a French lawn bowling game called pall mall, and golf. She spent upwards of three hours a day on horseback, and wore serge breeches under her skirts so that she could ride astride rather than sidesaddle, which disconcerted Scottish lords. Early in her reign she hosted an equestrian competition with a team of female knights competing against male knights to see who could score more points by spearing a ring suspended from a post.

But the queen was faced with one insurrection after another, and finally lost her grip on state affairs with a catastrophically bad marriage. She wed the drunken and overbearing Englishman Lord Darnley, and then launched a romantic alliance with a roisterer named the Earl of Bothwell. The Scottish peers refused to put up with Darnley, and blew up the castle where he was staying and strangled him in the garden. She was accused of being complicit in the murder, in order to marry Bothwell.

After a series of revolts, imprisonments, and escapes, the queen finally fled to England in 1568, where she was imprisoned and charges were brought against her. The lead accuser was her treacherous half-brother and rival, Earl of Moray, who offered as partial proof the fact that she had been seen on the golf links rather than in mourning: "A few days after the murder she passed to Seton, exercising her one day right openly at the fields with pall mall and golf," the charge read. A sure sign of her hard-heartedness and guilt.

She spent the rest of her life imprisoned, steadily declining and increasingly frustrated by physical confinement. She enviously cheered on her male attendants as they played games of football on the village green in Carlisle. When she went hare hunting, she outgalloped her guards, who feared she was trying to escape across the border to Scotland., and restricted her to ever briefer rides. Eventually she was denied almost all forms of exercise. She developed gastric ulcers and thrombosis, became heavy, and lost most of her hair to stress. She died still pining for the outdoors and wound up a mis-portrayed face on a canvas, the mother of golf, among all the stout old fathers.

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