Born to Golf?

Think you know who invented golf? If you’re like most observers, you believe that the sport as we know it was invented in Scotland in the late 1400s.

Some historians also note that the ancient Romans played games with sticks hitting stones on the ground, but this pastime had no link to modern day golf. Others attribute some influence to activities called kolven in Holland and chole in Belgium that involved sticks and rudimentary balls or stones - but for the majority of golf purists, the pursuit of hitting round objects into slightly larger holes in the ground is strictly attributed to the Scots.

However, with all due respect to those historians, we have another theory: maybe golf was created by a band of runners.

Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run describes the reclusive Raramuri, indigenous people of the treacherous Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. Raramuri are the world’s greatest distance runners, whose “superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity.” These natives were so reclusive that they were not discovered by the outside world until the 1500s by the Conquistadors, who mispronounced the name to call them Tarahumara. (They are still commonly called Tarahumara by outsiders today.)

The name Raramuri means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast”, and the entire culture of the tribe involves running for joy. McDougall set out to chronicle the Tarahumara to understand how they could run for hundreds of miles without getting injured. Among other observations, his documentation of huarache-clad ultrarunners has greatly influenced the recent barefoot running boom in the United States.

And what does any of this have to do with golf? McDougall also observed that the favorite pastime among the Tarahumara is a game called rarjiparo. These contests are typically held between village teams and involve running continuously for 36 or 48 hours over hilly and dangerous terrain. The object is for each team to move a small wooden ball called the rarajipari, made of hard wood from tree roots.

Men kick the rarajipari to advance it, but women are allowed to use an implement called the ariweta – “a ring of strong plant fibres or twigs which are hooked with a curved wooden end which allows the ball to be hit”. They hit the ball, then chase after it – up and down hills, around curves, into the dirt or bushes, and occasionally dropping into holes in the ground. Sounds like a group of amateurs on the back nine, doesn’t it?

Furthermore, Tarahumara villagers gather from miles around to watch these events - a primitive gallery, if you will - and bets are often made involving pelts, livestock, blankets, jewelry, and other items. After a rarjiparo, it is traditional that “winners do not demonstrate arrogance, and the losers show no anger” – as rivals often gather together and spend the next 48 hours drinking tesquino, a corn-based beer, until they pass out. Since the Tarahumara have no refrigeration devices, all of the tesquino had to be finished within the 48-hour party.

So let’s recap: a game that involves using sticks to knock little balls around, which claims specific rules of decorum, features large spectator galleries, and encourages betting, beer drinking, and camaraderie. What game does that sound like to you?

The Tarahumara have been doing this for more than 2000 years. Perhaps they weren’t just Born to Run, but Born to Golf as well - and maybe all the passionate golf fans at this week’s US Open owe a tip of the hat to these natural born runners.

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