By: David A. Smith
I’m not feeling very well – I need a doctor immediately. Ring the nearest golf course.
Dino, Der Bingle, and Groucho on the course
In yesterday’s Part 3, we laid up and approached the curious paradoxes of golf – that its extravagant land-use consumption is anti-urbanism, but its business and economic model requires proximity to the urban environment with its weekday warriors who could earn the money for their Saturday retreat to the links, with their pals.
We can’t be Payne, but we can dress and pose like him
Sources used in this post
Goldfinger (1959), Chapter 9; Olive green font
WS Journal review, The Kingdom of Golf in America (August 16, 2013; pastel blue font)
Wikipedia on golf’s environmental impact; emerald green font)
The Economist (December 20, 2014; black font)
When cities provides strolling parks for families, women, and children, golf thus provides a park initially designed for, and reserved for, men.
4. Golf is a park for men (because one keeps score)
Though he never gender-references it, Henry Allen leaves no doubt that if golf is primal, it is primal for men in hunting bands:
Crouched with clubs in their hands, squinting at the distance, these hominids look familiar, to my mind’s eye. Trade the bare feet for FootJoy shoes, and they are golfers looking at the water hazard to the left, the out-of-bounds trees to the right, the rolling grassland called a fairway.
At the roughly 15,000-20,000 golf courses in America, we can fulfill our savanna heritage. The courses I play have deer and fox running across the fairways instead of dik-diks and hyenas, but the view is the same. In the deep American South an atavistic touch is the alligator sunning next to one’s ill-struck drive.
Leisure means different things to different people, but for men, leisure has involved sports and competition. And of the sports, golf was always about much more than the actual game; by happenstance or symbiotic evolution, golf perfectly captured the elements of male socializing.
In their leisure, men like to do these things:
- Keep score.
- Rag good-naturedly on other men.
- Not talk about themselves.
- Be vulgar.
How ‘bout some cigars, Michael?
Sporting events are private space. Even if in a public park, when the sportsmen take over a space, spectators and strollers walk around the game’s field.
The kingdom of golf in America grew from a 20-acre pasture in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1888 to bleacher-studded stadium courses with greens on perfect islands like something from Arthurian legend; from knickers to polyester; from clubhouses in old farmhouses to the Congressional Country Club, which appears to be slightly smaller than the Pentagon but far more important.
A palazzo for the Congressmen
From the beginning, golf has been dominated by men, as made clear with no hint of irony in this description of the founding of Congressional:
In 1921, Congressmen Oscar E. Bland and O.R. Luhring of Indiana felt the need for a Club where Members of Congress could meet socially with businessmen. Chevy Chase and Columbia Country Clubs were both in existence but they were mostly for Washingtonians and did not specialize in members of Congress. The idea was taken to Herbert Hoover, who at the time was the Secretary of Commerce, and he agreed to help wholeheartedly.
Among some of the early members were John D. Rockefeller, the duPonts, Walter Chrysler, William Randolph Hearst, Harvey S. Firestone, James W. Gerard, Mrs. Rockefeller McCormick, Howard E. Coffin, Bernard B. Baruch, Eugene G. Grace, John J. Raskob, Edward L. Doheny, Julius Rosenwald, A. Mitchell Palmer, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Harry E. Sinclair, O.P. VanSweringen, Larz Anderson and Charles C. Glover and son.
A veritable Who’s-Who of American Jazz-Age tycoons.
At the time, Washington had only two streetcar systems.
Congressional’s clubhouse under construction, 1923
Such notables who managed to make it to the opening party were President and Mrs. Coolidge and Chief Justice (formerly the 27th President) William Howard Taft, not to mention the Marine Band that greeted the arriving guests at the entrance to the Club.
Today, seven out of every nine golfers are male. Golf clubs have for decades been bastions of maledom, and the whole concept of a club that admits only whom it chooses to admit is deliberately exclusionary.
Not allowed, even if you don’t want to join
The game’s long history adds to its charm, but has sometimes damaged its image. The sport has had a particularly uneasy relationship with women and minorities. One all-male golf club in Scotland had, until a few years ago, a sign hanging outside saying, “no dogs, no women”. (Some members objected to dogs not being allowed in, quips one insider.)
We’re leaving before the women arrive
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland, a club founded in 1754 that supervises the game’s rules, voted to admit women only in September 2014. America and golf used both to be racially segregated, but attitudes and demographics have changed faster in the nation as a whole than in the sport.
Having a club meant that men who wanted to socialize in manly fashion (compete, keep score, rag, not talk, and be vulgar) could do so every weekend.
Safer than polo and less tiring than football, golf allowed businessmen to get to know each other and do deals between shots. John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, early adopters, helped make the sport fashionable.
John D. Rockefeller golfing in Florida
Andrew Carnegie golfing
Contrast golf course with large public parks – the Tuileries in Paris, say; Central Park in New York; Regent’s Park in London. Wonderful spaces though they may be, they are the preserve of families with children, young lovers courting, solitary people finding companionship feeding the birds.
Mothers exercising in Central Park
Despite or perhaps because of its domination by men, including white men, golf has over the last decades been at pains to democratize and diversify itself, with varying success.
About a decade ago the rise of a pretty female golfer, Ai Miyazato, encouraged a wave of young Japanese women to try amateur golf.
No star has been a more powerful draw to new players than Tiger Woods. When Mr Woods, arguably the best golfer of all time, started winning championships in the late 1990s, people who had previously thought of golf as playtime for rich, white men stepped onto the tee.
But there’s another aspect about golf, one that for half a century has been the bane of its existence: the perception – with a fair amount of justification – that it is a bastion of privilege, and a gateway to big business and the ‘old boys club.’
5. Golf is more than competitive, it is male bonding
I don’t know of any other organization that’s raised more money than golf has, because if you are a baseball player, or a football player, or a hockey player, or you’re just a businessman, and you want to raise some money for a charity, what do they do? They have a golf tournament. They have a golf outing, and they go out and they do it.
The Merry Mex, winning the Masters
Golf is entirely social; the concept of playing a round of golf by oneself is anathema:
In Japan, “lonely golf”, in which older people show up by themselves in the hope of playing with someone for a round, has become more common as the population ages.
Golf is also male testing; through the lens of competition, men size up other men, either as rivals or friends:
P.G. Wodehouse once observed, “To find out a man’s true character, play golf with him.”
Nowhere was golf’s role in male probing and bonding better expressed than in Ian Fleming’s 1959 novel Goldfinger, which devotes two whole chapters to a single round of golf between the hero (James Bond, personifying the role of St. George) and the dragon he must approach and slay, the mysterious, greedy Auric Goldfinger:
What’s your specialty?
They walked down the hill in a silence which Goldfinger unexpectedly broke. ‘What is the firm you work for?’
‘And where do they hang out?’
‘London. Regent’s Park.’
‘What do they export?’
Bond woke up from his angry ruminations. Here, pay attention! This is work, not a game. Bond said casually, ‘Oh everything from sewing-machines to tanks.’
‘What’s your specialty?’
Bond could feel Goldfinger’s eyes on him. He said, ‘I look after the small arms side. Spend most of my time selling miscellaneous ironmongery to sheiks and rajahs – anyone the Foreign Office decides doesn’t want the stuff to shoot at us with.’
‘Interesting work.’ Goldfinger’s voice was flat, bored.
Even more important than Goldfinger’s probing of Bond is Bond’s discovery that Goldfinger is a cheat, a cheat not only of his own ball but also of his opponent’s:
From nowhere the shadow of Goldfinger’s huge head approached the ball on the ground, engulfed it and moved on. Bond let his swing take itself to pieces in sections. Then he stood away from his ball and looked up. Goldfinger’s feet were still moving. He was looking carefully up at the sky.
‘Shades please, Goldfinger.’ Bond’s voice was furiously controlled.
Goldfinger stopped and looked slowly at Bond. The eyebrows were raised a fraction in inquiry. He moved back and stood still, saying nothing.
So much venom has been directed against golf’s exclusivity, and the perception that captains of industry are making Illuminati-style megadeals behind closed clubhouse gates, that every few years there is the spectacle of a golf club – such as August National – being picketed for having no women members. And before the women members, it was no black members, and before them, it was no Jewish members.
Among the knowledge class that arose with Adlai Stevenson and John Kennedy, golf is also racist, anti-Semitic or sexist. It is charged with being both vulgar and snobbish, an outdoor casino, and a cavalcade of real-estate scams. Much like America itself, it has indeed been all of those.
Since Dwight Eisenhower, golf has been the sport most often associated with American presidents – Kennedy, Ford, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama have all been happy to be photographed on the links:
Shouldn’t you be thinking about D-Day, Mr. General? Eisenhower playing golf in England
Better get NORAD tracking that, Mr. President
To the moon, Mr. President: Jackie Gleason and Gerald Ford
Sorry, Mr. President, no mulligan for that shot: Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton
Don’t misunderestimate my short game
Still not in, Mr. President
All of these presidents have had their personalities psychoanalyzed through their golf games (Bill Clinton’s mulligans were charted by White House pool reporters and Sports Illustrated), because in golf, what is on trial isn’t just winning or your self-control over errant shots, but your character and personal integrity.
I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald … striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one – big hitter, the Lama – long, into a ten-thousand foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier. Do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga … gunga, gunga-lagunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.
So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice
[Continued tomorrow in Part 5.]