Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society: Part 1, A good walk spoiled

January 26, 2015 | Belmont, Golf, Green space, Housing, Land use, Leisure, Milton, Open space, Real estate taxes, Speculation, Transportation, Urbanization, US News, Zoning

By: David A. Smith

Golf is a good walk spoiled.
Mark Twain


When scanning Google Earth to research my lengthy posts of bucolic Belmont and meadowy Milton, I was struck how among the few landmarks readily identifiable from even very high altitudes were golf courses; though largely invisible from commuters’ streets, from above they stood out.  Examining those two towns for locations where affordable housing could be built, I thought, That’s a lot of undeveloped acreage.  And that, more or less, was the genesis of a multi-page article Handicapped: The future of golf, in the year-end edition of The Economist (December 20, 2014):


On a recent Saturday Matt Owens, the owner of Trenton Street Golf Course in West Monroe [Louisiana], sat indoors facing the entrance to his course and greeted golfers. In this town of 13,000 inhabitants with a love of fried catfish and a reverence for “Duck Dynasty”, a television show about hunters whose stars live nearby, golf used to be a regular indulgence for many, and that mild autumn weekend was ideal golf weather. Yet by the end of the afternoon Mr Owens had taken in only around $200 in green fees, a tenth of what his course earned on Saturdays a few years ago.

‘Greens fees’ is golf’s civilized euphemism for admission price, and like so many terms in golf, the circumlocution bespeaks a far earlier time, when golf was a game for gentlemen, amateurs were esteemed above professionals, and golf was a-booming.

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)

No more: golf is on its back nine, and giving back strokes to par.

What is happening in West Monroe is not unusual. In America, the heartland of golf, the game is in decline.


No really, this isn’t my frozen face: Kemper’s Skinner

Last year 160 of the country’s 14,600 18-hole equivalent golf facilities shut up shop, the eighth straight year of net closures, according to the National Golf Foundation, an industry group. Steve Skinner of Kemper Sports, a large golf-course operator, thinks it is going to take another ten years to level the imbalance between supply and demand. With only a handful of new courses scheduled for construction in America, architects are looking abroad to find work. “If golf-course architecture were a publicly traded stock, it would be a penny stock right now,” says Brian Curley, a golf-course architect who spends much of his time designing courses in China.


Growing golf where the money is – China – Brian Curley

Golf’s decline has many symptoms, yet they all trace back to a single cause – the changing relationship between Americans and their cities, and their access to or interest in outside leisure time.

Golf isn’t an urban game; it’s a suburban game, a game for people who made their money from cities, live in cities, but harken back to a pre-urban time.

Last year around 25m Americans played golf, 18% fewer than did so in 2006, although the population grew by 6%. Although still played by men and women, including businesspeople hoping to bond over more than lunch, golf does not hold the same appeal for the young and minorities, groups that will determine its future health. In recent years more people have abandoned than taken up the game.

And while golf is a game, a golf course is a real estate investment, and that has always been both its blessing and its curse.


Eighty-year-old Arnold Palmer, hitting off the first tee at Augusta national

Spiritually, golf appeals to aspirational middle-class men because it romanticizes the pre-urban landscape and gives them a place to be men socializing among men – but those very attributes contain within golf the seeds of its eventual demise as societies urbanize further, putting urban space and leisure time under pressure that eventually makes the golf course no longer sustainable as a social model for leisure time or an economic model for urban leisure space.  

1. Golf romanticizes the pre-urban shaped and landscaped environment

From the time people first invented towns and cities, cultivated green space has always been a mark of culture. 


Emperor Napoleon hunting at Fontainebleau

Kings had hunting preserves; or royal parks laid out for the stately perambulation of lords and ladies.


Only royalty should be allowed to walk in nature … don’t you agree, court gardener?

With the earliest industrial revolution, large parkland estates were how the nouveau riche displayed their cultural achievements.


Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1749

Golf is part of that, for from its beginnings along the coast of St. Andrews, golf has celebrated the romantic outdoors:

The use of natural creeks and ponds is generally desirable when designing a golf course for their aesthetics and inherent difficulty, but such areas also typically include wetlands within the flood plain that are unsuitable for golfing.

Much is made in golf course design of ‘using the natural landscape.’

Wampanoag … has remained mostly untouched since the clubs inception in 1924. Famed Course designer Donald Ross sculpted a championship course on this beautiful park-like piece of land.   Donald Ross is widely recognized as the leading golf architect of the 20th century – and quite possibly of all time.   He is best known for his simple designs that use the existing natural landscape to challenge golfers of all skill levels, including Pinehurst No. 2, one of the most consistently highest rated courses in the country.  

The famous pot bunkers at St. Andrews, for example, were supposedly formed by sheep lying down against the fierce North Sea winds.


Isn’t nature wonderful?  Sheep on Ahill Island, Scotland


Never get into a bunker taller than your head

Golf’s landscapes also echo English notion of the garden.  Where the French believed in geometric perfection of the parterre, nothing so delights the English as a ‘wild’ or natural border, which is raised to a peak of intellectual sublimity at Sissinghurst, created by Vita Sackville-West, who in true English fashion was both a poet and a gardener

I sing the cycle of my country’s year,
I sing the tillage, and the reaping sing,
Classic monotony, that modes and wars
Leave undisturbed, unbettered, for their best
Was born immediate, of expediency.


Quite the pair: Harold (Hadji) Nicholson and Vita Sackville-0West

The garden she created, and that today is revered among the English, mixes natural growths and lawns:


Just put a putting green in here

The same sensibilities are reflected in the most famous American golf course, Augusta National:


This would be a nice garden … if you got rid of the guys with sticks


Hit it on the green stuff, not into the colored stuff

The Masters - Round One

The most famous Par-3 in the world: Augusta’s 12th hole, where …


… you really want your tee shot to stay on the green


You can hit your ball out of the creek if you’re unfortunate enough to hit it into the creek

Also famous at St. Andrews is the Road Hole,

st_ andrews_17_road_hole

The 17th at St. Andrews (the Road Hole), where the pros aim their tee shot over the hotel


The wall is in play, and he’s about to ricochet his ball off it back toward the green (out of shot to the left)

And the most famous golf tournament in the world, the Masters’, is always played on the most garden-like of golf courses, Augusta National, and its height of blooming, Georgia in April.

2. Golf was born during the age of industrial urbanization

For the beginnings of history, men have made their leisure into competitions, whether martial arts as celebrated in the ancient Olympics, and along with such early sports, golf uses a weapon to propel a projectile.

Golf traces its modern origins to 15th-century Scotland, where people played with wooden clubs and balls full of feathers. In 1457 King James II temporarily banned it, along with football, because it interfered with archery practice, but he was no match for its growing popularity. Mary, Queen of Scots was an enthusiast; her clubs were carried by students she called “cadets” (now known as “caddies”). The game of “gawf”, as it was first called, spread: first to England, and subsequently to its colonies. 


The MacDonald boys playing golf, 1741

But golf depends on a green – an immaculate and well-maintained surface of undulating grass – and before there were suburbs, lawns were the preserve mainly of the rich.  Greens surrounded stately homes and castles.  Towns had greens, but their lawns were maintained by the cattle or sheep that grazed upon them, and where cattle and sheep graze, one doesn’t want to swing a club at objects in the grass.


Golf at St. Andrews’ Old course, 1855

If you think it’s hard to meet new people, try picking up the wrong golf ball.

Jack Lemmon



[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]