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That's Forbidden! (But Should It Be?)

Golf has never lacked for rules, written & otherwise. Now, as the game enters a new era, its taboos have become a moving target

August 2014

A few years ago, I played as a guest at the Midwestern country club my family belonged to when I was growing up. Before I teed off, I realized that several people I'd been chatting with had seemed oddly attentive to my feet. Even as they were saying nice things about my father, who had died a couple of years before, they kept glancing toward the floor. That afternoon, on the course, I deduced the explanation after noticing that every male golfer I saw who was wearing shorts was also wearing crew socks, a fashion combination that, at the time, was rare among non-elderly non-Europeans. And, indeed, a member explained to me later that crew-length socks were required for men "in keeping with the traditions of the club." My socks were "quarter-height"—tall enough to earn me a visitor's pass, though technically a violation.

In Britain and Ireland, even crew socks can be insufficient: Some clubs allow shorts only if they're worn with socks that go all the way to the knee—a requirement that defeats the purpose of wearing shorts, you would think. Royal Lytham & St. Annes, in England, used to have such a restriction but relaxed it, the pro told me, when a busload of shorts-wearing American visitors exhausted the golf shop's inventory of "tall hose." One way to deal with all shorts-and-socks issues is simply to require long pants, as the PGA Tour and a few rich-guy clubs do. At Augusta National many years ago, a member entered the clubhouse wearing shorts, and Clifford Roberts, the club's legendarily gruff chairman and co-founder, studied him for a moment, then asked him what he was planning to do that day. The member said he was planning to play golf, and Roberts asked, "Where?" (The member returned to the locker room and changed.) Conversely, at Los Angeles Country Club women golfers used to be required to expose their legs, by wearing skirts. In 1995, an LACC member told me that, on a rainy day during a women's tournament there, the players had been allowed to put on rain pants—if they pulled them up under their skirts. At LACC today, women can wear tailored pants, as long as they come within six inches of the ankle, but only tennis players are allowed to wear shorts.

I don't mind almost any golf-course clothing restriction, as long as I know about it in advance, because the first nice thing my wife said to me about golf, after I took it up in my mid-30s, was that it had improved my wardrobe: a tiny breach in her fortress of disapproval.

But restrictions can be overdone. The entire subject of golf-course rules and taboos is of pressing interest because fewer people are playing, and those who are playing are playing less. Back in the days when even lousy private clubs had waiting lists, golf committees could afford to impose prohibitions of all kinds, including irrational ones. Now the matter is trickier. Rules that my father and his friends took for granted—fancy clothes in the clubhouse dining room, no kids on the course on weekends until late in the afternoon—can seem not just stuffy but, often, economically reckless. Nobody ever quit golf over a sock requirement, but even trivial taboos can have a cumulative impact, by making golf seem like an activity that's too dumb even to try.

The dispensable rules and taboos are probably the ones that are hardest to justify objectively (no hats indoors, no groups larger than four, no short socks) or that, by now, can be considered generational and technological lost causes (no cellphones anywhere). There are also rules that are problematic because they tend to become the boorish preoccupations of people who are susceptible to boorish preoccupations. When some of my friends played a round at our enemy club last year, on a day when our course was closed, a member approached them on the first tee and airily told them, "We don't place our golf bags on the teeing ground." I'd be surprised if that rule actually exists—hey, better not walk on the tees, either!—but, if it does, there are other ways to make it known.

Still, golf has been around for a long time, and not all of its traditions should be considered open for negotiation. When you become a golfer, you do more than take up an expensive, annoying game that some people play for years without becoming even bad at it; you also join a community. And in any community well-conceived rules make life simpler for everyone, by taking the guesswork out of getting along—the same role that table manners play in public eating. Replace your divots; repair your ball marks; keep up with the group ahead, not ahead of the group behind; don't drive carts in places where carts aren't supposed to be driven. My home course has just nine holes. The local rule is that a group putting out on the ninth green has the right of way on the 10th tee, which is also the first tee, unless the group on the first tee has already waited once. That's fair, effective and easy to understand, as long as everyone knows about it, remembers it and accepts it. And, as with many kinds of behavior rules, its purpose is not to inconvenience anyone, but to make coexistence automatic, by eliminating the need for repeated arbitration. The challenge is knowing where to draw the line.

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