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

Continued (page 4 of 4)

Playing faster doesn't mean hurrying. It just means eliminating the dithering, the daydreaming, and the aimless wandering around, plus picking up when your situation becomes hopeless. If you've ever spent time stuck behind serious slowpokes, you know that the main reason they take all afternoon to play 18 holes is not that they're carefully weighing every shot; it's that they're always in the wrong place and never ready to act when it's their turn. What's more, when golfers play faster they usually play better—a bonus for being courteous, and an unsurprising result in a game in which thinking is a liability.

The main reason stodgy older golfers are rethinking some of the game's dustier customs is that they're worried that the global supply of stodgy younger golfers is shrinking. And clearly it is. But fewer stodgy golfers is not a bad thing. Golf in the United States, on public courses as well as private, has a long and ugly history of exclusion, and the game's recent economic difficulties have added their weight to the societal forces pushing in the other direction, to the benefit of all. Declining participation is also a reflection of demographic and cultural changes that have nothing to do with the game. Many golf-playing fathers of my father's generation didn't hesitate to spend entire summer weekends on the course, in the grillroom, and at the card table; fathers nowadays are more likely to check in with their families occasionally, and to do stuff with their wives and kids. And that's a good thing, for families and for society, even if it means that total golf rounds go down. Some courses are trying to accommodate that cultural change by doing things like relaxing old rules about when children are allowed to play, in the hope of luring entire families into the game. And that's a good thing, too, as long as families are sensitive to their impact on other players. I've been stuck behind besotted parents who clearly saw nothing wrong with allowing an 8-year-old to play a hole in a hundred strokes, despite the fact that groups were backing up behind them like cars on the Tappan Zee Bridge.

When it comes to ordinary rules and taboos, older golfers shouldn't necessarily panic, because not all the old ways are problematic. Young and youngish golfers tend to be OK with getting moderately dressed up to play, for example, because the idea of investing in expensive, highly specialized sports clothing is actually common among the young, who have learned from advertisements that athletic performance is critically affected by things like their choice of pants. In fact, the worst-dressed guys on golf courses, even at the most exclusive clubs, are often old-timers, who can give the impression that they've decided to try to run out the clock on their existing wardrobe.

What people increasingly do hate is being forced to dress up for meals, and one result is that the most popular place to dine at fancy country clubs is often the one room where jackets are not required. At my parents' old club, most of the time, the big formal dining room is just a cavernous space that people walk past on their way to a cozier, tavern-like hangout in the back, where people can wear what they would wear not only at home but also in virtually any restaurant. Requiring someone to put on a tie just to use up a monthly food minimum seems cruel, as well as self-defeating.

I have a photograph that was taken on the front steps of the clubhouse at my home course in 1925. It's of the pro and 10 young caddies (average age about 12). At least five of the caddies are wearing plus fours—the legs of the kids in the back are hard to see—and three are wearing ties. Not even grownup golfers dress that way anymore, and no one's life is worse because of it. If there were members of my club in 1925 who were upset because 70 percent of the caddie corps had decided to go tieless that day, they were worrying about the wrong thing.

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today