When Michael Jordan, Hall of Fame basketballer, got himself banned from a Florida golf course last year for wearing cargo pants,
it was news. Not that a course would dare to expel Jordan, a voracious golfer, but rather that any golf facility these days would throw out any customer for any reason, given the state of the business.
And the state of "the code."
Eight years ago I listened to a teenager at a Cape Cod resort course tell his parents by phone that they had to pick him up—he couldn't play; the shop didn't want his $150 green fee—because he didn't have a collared shirt. No suggestion that he borrow one from the shop, no "Just don't do it again," no allowance for fashion, no compromise, nothing.
Contrast that with the latest dress-code memo from Troon Golf, operator of The Phoenician in Scottsdale and some of the posher resorts and courses in the country:
Shorts can be just about any style, but please do try to present the shorts at a length that everyone wants to look at. Gym shorts are for the gym, but if that makes you comfortable to play golf, we welcome you.
A dress code with a sense of humor?
"Our code takes a lighter approach," says Ryan Walls, senior vice president operations. "We caught flak over the gym-shorts thing. But let's face it: Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people will wear appropriate attire. We can deal with the others on a one-off basis."
Even at private clubs, dress codes these days sound more like this one from Quail Ridge Golf Club in Ada, Mich.:
We prefer traditional golf-dress policies but will not discourage golfers from wearing whatever makes them comfortable within appropriate parameters.
To an increasing number of course owners and even private-club boards, falling participation rates, widely diverse dress styles, technology and a desire to attract younger customers (and members) has brought an end to strict, dictatorial codes of behavior covering anything from fashion to phone use. Do's and don'ts have become we suggest, we prefer, or just plain, we trust you. How do you ban untucked shirts, for example, when apparel companies are designing them that way? "We have a regional VP who always has his golf shirt out, and pros tell him to tuck it in," says Cathy Harbin, vice president of golf revenue at ClubCorp. "He says, 'Wait. The logo's down here. It's not supposed to be tucked in.' " Or how do you ban denim, when Augusta National allows Justin Rose to play the Masters in snappy jeans—like pants? And if you want Dad and the boys to head to the club after a soccer game, you'd better get flexible about what's "casual." Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., certainly agrees:
Jeans are allowed in all dining areas of the Club at ALL TIMES provided that the denim is not bib-style, tattered, frayed, excessively baggy or stained.
Good on the stained.
Added one course owner in Massachusetts: "We have a dress code. You need to be dressed."
There are dissenters, of course. Count the La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach, where Jordan was confronted. "I've been there many times, and no one told me a thing," he said in a text to ESPN Chicago. "Then all of a sudden they come to me on the 11th hole... Wow! The round is almost over and you want me to buy shorts now? Yeah, right!!"
Then there's my Connecticut club, where two guys right out of the "Animal House" fraternity council confronted me for wearing quite stylish but pocketed shorts last year. (Really. My wife bought them. They were stylish.)
"Do you put the screwdriver on the right or the left?" asked one of the council members. How about in your ear? I gently thought.
At most clubs, though, leadership has decided to ride the horse in the direction she's going: Do your thing, but please be cool about it.
Here's how the staid Philadelphia Country Club communicates that message: Members are encouraged to consider common sense, respect for tradition, modesty and the comfort level of fellow Members when making casual-attire decisions.
This idea of treating adults like adults meets its stiffest challenge in the area of cellphones, where most clubs have fingers crossed. The absence, or serious reduction, of cellphone restrictions is the most dramatic change in club codes over the past five years.
There remain clubs that ban phones on course and in the clubhouse (as impractical as that might seem to employed people), with a few allowing calls only in the parking lot from your car—"windows up," as one club memo stipulates. Most clubs now condone an occasional email, and a phone call or two at the turn. According to Jay Mottola of the Metropolitan Golf Association in Elmsford, N.Y., more clubs are also creating clubhouse rooms with Internet access to cater to members' business obligations.
Adds Marty Hackel, Golf Digest's fashion director: "With cellphones, you're really only talking about a small segment ... private clubs, that even have a policy. There aren't really rules at public courses, not even at resorts. We're seeing more clubs saying, 'Just don't be dumb about it. Be respectful.' "
Tablets? Instead of the paper or magazines or books, many people do their reading on these devices, and that should be OK at clubs, whether it's in the dining room or in an easy chair in the locker room. Again, use your good sense. In the dining room, turn off the sound. In the locker room, where the TV is probably playing CNBC, not a problem.
As for smartphones on the course, if somebody needs medical attention, it connects to emergency care immediately. If that happens once a year, it's worth the so-called disruption. Just don't be on the phone slowing down play. Same with taking pictures or checking distances.
We offer a final piece of the "new" code, compliments of an outdoorsy Wisconsin club:
We're down with that.