July 23, 2014

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

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.


When I was a lad, I was told that polite men don't wear hats inside buildings, and I must have internalized that concept because I almost always reflexively take off my golf cap when I pass through a door. Or so I believe. But it would be hard for me or anyone else to argue that indoor hat removal—unlike, say, rescuing kittens or not stealing other people's range finders—has obvious, inherent social value. It's just a custom that some people in some cultures have decided they care about, probably because someone at some point told them they ought to care about it (but not why). And in some other cultures covered heads have an entirely different significance, which supersedes the broodings of golf-club house committees.

One golf-related difficulty with indoor-hat prohibitions is that they can make it hard to spot the stranger you just played with, when you try to find him in the bar after your round. ("Were you bald on the golf course, too?") Another problem is that wearing a hat for several hours on a hot day can do terrible things to the hair of people who do have hair, even if they try to repair it in the locker room before going to lunch. Still another is that posting signs about hats, as a couple of clubs I've visited in recent years do, seems less civilized than forgetting to take them off—like putting up signs that say "Chew with your mouth closed" or "Shake hands when you meet someone new." It might be true that "gentlemen" generally remove their hats when they go inside, but if you visit gentlemen's houses you won't find signs reminding them to do it.

A Golf Digest editor once took three guests to his golf club, and after their round they reconvened in the grillroom for a beer. The guests were still wearing their golf caps, in violation of the club's "no-covers-under-cover" policy, which they didn't know about, and, before their host could warn them, the club president "walked over, stuck his head between mine and theirs, and loudly asked me to ask them to remove their hats." In doing so, he ruined what until that moment had been a terrific day for four people, and to what end? No matter what you think about the wearing of hats indoors, pointlessly creating humiliating spectacles is worse. As the etiquette authority Amy Vanderbilt wrote in 1952, "Some of the rudest and most objectionable people I have ever known have been technically the most 'correct.' "

A longtime member of Augusta National once told me that, when he was a young man, he and a friend invited six guests for a golf weekend. Neither young man was then a member, but each was the son of a member and had the impression that he was entitled to the privileges of the club, and when the two of them called to make their reservations the secretary assumed that she was speaking to their fathers. "It never occurred to anyone at the club that two sons would dare to do something as rash as this," he said, "and when we showed up, the entire staff must have been horrified. But they had put us all in the Eisenhower Cabin, and nobody said a word." Clifford Roberts, the club's chairman, was on the grounds, and was told what the young men had done. "But he said nothing until we were getting ready to leave," the man continued. "Then he took us aside, and explained that the sons of members could only be guests, and that, like any other guests, they had to be accompanied by a member at all times. We felt terrible, of course, and we apologized profusely. And we obviously should have known better. Yet he chose not to embarrass us or our parents or our friends." And there—from a man who has often been portrayed as the archetypal golf-club tyrant—is a lesson in how to handle innocent rules violations.


When a friend of mine was asked why she and her husband had helped their skateboard-obsessed teenage sons build a halfpipe in their back yard, she said, "We wanted them to die at home." Her statement touched on one of the central conundrums of parenting. When my children were teenagers, I agonized over their health and safety but, at the same time, realized that many of my most cherished memories of my adolescence involved activities that, had they turned out slightly differently, could have resulted in my incarceration or death. Similarly, some of my all-time favorite golf experiences carried the possibility of expulsion from wherever it was my friends and I happened to be playing. I regret our misbehavior, of course, but, when we sit on the clubhouse porch reminiscing, the tales we tell aren't about days when we teed off early, enjoyed the sunshine and the birds, and drove home. A golfer I know at another club once slipped away from a cocktail party and had sex with another guest in a lifeguard chair on the club's beach. At some point, they fell from the chair into the sand, and when they did, the crowd on the clubhouse porch applauded. My friend was suspended from the club and removed from a position of responsibility, but the trouble he got into was worth it. At least, it was worth it to those of us who tell the story every chance we get.

Golf Digest recently asked its readers, by way of Twitter and Facebook, if they knew of anyone who had been kicked out of a club or thrown off a course—and, if so, why—and received numerous, varied responses. In some cases, the punishments struck me as justified: "berating the staff with profane language"; "playing bumper cars with golf carts and ghost riding them off a 10-foot cliff"; "choking the guy in the group behind him for hitting into them"; "pushing the cigarette machine down a flight of stairs." (That last one involved a guy who had been expelled from the same club once before, for throwing a plate of spaghetti against a wall.) In others, though, the punishment seemed at least arguably excessive: "squirted ketchup all over another member"; "wore cut-off jean shorts"; "being too young [7]"; "dove in a pond to retrieve his ball along with several others."

The pond one resonated with me, because my closest call with banishment involved swimming. Three friends and I were playing on an extraordinarily hot day in July, and the course was empty except for us, and we were well into our second or third 18 of the day, and we had drunk everything we could find that could be drunk. Suddenly, the most appealing option seemed to be to dive into the water hazard on the fourth hole. Several people who weren't present heard about our swim later and realized that something had occurred that would have offended them if they had seen it. (This was before YouTube—and thank goodness for that, because if we'd done it a few years later you'd be able to watch it now.) The swim itself probably wasn't a capital offense, but in the minds of several influential members it got mixed up with a few other incidents from what I now think of as the Golden Summer, including my regular men's group's first clubhouse sleepover, later that same month. And even the sleepover might not have been a problem if one of the guys hadn't opened all four doors of his car at 3 in the morning and played a Bruce Springsteen CD at full volume, waking the neighbors. I ended up having to write a letter of apology to the entire membership, and, afterward, to explain myself to the club's board of governors, of which I was a member. During the board's discussion of the pond swim, the club's vice president, who is from Ireland, asked, "Were ye clad?" (We'd worn our underpants.) He also asked whether alcohol had been involved—a given, I would have thought.

I ended up resigning from the board a few months later, but, amazingly, not over any of that. One unavoidable consequence of attracting younger people to golf is that they will occasionally act like younger people. Based on my experience, I would say that the best approach—as long as they haven't murdered anyone, or set the clubhouse on fire—is probably to enjoy their high jinks vicariously, then punish them by appointing them to committees. (I recently completed two additional terms on the board. It's like guys who become cops.)


Among the issues that arose during various discipline-related discussions during the Golden Summer was an afternoon during which a group of us, after a very long lunch on the patio, decided to play two more holes, and teed off as a fourteensome. At some clubs, any group larger than four is considered a criminal enterprise; in fact, a reader reported via Facebook that he had been booted from a course on his wedding day "because we were playing a fivesome." At some other clubs, though, plus-size groups are allowed as long as they keep up. My feeling is that the relevant factor on any course ought to be pace, not size, and that consolidating groups behind the clog can be more efficient and less disruptive than repeatedly forcing faster players to play through, since playing-through slows down everyone. At my club 10 or 15 years ago, six of us joined up after becoming stalled behind an especially clueless twosome. A vigilant member on another fairway angrily shouted, "Is that a sixsome?" One of our guys, thinking fast, said, "No—it's two threesomes!" and the angry guy shouted back, "My mistake!" At Musselburgh, Scotland, in the late 1800s, golfers sometimes teed off in groups of 12. And why not?

I've played in groups of eight, all walking, and not only kept up with much smaller groups ahead of us, all in carts, but also finished in less than 3½ hours. I can understand why slow players might feel intimidated by seeing an eightsome advancing on them from behind, like the U.S. Cavalry, but if that's the case all they have to do is speed up or step aside. This issue is worthy of serious thought, because pace of play really does drive golfers from the game. Slow golfers also contribute to a second destructive trend, rising fees, because the longer a round lasts the more it costs to provide. Anyone who thinks that five hours is a reasonable duration for 18 holes deserves to hear hoofbeats at their back every once in a while. When I started playing, a little over 20 years ago, an older member told me that even very good players would be happy to play with me, no matter what I shot, as long as I kept up—and he was right. A golf course is a shared facility. When you take 2½ or three hours to play the front nine, you haven't just wasted your time; you've also ruined the day of everyone who teed off behind you.

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.