Sharing The Masterpieces

By David Fay Illustrations by Dan Page
June 07, 2011

__ "Visitors are most welcome Monday to Friday (except Public and Bank Holidays)."

-- Royal St. George's Golf Club, site of the 2011 British Open __

"For those who are not successful in getting a peak-season time, we would point out that Muirfield has ideal playing conditions all year round and we do not convert to temporary tees and greens in winter."

-- The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield)

"It is impossible, in our condition of Society, not to be sometimes a Snob."

-- William Makepeace Thackeray

Private golf clubs in Great Britain and Ireland have a refreshing attitude toward visitors wishing to play their golf courses: They welcome them.

The British Open championship nine-course rota includes six prestigious private clubs: Muirfield and the five "Royals" (Birkdale, Liverpool, Lytham & St. Annes, St. George's and Troon) feature golf courses that are among the finest in the world. Visitor information for each is prominently featured on the clubs' websites. Visitors from overseas as well as Great Britain and Ireland aren't required to play with a member and/or be introduced by one. Available tee times are limited to when the course is not in full use, and they fill up quickly, especially during the summer. But with some advance planning and a willingness to be flexible with dates, a visitor's chances of securing a tee time are fairly high.

Until recently, the scene inside the clubhouses of the exclusive British Isles golf clubs conjured up class images from the period TV series "Upstairs Downstairs": members-only sanctuaries with protocols of behavior and dress. Nowadays the attitude is, by and large, "When we welcome you to play our golf course, we welcome you, period. Come dine and drink with us."

Private golf clubs in the British Isles treat their courses as living works of art to be shared, much like the Louvre or the Met are open to those wishing to study and enjoy the masterpieces.

In America, the leading private golf clubs tend to treat their courses like the guy who buys a great art collection and keeps it in his house to be seen only by family and friends.

There's not a single private golf club that has been the host of a U.S. Open in the past 30 years that allows visitors who aren't either playing with a member or sponsored by one. And the same is true for the majority of Golf Digest's America's 100 Greatest

, where most of the courses on the list are private. (Disclosure: I am a member at a couple of those places.)

The course is an essential component of the golf experience in a way not approached by any other popular recreational sport. Each course (great, bad or so-so) is unique. A tennis court is uniform in size with easily replicable surfaces. Surfers aren't banned from the best waves. For a golfer, the chance to see and play great courses is one of the true joys of the game. But most of the America's best courses are for members and their guests only. British Isles golf clubs have their priorities right. Sadly, it's the American golf clubs which have it arse backward.

It would not be difficult for American private golf clubs to adopt the British model. Concerns/excuses such as overcrowded course conditions, shaky golf etiquette, required golf skill and tax implications for a private club can all be resolved.

I know many leaders of private clubs who can recall the time when they were on the other side of the "members only" sign, looking in, dreaming of being able to play the best courses. If these folks were to take the first steps in opening their courses to limited unaffiliated visitor play, I've no doubt that most other private golf clubs would follow suit. The herd mentality.

If we care about the game's future and growth in America, we need to look at some of the barriers we've purposely put in place and start to knock them down.

After 32 years with the USGA, David Fay is writing a monthly column for Golf Digest.