Public And Private Golf Are Their Own Unique, Vexing Experiences

April 16, 2012

Golfers can be divided into three groups: the private-club set, the public/daily-fee set and those with a foot in each camp. I belong to the third category, too tuition-poor to afford the country club but the beneficiary of generous friends and good writing assignments that frequently get me onto the kinds of courses where you're more likely to find an M.B.A. than an M.F.A. From adolescent days playing the scruffiest munys with my dad and uncles, to middle-aged invites to Wentworth, Long Cove, Garden City and other world-class venues, I've covered a fair piece of golf's socio-economic spectrum, and it seems to me that each rung of this imaginary ladder has its peculiar pleasures and quirks.

How nice it is, for instance, to be greeted at the start of a member-guest with the gift of a dozen Pro V1s, then steered toward a lavish lunch. Follow this with 18 holes on a perfectly groomed, inventively designed course; a smart, helpful caddie who calls you "Mister" unless you ask him not to; an elegant locker room; a steak supper; and a fifth-place prize worth two hundred bucks.

But it's also nice--for me, at least--to tee it up with guys who don't know foie gras from chicken salad, who curse with creative abandon and talk over their shoulder while watering the trees, who play on Raggedy Andy nine-holers with a locker room that smells of mold, sand traps with fist-sized stones in them and a set of irons that look like they've been used to install a hardwood floor.

Along with the divergent pleasures, there is a distinct code of etiquette to be found at each end of this ladder. Some of it I like and some I don't. I like the gentility and pace of play at the fancier tracks. But I don't like the guy behind the desk looking down to see how expensive my shoes are when I check in, or speaking to me as if I'm a fourth-grader who's accidentally wandered into the junior-high cafeteria, or the sense that if somebody turns his hat around backwards on a windy day, it's tantamount to taking the Lord's name in vain. In a world where children are hungry (sometimes just down the road), being able to play golf on a magnificent course--on any course for that matter--is something to be grateful for, and I like people who are.

I like the rough informality of cheap public courses, the lack of pretension about clubs, clothes and cars, the I-play-once-a-week-I-stink-and-I-know-it humor. But getting behind someone who enjoys a six-hour round and assumes you do, also, is like going to a restaurant where the person at the next table burps after every bite.

At some public courses men can be pitifully rude to women: just the sight of a female on the fairway sets their eyes to rolling. At private courses the guys pretend to be polite ... and give the ladies separate tee times. Employees of the pricier venues stop mowing when you get ready to swing. At some public courses I've been on, the guy on the mower drives up the fairway straight at you because you're playing golf and he's working and that's his idea of payback. In my experience, country clubbers complain more--as if they've paid handsomely for that privilege--and public course players laugh more, sometimes so loudly you can hear them six holes away.

Of course, I'm generalizing. And, of course, some of these characteristics--intolerance for children, seniors and the inexperienced--have more to do with a slim handicap than a fat wallet. All things considered, I'd prefer to play at an unpretentious, beautifully groomed course where everyone who can move along at a decent pace is welcome at any time, where the locker room doesn't make you want to get out the Clorox, where the guy behind the desk pretends to be happy to see you even if he isn't, and where, if you get your clubs cleaned at the end of the day by a kid with a PRINCETON SQUASH T-shirt, he tells you a truly funny off-color joke.

Anybody have a recommendation?