Golf Digest Logo Snobs & Killjoys

The stuffiest country club stories we've ever heard

Golf has made progress in loosening up, but at some clubs old habits persist.
September 13, 2023

One story that best encapsulates country club point-missing has circulated for years. The setting is an old, eastern golf club, with one of the best courses in the state. The club is notorious for its men-only policy. Forget about women joining as members or playing the golf course. Only a few days a year are they even allowed on the property.

One day a member having lunch at the club abruptly falls ill at the table. He grabs his chest, falls to his knees. A concerned scrum gathers around his table. Word reaches his wife, who arrives at the club gates within minutes.

“He is inside,” she is told as she tries to pass through. “Unfortunately,” the attendant continues, “no women are allowed on property. Please wait here.”

No way this is true.

“I’m afraid it is true,” one longtime member of the club says. “I’ve heard it, too,” a frequent guest of the club confirmed.

“It’s true.”

A similar story comes from another elite club. You would know it if you heard it. Another lunch, another golfer topples over. (Is there something in the food at these clubs?) In this case the man regains consciousness. “Please contact my wife,” he says from the floor, and hands his friend his phone.

The friend starts dialing, then stops. He is also a member and is now saddled with an inconvenient thought. “I can’t,” he says. “No cellphones in the grillroom.”

You will not find a set definition of country club stuffiness. As with pornography and a vanity handicap, you know it when you see it: rules for the sake of rules, a rigid adherence to tradition, an outsized emphasis on the superficial. This attitude is also, hopefully, in decline. This collection of stories, most from within the past 15 years, represents a side of golf the game has made efforts to shake, with at least some degree of success. Golf today is more modern, more inviting. Golf might still have its share of snobs, killjoys, and Judge Smails disciples, embracing priorities that range from archaic to laughably misguided, but at least the narrative has shifted. Once a statement, This is just a part of golf, it is now a question: This is still a part of golf?

Short answer: not as much.

Longer answer: maybe still a little.

There is at least one counterintuitive element to the American dream, which is if you work hard and advance in your chosen profession, you might be lucky enough to join the sort of club where you will always feel on edge. This is not how it’s planned, of course, but it is an outcome nonetheless. The typical municipal course might have scruffier conditions and longer rounds, but at least you won’t be ostracized for using the wrong fork. Sometimes the more exclusive the address, the more precarious the footing. Once, a golfer joined a blue-blood Connecticut club and was excited to jump into his membership. He played both weekend days and showed up during the week to practice. This went on for a short time until one evening a member of the golf staff greeted him on the practice green. The conversation began with some innocuous small talk but then led to a message. “You’re showing up here too much,” the new member was informed. It was time to scale it back.

Certain rules are not printed. At a desirable club in Cincinnati, a local businessman owned a lavish home along one of the fairways. He was a self-made man, an admirable quality to everyone except for perhaps the club’s membership committee. When the businessman made inquiries into joining, he was told that wouldn’t be possible, but his children would be a different story. The logic wasn’t immediately clear. Unlike their father, it was explained, they wouldn’t be of first-generation wealth.

At some top-of-the-pyramid clubs, the membership process follows the logic of high school courtships, which says the best way to secure interest from the other party is to express as little interest as possible. Your microscopic chances of an Augusta National membership are contingent on you never confiding to anyone—not to your significant other, not to your clergyman, perhaps not even to yourself—that you would ever want to join. Even when in the door, though, you remain on guard. As the story goes, a member invited a guest for a dream weekend of golf and lodging in one of the club’s cabins. When a high-ranking green jacket approached during cocktail hour one evening, it was not to solicit feedback on the green speeds. “Please tell your guest we wear socks here for dinner,” the green jacket told the other green jacket, never once looking in the bare-ankled offender’s direction.

A STAFF MEMBER CAME WITH A LETTER ISSUING A WARNING AND A SUGGESTION TO BUY NEW SHORTS IN THE GOLF SHOP.
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Broadly, guest experiences at clubs can be divided into two categories—one in which they strive to make you feel at home, the other in which they work hard to remind you that you’re not. At some of the country’s A-list clubs, guests can show up ahead of a member and are treated as if they are the ones writing the checks, with access to locker rooms, the practice range, perhaps even a bite to eat. At other places, you’re encouraged to wait in the parking lot, if not the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street.

At a Northern California club with holes along the Pacific, a guest showed up one day and wandered innocently into the golf shop to buy a gift for his wife. The shop attendant informed him unaccompanied guests were prohibited from buying anything.

“OK, then,” the guest replied, “I’ll just hit balls.” When he asked to be pointed to the practice area, the attendant directed him to the range at a different course, a mile down the road.

In Orlando, two clubs were supposed to have a reciprocal relationship, but one side’s participation was grudging at best. This was apparent when a visitor arrived at the sister club for his tee time, asked to use the washroom and was shadowed by an employee—the staffer even lurked uncomfortably in the corner as the guest used the urinal. “It was to ensure I didn’t wander into any other part of the clubhouse or locker room,” the guest said. “It was like a pet in a house that isn’t allowed out of a certain cornered-off area.”

At many clubs rules persist about where one can change shoes, as if the appearance of socks in broad daylight is a form of indecent exposure. At a name-brand club outside New York City, a guest showed up wearing sneakers, which he was told weren’t allowed in the clubhouse, so he then sought to change his shoes by his car.

“Amazingly, out of nowhere, an employee pops up from the trees and says, ‘Sir, you aren’t allowed to change your shoes in the parking lot,’ ” his friend recalled. “We tried to solve this issue and kept asking the employee what to do. His response, ‘Figure it out.’ ”

Briefly stumped, the guest resolved to walk back down the driveway of the club in his sneakers until he was outside the gates, changed into his golf shoes, then walked back. Problem solved, calories burned.

For an inanimate stretch of asphalt, a parking lot can provide a telling window into a club’s worldview in other ways. At a posh Palm Beach club, a guest arrived in a pickup truck and was asked if he was there to make a delivery.

“No, I have a tee time,” he replied. He returned from his round to learn the valet parked his truck in the service lot.

At a different club in the North Carolina mountains, the staff didn’t even pretend to make a mistake when a guest arrived in a new Ford pickup. “I kept it pretty,” the owner said of his vehicle. “This was no beater with rust.” Still, a club employee ran frantically into the locker room to report that pickup trucks aren’t allowed to be visible in the top parking lot and that it needed to be moved. “My nice truck had been banished to oblivion where apparently it belonged,” the guest continued. “They seemed to have stretched the traditional club etiquette to include well-behaved vehicles, too.”

In no element of modern life do the guidelines at different clubs fluctuate more widely than with rules pertaining to the cellphone. At some clubs you can conduct a full video Zoom meeting in between shots; others permit only discreet phone calls off to the side. Some allow texting but have separate booths for calls, and others don’t want to even see the outline of the phone in your bag and likely expect important messages to be delivered via U.S. mail.

A CLUB EMPLOYEE SAID THAT PICKUP TRUCKS AREN’T ALLOWED TO BE VISIBLE AND NEEDED TO BE MOVED.
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For courses that resist attention, photos and videos are met with particular disdain. A guest at a famous Bay Area club made the mistake of snapping photos of the clubhouse and first tee, which he was able to enjoy for a grand total of 15 minutes. “We were immediately greeted by an assistant pro who informed us of the ‘no picture policy’ and asked us to delete the pictures from our phones while he stood there,” he said.

At a private club in Westchester County, N.Y., phones are prohibited from leaving golfers’ bags, but during one round, a guest’s device was buzzing enough he feared an emergency. When he unzipped the bag to peek without the device ever leaving the pocket, he assumed he had escaped notice. Not so, according to the caddiemaster, who approached the guest’s host at the end of the round and said two women in the adjacent fairway had caught the whole sequence and reported the violation.

A similar example of policing played out at a Midwestern club that has hosted multiple major championships. When a golfer was spotted multiple times with his phone to his ear, members began calling the first-tee starter to lob complaints. That the visitor was former President Bill Clinton didn’t seem to matter.

Sometimes it’s not the rule that is so unreasonable but the way it’s enforced. Consider the time a guest arrived at a top-100 course in Pennsylvania wearing cargo shorts, and his host decided the best way to spare his friend embarrassment was to tee off hoping no one would notice. He was wrong. On the third hole a staff member came with a letter from the club manager issuing a formal warning and a suggestion to buy new shorts in the golf shop as soon as possible. However, the letter’s delivery couldn’t be topped. The staff member was in a tuxedo, carrying the letter on a silver platter.

“The sight will be burned in my memory,” a third member of the group recalled.

This is not a strictly American dynamic. Elements of U.S. club culture have been inherited from the game’s birthplace. Muirfield in Scotland is known for hosting 16 Open Championships, but the membership inspired Golf Digest’s Peter Andrews to write a 1992 feature titled, “Quite Likely the Rudest Club in the World.”

The story begins with an anecdote about a man arriving at the club inquiring about playing golf, then presenting to the club secretary his impressive credentials: war veteran, advanced degrees from multiple universities, royal lineage. “You may play nine holes,” the secretary said. “The back nine, of course.”

Decades later, a guest described lunch there between morning and afternoon rounds that required a coat, a tie and a certain dietary restraint. When the unwitting diner attempted to make a second run at the buffet line, he was reprimanded. “Haven’t you already taken your plate for the day?” the head chef bellowed. “We only have so much food prepared.”

As one caddie put it, the club is “comfortable when you’re uncomfortable.”

‘TELL YOUR GUEST WE WEAR SOCKS HERE FOR DINNER,’ THE GREEN JACKET TOLD THE OTHER GREEN JACKET.
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Play enough golf and these stories are not difficult to uncover. They travel freely because no one ever forgets them. The harder part is explaining them because a thorough unpacking should probably draw on insight from a broad assortment of anthropologists, sociologists, psychoanalysts and locker-room attendants.

A charitable view is that many golfers look to their club as a sanctuary from the disorder of their everyday lives, so they hold themselves and others to a standard that can’t be maintained anywhere else. That’s the nice way of framing it. Another perspective says some golf clubs make you feel privileged to be there, and others want you to feel unworthy. In that sense, the enforcement of silly rules about where you park or tie your shoes has the subtle benefit of putting visitors—members, too—on their heels from the start.

The simplest answer might be that as with any other organization of people, a golf club does not boast one personality but several. The problem isn’t always institutional but often individual. That’s why the manager of a Colorado private club has a letter framed on his wall from a member who wrote complaining about the club’s toilet paper unrolling the wrong way and why a golfer from a private club in Kansas enjoys recalling the story of another player yelling over from another hole to tell the man his son’s shirttail needed to be tucked in. The lesson: The world has its share of petty people, and some of them still happen to play golf.

Several years ago, a foursome approached the tee of a par 3 at a choice Northern California club. They were unaccompanied guests welcomed by the club but not, apparently, by all the members. As the foursome waited for the green to clear, two older women pulled up in a golf cart and headed straight to the forward tee.

“What about them?” one asked, pointing to the guests.

“What about them?” said the other. “They’re not members.”

Then she swung away, topping her tee shot into the barranca.

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