The Nineteenth Hole
With the announcement that golf and tennis should be the first things to be brought back on the lockdown, we began to question who should and would benefit from the release of the restrictions? [“Golf is a Class Issue. Discuss. #lockdown”- Bella Caledonia, Twitter 19/05/2020]. The response was hyper-defensive. Nothing is wrong. Golf in Scotland is a beacon of equality, openness and egalitarianism. What seems true is that the culture of golf seems very different depending on where you are in the country. Fraser Kerr tees off the debate.
“The Clicking of Cuthbert”, by PG Wodehouse, starts with a dedication to three golfers (presumably based on real events and presumably Scottish). The three golfers were punished, in two cases by imprisonment, and another by humiliation or beheading, for playing golf on a Sunday. More accurately their sentence was for defying societal expectations of morality in the early 17th and late 16th century. A morality which expected people to respect the Sabbath and attend a holy place. Now, some golfers are just as keen to assert their apparent entitlement to break the law and just as tenacious in their pursuits to subvert the morality of the day by breaking lockdown rules. This despite the knowledge that their actions would likely lead to harm; other folk could possibly contract a virus of which the severity of symptoms vary.
Is the impatient anticipation and frustration of golfers reserved only for those of an increasingly elite class in this current lockdown? Specifically and in general, is golf and the participation in it, an issue of class? I think intuition, anecdote, and considering academic evidence golf is clearly a class issue.
Where are golf courses often based? Have a look at where they are located and what SIMD (Social Index of multiple Deprivation) classes they are surrounded by. WIthout leaving the letter A using this list of Scottish Golf Courses, you’ll find that more often than not they are either surrounded by no datazone because they are in the middle of nowhere or are surrounded, as is the case with Annanhill in East Ayrshire, by areas coded in blue which are the least deprived. In order to even access a club people must either own a car or live in an area not considered to be deprived. As a test please name a golf course with no car park.  This is one of the first barriers, after cost, that must be overcome to access the game.
This is the start of golf’s class problem and maybe, you might say, golf can’t help this but consider some of the exceptions. Recently, (February) Glesga City Council decided to close it’s municipal courses. A quick check of the SIMD areas around the golf courses here reveal that more often than otherwise, these courses were enclosed by some of the most deprived areas in Glesga. The people surrounding will now be further deprived by lack of access to this wonderful game and ultimately this will widen the gap of accessibility between different classes and exacerbate the issue. Unsurprisingly the Conservative’s plan to resolve the spending issue here involved saving the most courses, which is unlikely to be because of their desire to ensure accessibility of golf because they are in the more deprived areas of the city. Instead it puts me in mind of a quote that has stuck with me for years: “In the post–Cold War era, playing golf for the non-Western elite is what wearing togas was for the non-Roman elite in the ancient world.” Golf is a class issue and it more and more, even globally the reserve of the elite.
In terms of anecdote, and here I will confess my life long passion for golf, and ties, I think of some golf courses I have played. Courses in Irvine, where a tie must be worn to enter the clubhouse, areas for meals reserved for after 1700 only and again please wear a tie. Further, for the love of God do not wear a non collared shirt on the course, in fact please wear a shirt and polishable shoes in the clubhouse. Also while on the course you can wear shorts but please make sure they are so many inches long and make sure they are tailored. The rigidity of this etiquette is the golfing world clinging on to standards from the pre-war era. Is the insistence of tie wearing not the ultimate stamp of a classist reserve?
The academic world has a bit to say on this too. “…it is hard to envisage a future where golf can rid itself of elitism.” Widdop and Parnell note the widening gap between the “salariat” classes and “working classes” as regards their consumption of the sport. The inequality in participation means that golf is absolutely an issue of class and one that is, as far as we know, getting worse.
I noted in the comments below Bella Caledonia’s tweet that folk thought that golf was more of an issue of land or environmental protection and I think this is spot on too. Those people need not worry too much though. Latest YouGov polls indicated that “70% of Brits thought that golf was boring or quite boring” and when asked “Which, if any, of the following sports have you played in the last 12 months?” 5% of people surveyed said golf, which is embarrassing because “other” and in an extensive list, “none of the above” were popular. Further the stats on participation of golf, even in terms of memberships, reflected in the success of the clubs themselves are also not promising.
Yes, golf is a class issue but it’s also about inclusion. Recently, the golf magazine Bunkered asked if the Solheim cup star, Mel Reid had a point when she asked about representation in a charity match run by Taylormade. A simple enough point you would think. “Fair play Mel, you’ve got us there”, “Oh good idea Mel, let’s do that for the next one”. Easy enough to respond.
However, the twitter golf community did not respond this way. The article and posed question “Does she have a point?” received a myriad of defensive, indignant comments, bordering on the abusive which missed the big picture entirely. Any one, or any woman thinking about entering the game after seeing that thread would surely think twice. Golf then, especially considering participation is a feminist one.
That is golf’s problem. It seems to hold on to its problematic misogynistic ancient past like it does its etiquette and attire rules. It won’t recover until it finds a way to resolve this. People will always break the Sabbath to play the game but they will continue to do so in dwindling numbers if they don’t find a way to be more inclusive of class and the equality characteristics.
 Though I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the golfers 300 years ago who were not causing harm by being blase about religion.
 Ok, this is not the most academic measure. The members of the club are unlikely to all stay nearby.
 Other exceptions: Caprington for example, another course in Kilmarnock, was bought from the local authority by its members via a community asset transfer. This is located in an area considered more deprived but this is a shining counter example of golf’s class issue.
 In this case though golf’s issue with class was already present, evidenced by the fact it was the conservatives’ plan to save the most golf courses which got the fewest votes. It says a lot when Conservative’s are the only ones trying to save golf courses and ignoring the lack of demand for them.