2007 - 2021

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)[1]. 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[2] of the day by breaking lockdown rules[3]. 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[4], 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. [5] 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[6] and ultimately this will widen the gap of accessibility between different classes and exacerbate the issue. [7]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.”[8] 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.[9] “…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.



[1] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1938-0617-5

[2] 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.

[3] https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/golfers-spotted-flouting-lockdown-scots-22043072

[4] https://www.scottishgolfcourses.com/atoz.html

[5] Ok, this is not the most academic measure. The members of the club are unlikely to all stay nearby.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] https://www.hoover.org/research/communism-democracy-and-golf




Comments (9)

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  1. Angus Bearn says:

    Here in London there are courses at £9 a pop – and a bus journey possible – or at £4k a year including joining fee. It must be elitist, if people still think it worth paying silly money when there’s no need from a sporting perspective. But isn’t all that beside the point? If golf were somehow shoehorned into egality, would not some other passtime become the home of elitism? Sand yachting, maybe, or ostrich-racing, or pheasant-shoots or… anything? Meanwhile, get out there and crack some balls, you that can… Why not?

  2. David McGill says:

    It’s difficult to know why Fraser Kerr should pick on the easing of restrictions on playing golf as an example of the class divide in society. It is simply common-sense. Because, like tennis, golf is a game for individuals, tens of thousands will be able to get outside and exercise in relative safety by easily observing distancing rules. Clubhouses remain closed.
    There may well be a class divide in the golfing world but it was ever thus, and merely a reflection of society in general. Nowadays that elitism is restricted to a small percentage of the 550 courses in Scotland, where for many an annual subscription for year-round sport is no more than the price of a season ticket to watch a Premiership football team take part in Scotland’s so-called ‘working class’ game.
    I haven’t come across a golf club where wearing a tie in the clubhouse is compulsory for quite some time. Besides, the vast majority tend to be member-owned and dress-code rules are set by the members. Highly-affordable tailored shirts seem to be the norm.
    The Daily Record article and photograph that may have provoked this outburst shows five males appearing to play golf on a public course in West Lothian. With no golf shoes and only two bags of clubs between them I doubt if they are serious golfers. Dressed as they are in hoodies and jogging bottoms I doubt if they are part of any elite.

  3. w.b. robertson says:

    there were so many golf courses in my native Fife that you could play a different course each day for a month. Several were ploughed up at the start of the 39-45 war because too few wanted to play them. Yet I don`t think that Fifers were elitist. Quite the opposite. In those good old 1950s I could play the Old Course at St A for half a crown. That is less than 30p in today`s coin. And you didn`t need to even have a bag…a few clubs stuck through your trouser belt would suffice. Oh happy days.

    1. John Dalrymple says:

      I was able to play the Old Course in the eighties for a fiver.

      1. Your individual experience doesnt map across the whole of Scotland

        1. David McGill says:

          In a way it does because it highlights the fact that not that long ago golf was a fairly classless game, with only a few clubs as exceptions. Then along can television, sponsorship and the cult of celebrity, and before long the nouveau riche felt obliged to distance themselves from the riff-raff by joining newly-created and exclusive ‘championship’ courses, or to push the demand for opportunities to play on the more famous courses beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, so that they could tick them off their bucket list. That image should not be allowed to detract from the fact that with 550 courses scattered all over Scotland, golf is available and affordable to the vast majority of the public.

  4. Jim Ferguson says:

    There’s nothing wrong with golf. It’s just that rich people like it. Kind of like The Highland Games. Where ever The Highlands are? Rich people seem to like them too. So they buy your life and think they’ve won everything. It’s part of the social fascism of aristocracy, the inheritance of greed and the greed of inheritance. I doff my golf bunnet. It’s a crude yet accurate metaphor. “The wearing of ties is irrelevant,” said the keen hot-air balloonist Rickie Branson.

    1. Wullie says:

      Quite apart from the emergency, Glasgow City Council is struggling to keep golf courses open period! They’ve just paid out a massive sum to women employees discriminated against by the previous Labour regime.
      As to Sabatarianism it ensured the folk had a day off from their labours, they would have been worked into the ground otherwise.

  5. John S Warren says:

    Mr Kerr has some reasonable points to make, but muddies the water. Golf has always had a ‘class’ element, back to the sixteenth century at least, but it was also a game played very widely in society. This was its power. To the extent this rich complexity has been lost is a function, at least in part of the rise of neoliberalism, and therefore is relatively recent.

    Location, outside the major conurbations (driven by social priorities no doubt) is neverheless in part a red herring. Golf in Scotland was principally a links game; tied to the sea, and on links ground for which there was no better use; the only way a medieval game could survive and thrive was to be played on land of no known value for anything else. I also know golf around Irvine very well; you can find all kinds of approaches to golf there, if you actually look. I checked on Irvine Ravenspark, which still describes itself as an “18 hole links-park municipal club in Ayrshire”. The Council gave the club the help of a grant of £10,000 for the pandemic. Membership is £260pa, and no joining fee. Just down the road in South Ayrshire; including Troon, there are eight public courses available in the area, with green fees from £10-£30, high summer; including Lochgreen and Bellisle.

    In cities like Glasgow, no doubt neoliberal austerity has taken its toll on city desire to support public golf. Golf, however has also lost its capacity to attract the young; partly for the social reasons discussed, but partly because the 18-hole game is too time demanding for youthful taste.

    It is worth remembering that there were courses all round Scotland with ‘honesty’ boxes; and perhaps no clubhouse. This noble approach to the game was never going to be allowed to survive neoliberalism unscathed. Incidentally, articles were still being written in the golf magazines about existing ‘honesty box’ courses in Scotland in the last few years. Golf is Scotland’s game; warts and all – but a thing of beauty, like our finest links courses something to be cherished. It is what we are.

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