As someone who has never been a country club member, I'm always surprised at what golfers tolerate inside the gates.
Maybe I'm just not cut out for the upper crust of golf society. Or perhaps I'm a rebel who doesn't like rules. More likely, I'll never make enough money to justify a membership. Whatever the case, every time I'm invited to a private club - either for work or for simply play - I'm worrying about every word I say and move I make. I've been to enough swanky places to know you don't step out of line, or you may embarrass yourself or worse, your host.
Don't get me wrong. I love the thrill of playing some spectacular private playground where my wallet, or my game, doesn't belong. Over the years, these opportunities have always left me wondering, "Why"? As in, why does the staff and the rules at the best golf courses have to be so pretentious?
This air of stuffiness is where golf could be in trouble in the 21st century. Inclusiveness - not exclusiveness - is the new world order, especially as it pertains to golf, where the game needs to be more welcoming not less. Yet almost every time I show up at a private club, I'm hit with some wacky, outdated rule of club life. I'll share five examples without calling out the specific club. A well-versed golfer may be able to recognize where at least one of these events transpired:
* Upon walking into a pro shop of a European Tour host course, a member of my foursome was asked to change his socks. Apparently, wearing black socks with shorts is some sort of fashion faux pas. He bought a $25 pair of overpriced white socks to play. My foursome was not the first, nor the last, forced to play fancy socks roulette.
* Warming up on the putting green of a high-end U.S. club, a staff member approached me awkwardly to ask that I change my shorts. I'm guessing a nosy member didn't like the idea of sharing the course with a non-dues paying golfer and complained about my shorts too closely resembling "cargo" pants. To his credit, the head pro was apologetic and sold me shorts at half price. To my credit, I gave the course a fair review, back when I was a Golfweek rater, when I really wanted to blast the place.
* Before and during play at a famous private U.S. Open venue, our foursome was constantly reminded that rounds must be completed in four hours and 10 minutes, or the host would be in big trouble. According to club rules, every round extending past the allotted time would be a strike against a member and result in a warning letter in his/her locker. I'm not sure if it was three strikes and he was out, but I didn't want to be the guy who got him put on probation. I played well, but a media partner did not, grinding the group to a halt. How do you force someone to play faster when they just weren't capable that day? I think we finished in like 4:12. Needless to say, I haven't been invited back. Funny thing is, recalling the "pressure" we were under, I'm not sure I would return again.
* Prior to playing at an international club described to me as an "icon" of the country, I had to submit my handicap. Fine. I emailed my index to my host. To my surprise, he needed my GHIN number, something I had to look up. I'd never used it in the decade-plus of owning an official handicap. Before the round, everybody had to provide a handwritten signature on the tee sheet. The member told me afterward that he played under a different name that day because he hadn't played much golf due to an injury and feared the club might take issue that his handicap wasn't up to date. Too afraid to play his home course? Wowza. Should owning a legit handicap be a requirement at a private club? To compete in tournaments, yes, but just to tee it up as a guest or a casual-playing member?
* Before entering the clubhouse of a legendary club overseas, I - like anyone and everyone - dressed in my Sunday best, wearing a jacket and tie. Funny thing is, part of the reason I wanted to be a writer was because the job DIDN'T require dressing up for work. It felt so strange changing into my golf attire in the tiny locker room and then changing back for the post-round feast. As over the top as this sounds, it was actually the least intrusive of all the policies I've outlined. It made the day unique and special. Would I join that club, though? No.
* In a surprising twist, one private club's general manager asked me not to write anything about my experience or post any pictures of the course to social media. I wish I got that request more often. All joking aside, the club missed a grand opportunity. I would have given it a glowing review.
No changing shoes in the parking lot. No women members. No this. No that. If I wanted to hear so many no's, I would just call my wife.
I will concede that cell phone and dress code policies are a good thing, as long as they aren't too draconian. No phone calls in the grill room = good. No cell phones on property or on the course = bad. If golf wants to attract a younger audience some concessions need to be made to make the club feel more casual and inviting. I'm cool with no jeans or T-shirts on the course. But no jeans or T-shirts in the clubhouse? Overkill.
To make golf more fun, let's remove the arrogance from the game. Traditions are good ... llike collared shirts on the course ... but let's bring golf into the 21st century by leaving all the stuffy stuff in golf's too conservative past.
Have you had a bad experience at a private club with too many rules?