18 Sep 2020 | Industry news | Feature stories |

Storytelling: The soiling of a great game

by Contributor

St Andrews Image
The game is "continually and shamelessly soiled by some of the very worst aspects of human nature". Photo: Getty

First published in Golf Vic magazine, 2018, by John Huggan

Amidst all the wonders – the players, the courses, the shots, the championships – golf has a lengthy and not-so distinguished record of blatant discrimination towards just about everyone, expect perhaps the middle-class, middle-aged man.

Women, children and anyone with skin colour other than white have long been forced to endure the unabashed snobbery of the game’s snooty and male-dominated establishment. All of which is nothing to be proud of, the greatest game of all continually and shamelessly soiled by some of the very worst aspects of human nature.

Like almost anyone who has spent any time playing golf over the last 40 years or so, I have my own anecdotal evidence to underline the veracity of this sad history. Indeed, my initial experience of such nonsense started early, in my adolescence.

Out playing with a friend one day, we were asked to “step aside” on the fourth tee by a Mister Blackburn, a man who was, single-handedly, one of the slowest and least talented golfers in our home club. That both of us could beat him with one hand tied behind our backs – literally – was somehow lost on this misser of many points. He was an entitled adult, his unearned seniority allowing him to exert what he surely saw as his God-given superiority over mere children.

That incident, burned forever in my memory, has lived with me down the years and, despite its obvious distastefulness, proved worthwhile in the longer term. Staring at Blackburn as he yet again duffed a drive, I felt both diminished and demeaned. But I resolved never to make anyone else feel the same way, young or old, male or female. And I hope I never have. A few years later, my first brush with golf’s deeply ingrained sexism made me stop and ponder a subject I had previously given little or no consideration.

As a 20-year old member of the Scotland side competing in the 1981 European Amateur Team Championship at the Old Course, I had the run of the Royal & Ancient Golf Clubhouse for the week. It’s a wonderful building, full of history and some magnificent trophies. Anyway, along with his fiancé, one of my closest friends was in St Andrews to watch the event. Innocently and, as it turned out, naively, I invited both of them into the clubhouse to have a look around.

“Sorry sir,” said the previously pleasant man on the door. “Your friend is welcome to enter, but the young lady must wait outside.”

Given that display of unabashed misogyny, it came as no surprise to later hear of the now legendary sign that once stood at the entrance to (another Open Championship host) the Royal St. Georges Golf Club: “No dogs, no women.”

To that we might add, “no children.” A while ago, I was asked to leave the clubhouse at Dunbar Golf Club in Scotland. My crime? My son, then an infant in my arms, was wearing denim dungarees. Is it really any wonder that so many people have a predominantly negative image of golf?

The common factors in all of the above are the clubs themselves. All too often, these places are a long way from welcoming environments, especially for those wishing to try golf for the first time. Already intimidated by the inherent difficulty of the game, the last thing any potential newcomers need is to be further cowed and treated as third-class citizens.

That things need to change is obvious. Just about everywhere on the planet, participation in golf is down, although it would be wrong to ascribe all of the decline to outdated attitudes inside the sport. Lifestyle changes have led to society as a whole having less leisure time. So taking five hours to complete 18-holes clearly does not help, especially when there is so much competition for what time does remain available to people.

Sadly too, things look as if they might get worse before they get better. My friend, former Walker Cup player Ian Hutcheon, is a long-time member of the Monifieth club near Carnoustie. He talks of an upcoming “black hole” in the club’s membership, a huge gap that needs to be filled once his generation has gone.

Still, on the other side of the ledger and if you know where to look, much is being done here and there to break down the many silly barriers to progress. In Scotland – where a few clubs have closed their doors over recent years – I hear of many selfless volunteers who run flourishing junior sections at clubs across the nation. Where once there was only exclusivity, economic necessity has brought with it a new sense of inclusiveness.

The R&A – bless them – has also awakened to the need for action. A report commissioned by the game’s rules- making body outside the United States and Mexico concluded that, “a significant growth opportunity exists for golf if it can attract more women, girls and families into playing the sport more often.”

Amongst other things, the following was identified: the importance of establishing the optimum environment for family participation by being aware of the make-up of the modern family. More women in influential decision-making positions was also seen as vital.

All good. But there is, of course, a problem with the messenger. After almost 250-years of stubborn resistance, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club only recently admitted women members. Last I looked, their junior membership was holding relatively steady at zero. So the not-so subliminal message is clear: don’t do as we do, do as we say.

Which is where we came in. If tennis great Andre Agassi really was correct and image really is everything, then golf has a long way to go if it is to be seen as truly welcoming to all. Much work still needs to be done.

Oh, one last thing: screw you Mister Blackburn. Edited and republished with the approval of Golf Victoria

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