Of all the wonderful things the Scots have given the world over the centuries, the ancient sport of golf is likely among one of its finest gifts – save, perhaps, a nice snifter of whisky – but we can debate that in another issue. Golf is a sport loved among folks the world over, Celtic descent or no.
One of its many appeals, arguably, is the long sense of tradition that infuses the game. While its earliest origins are obscured by the fogs of time, recorded history of the game goes back nearly 700 years.
“The modern-day idea of golf from the 1400s does come from Scotland,” says Dr. Beth Jewett, an adjunct faculty member and professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. “But there is a lot of evidence to earlier ball-and-stick from across the European continent, a lot of relationship with earlier Dutch games. Like all other games or sports, the origins are somewhat lost in time.”
Jewett teaches many aspects of Canadian history, but one of her favourite topics – the focus of her PhD project, in fact – is the history of golf course design between 1873 and 1945. She agrees that customs are part of the DNA of the game.
“The traditions remain,” she says. “There are strong connections to the histories of individual clubs, and of club members. The golfers that come out of that club. There are even strong connections between certain golf courses and their designers.”
The Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland is a prime example. Established in 1552, St. Andrew’s is considered to be the oldest golf course in the world. Golf’s top players still tee off there today.
While St. Andrew’s continues to flourish, other courses haven’t been so lucky; Riddell’s Bay Golf and Country Club of Warwick, Bermuda, Edinburgh’s Carrick Knowe Golf Club, and the lush-but-exorbitant Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas are just a handful of well-known and beloved golf courses that have, or soon will, shut their doors forever. Blame in on dwindling memberships, debts to creditors, and rising maintenance costs.
“Sadly, a few of my golf courses have been closed – one is now a rugby academy and the other a country park,” says Jonathan Gaunt, a notable golf course architect from the U.K. since the late 1980s, who has designed 40 golf courses and helped remodel 250 more.
It is a grim trend, according to some golf industry spectators.
In 2017, The National Post published a piece titled, “As courses close and millennials turn their backs, golf reckons with uncertain future,” speculating on the future of golf, a sport still reeling from the 2008 housing crisis, and the inevitable loss of the baby boomer generation looming.
“The sport needs to become more attractive to younger players,” continues Gaunt. “Teenagers through to retirement age, rather than just retirees. The average age of the golf club member in the U.K. is over 60 years old.”
Shorter courses with fewer holes that take up less land is one possibility. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus even suggests changes to the ball itself, suppressing the distance it can travel.
Ironic – considering that technology allowing golf balls to fly farther is one of the many factors that made the game what it is today.
Golf hasn’t always appeared like this. Today’s game is a product of post-war realities, according to Dr. Jewett; the game looked a lot different prior to its emergence in North America in the latter half of the 19th century.
“You go from a very early type of course, where there were no designated different holes, tees, greens. You were on seaside links, rolling grasslands used as common land for different purposes. By the mid-1800s, you see a shift towards a development of what we would witness now; your standard nine-hole course, 18-hole course, where you have a differentiation made between your tee-off area, your fairway, your green. Before that, you would even have golfers playing back and forth on the same hole, so it was also about routing the course.
“Those cultural changes, alongside changing technologies that allowed actual changes to the course, started to come together.”
Earth-moving technology meant a course could be designed to an architect’s imagination, and not just limited to the topography of the land. That led to the creation of longer holes, and more varied hazards. The style of courses quickly evolved: the Penal style of the late 19th century, characterized by straightforward links with horizontal hazards, soon made way for the Strategic style of the early 20th century, which adds variety in terms of course playability and types of nature on display, all in favour of a gameplay style that added course navigation to the player’s skill repertoire.
These changes brought about the golf course style most of us think of when we think of golf – the Heroic, characterized by dramatic vistas, unbelievable natural splendour, and a mix of disparate styles of nature scarcely found together naturally, all in service of maximum topological challenge.
It is the Heroic that many people saw major games for the first time, cementing the image of the “true” golf course in our culture for generations.
“I have talked to a few golf architects themselves, who speak to how television really altered people’s perceptions of golf,” notes Jewett. “Once people saw Augusta National on TV for the Masters in colour, zooming in on these blooming azaleas, everyone wanted an Augusta National. It became the difference between certain perceptions of golf and the reality of the day-to-day workings with the course, what would be possible and feasible.”
“When you really get into the history, it has gone through several changes, and it has evolved with society.”
The confluence of these factors that defined “golf” to the modern mind also helped to establish the perceived exclusivity of the sport, itself part of the overall sense of tradition that people associate with the game.
“It was, from the beginning, a game that was taken on by the social elite, by royalty or nobility,” explains Jewett. “It was also played by the everyday person. But quite quickly, the club system that emerged became a very exclusive part of golf.”
Early golf clubs didn’t necessarily have exclusive rights over a golf course – they shared public land with everyday people – but membership to these clubs was exclusive, and became a sign of class, status, and means.
When the sport emerged in North America, clubs then began buying up farmland, and turning it into golf courses the clubs owned, which they then had exclusive rights over. The prominence of these clubs and the social status membership carried helped cement the idea that golf was a “classy” sport, for well-to-do, upper-society folks. And unfortunately – like much of the western world in the 1920s – for whites only.
And while the days of Jim Crow are seemingly long-gone, socio-economic factors and systemic racism has caused at least the perception of racial exclusion to linger for decades; a spectre of the past the golf industry has long fought against, and only relatively recently really started to exorcise.
“You do start to see a stratification in who is considered part of golf culture, and who is not,” notes Jewett. “We still hear about these cases, about these lingering rules within clubs. It depends on the club, but that is part of the history, for sure. As it was in many other sports. It has definitely been a lingering association. We have always had clubs that have bucked the trend.
“We are dealing with a structure of play, and of sport, where you did have those racial boundaries, and even gender boundaries, for a long time. That you still feel that they linger.”
With that context in mind, maybe it is not such a surprise, then, that legacy clubs are struggling to entice new blood; that costly courses are closing; that people are talking about golf like it is an endangered species, and its most beloved and historical courses might soon become missing links.
But with that same context, it is clear that this version of golf is an evolution from an earlier iteration, a version that arose from the needs of society and the desires of the players. So, if golf could be saved by making radical changes…is that really so bad?
According to Dan Pino, director of communications at Golf Canada, the industry is not interested in resting on its laurels, hoping the “Grand Old Game” will stay relevant forever.
“There is not a reluctance or hesitancy to change or innovate; innovation is just part of the business,” says Pino, “heritage, history, and tradition is not a bad thing to have in your space, but that doesn’t mean that you are prohibited from innovating. They do not have to be exclusive.”
Pino adds that golf is certainly not interested in wholesale shedding centuries of customs; far from it. Those traditional elements, those values and codes of conduct, are still treasured by the industry. But there is also plenty of room to allow for new traditions to flourish.
Players, courses, and clubs alike have balked to some degree to the onset of digital options. Topgolf, virtual reality holes, and things of that nature can be seen by some purists as sacrilege, since it takes the player out of the natural milieu.
However, other types of digital technology are booming among golfers. Namely, data tracking technology. Your opponents in golf include other players, the course itself, and even you – the past you. Data tracking technology allows players to monitor their own improvements against all three.
“We love information about our own game,” shares Pino, who says the industry is heading towards a global handicap tracking system by 2020 which will allow any two players on Earth to enjoy an equitable game together, regardless of personal skill. “For those that are tech savvy, there are things like GPS, score tracking, and so forth.
“Technology has certainly made its way into the golf experience. And, for those that want it, you have it.”
And as for those scary virtual-reality computer games, Pino says that there is room for them in the game as well. In fact, everything from driving ranges to Mario Golf is a net gain for the longevity of the sport.
“You could say, ‘is that golf?’ It may not be a traditional round of golf, but it is 100 per cent a golf experience. The green grass golf experience is part of the golf experience. The driving range experience. The Topgolf experience. The winter simulator – hit balls and play any golf course in the world – virtual experience. There are golf experiences that contribute to people’s interest in consuming the game.
“If you buy a bucket of balls at a driving range, you are contributing to the economic impact of the game.”
The survival of the game relies – and has always relied – on exposing a new generation to the sport. But one size does not fit all, so expecting one style of golf to be everyone’s style is the death rattle of the game. That is why the golf industry is flocking to them.
“If you are always going to rely on people getting older to play more golf, then you are going to have fewer golfers down the road,” says Pino.
He adds that even golf course closures needn’t be seen as dire portents of the end of golf. In times of big change, being efficient is a boon, not a bane.
“A course closure isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the general health of the game, the way that people make it out to be. This course is closing; it must be that golf is dying.’ That’s like saying Target closed in Canada; it must mean that people don’t like to shop. If a semi-private or private golf course closes for whatever reason, those are less impactful to the game than a municipal golf course, or a mom-and-pop, or a driving range. Those are the courses that feed entry-level participation.”
The closure of the Wynn Golf Club in Vegas, for example, is a sign that the golf industry is examining eco-friendly course design, both in the ecological sense and the economic sense.
“The environmental impact side is huge, in terms of a need to shift what you use,” says Jewett. “Do you use Astroturf? Do you just get rid of grass and go to artificial greens?”
The solution may not need be so drastic.
“A few years back, the US Open went to Pinehurst, and there was elements of the golf course redesign at Pinehurst that were specifically meant to send an education message that says ‘brown is beautiful,’” says Pino, adding that Gil Hanse, the designer behind the golf courses used for the Rio Olympics, also wanted to send a global message about the value of non-green golf. “There’s certain elements of the natural terrain that makes it a unique golf experience.”
One of the biggest changes that could be on the horizon for golf is a revision of the basics.
“What I would like to see is for it to return slightly more to its roots,” says Jewett, who is a proponent of the multi-use, public golf courses. “Allow for courses that have dual functions, as conservation spaces, as sustainable ecological sites. As well as places that are inclusive of all people.”
Funny enough, one of the leaders of that trend today? St. Andrew’s, the oldest course in the world.
“This revered, iconic course that hosts the Open championship; on Sundays it is a public park,” says Pino, who also encourages the development of multi-use sporting land that includes golf. “You can walk your dog – they are out walking on the fairway. It is part of the community.”
“I love that at St. Andrews, on given days, the public still has the right to roam across the course,” adds Jewett. “Maybe that is something we can do here.”
The landscape of golf might be changing. It won’t all change at once, and ideally, there will just be more diversity of the game, including the classic 18-hole links. One thing is abundantly clear, though; the caretakers of the game are not going to allow golf to fade away if they can help it.
“As long as golf courses exist, I think golfers or prospective golfers will play them,” says Gaunt. “The sport will not die as long as people continue to need to escape from their daily schedule.”
~ Story By Christopher Muise