Tuesday, January 30

The Evolution of Country Club Life (Conclusion)

This is the final installment of a two-part series. Read Part 1.

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.


IN RICHARD MOSS'S The Kingdom of Golf in America, published in 2013 by the University of Nebraska Press, the author spends a long chapter on the rise of the modern touring pro, beginning, of course, with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. One of the obstacles at the times was that the golf community accepted and honored amateurs more than they did professionals.

Moss cites an 1898 article in the magazine Outing suggesting that a golf contest was similar to prize fighting. He writes: "These sort of statements reflected the profound aversion to gambling among the middle and upper classes in America."

We all know pros at first were not even allowed in the clubhouse. A. W. Tillinghast in the August 1933 issue of Golf Illustrated wrote how pros weren't even allowed to dress like members. They were workers, not gentlemen.

The pro most credited with breaking the ban was Walter Hagen, who went into the locker room of the Midlothian Country Club at the 1914 U.S. Open and changed his clothes, violating a USGA ruling, an action that would become known as the "Midlothian Incident."

Chick Evans, according to the account in Stephen R. Lowe’s book, Sir Walter and Mr. Jones and the Rise of American Golf, said that not only Hagen used the lockers, but so did other pros, amateurs, as well as club members. Hagen never claimed in his life that he broke the barrier, but the ban was broken by Hagen at Midlothian and in England when Hagen shared a drink with the Prince of Wales, at the prince's invitation, inside the hallowed halls of St. Andrews. Another no-no for professional golfers.

However, it took until the mid-1940s before golf professionals -- led by Hogan, Snead and Nelson -- could earn enough money on the PGA tour to afford to leave the job of being a home pro.

While this was happening, as Moss points out in his book, golf was changing in other important ways.

Through the years golf resisted the concept of being a closed community. It is considered a democratic game that could be played by women and men, young and old, employing a handicap system that levels the playing field. Nevertheless, while a game for everyone, within private clubs it suffered from not having equal access for women and minorities.

As John P. Marquand writes in his novel Life at Happy Knoll, women were people but did not have a voice in the life of private country club. Not only women, but African-Americans, as well as Jews and Catholics.

When I grew up south of Chicago in the mid-1950s, I caddied as Midlothian Country Club women as well as Catholics were members. But there were at the same time, and later, country clubs on the north side of the city that barred Catholics, as well as African Americans and Jews, from membership. Old prejudices die hard.

Moss in his readable and knowledge-packed book traces the ups and downs of golf in the United States. The book is a long and informative look at the game, much like playing a par-5. Moss goes from the beginnings of the game in the 1880s and writes how golf has been affected by politics, economics and social changes.

He describes the development of the private club and public course, and the impact of wealth and the consumer culture on those who play golf and those who watch. He shows that factors like race, gender, technology, suburbanization and the transformation of the South that shaped the nation also shaped golf.

The book is in many ways a cultural history -- our history -- that, as Moss writes, "shows us golf as a community whose story resonates far beyond the confines of the course."

It is well worth a read during these winter months, when you can't go outside, tee it up and play away.

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose most recent golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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