Tuesday, January 9

The Evolution of Country Club Life (Part 1)

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ABOVE: Fenimore Country Club, Scarsdale, New York, 1929.

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE WRITERS is someone I discovered in my caddie days. His name is John P. Marquand.

The first book of his that I read was Point of No Return published in 1949. At the time, Marquand was already famous for his spy novels about the fictional Mr. Moto. These books were turned into a series of films in the 1930s starring Peter Lorre.

I never read his spy novels, but in a burst of reading long into the night during high school, I read The Last George Apley, Melville Goodwin, USA, Sincerely, Willis Wayde. The books were mostly set in New England and in one way or another reflect his ambivalence about American society, particularly, the power of the old line elites.

This theme is again played out in a series of satiric short stories Marquand published in Sports Illustrated in the mid 1950s. These stories were later republished in 1957 as a book entitled Life at Happy Knoll.

The stories—written as a series of letters—humorously and seriously confronted the issues of an "old-line" country club as it tries to adjust to changing times and a competing "upstart" country club nearby. All of the letters are exchanges between members and the Board of Governors of Happy Knoll, with many letters to and from Albert Magill, President Emeritus of Happy Knoll.

Marquand's reflections on country club life came to mind recently as I was reading The Kingdom of Golf in America by Richard J. Moss, published in 2013 by the University of Nebraska Press.

In his book, Moss, who for many years was a professor of history at Colby College, and is the author of Golf and the American Country Club, published in 2001, explored the circumstances that led to the establishment of the country club as an American social institution.

He traces the evolution of country clubs from informal groups of golf-playing friends to "country estates" in the suburbs and eventually into public and private daily-fee courses, corporate country clubs and gated golfing communities. The book shows how these developments reflect shifts in American values and attitudes toward health and sport, as well as changing social dynamics.

Birth of the Country Club

The first golf country club was created in 1882 when James Murray Forbes, a railroad tycoon, held a dinner party for his gentlemen friends and associates at his home and introduced the idea of forming a club in the suburbs of Boston. It would become known as the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. The golf course itself was built in 1893.

Moss writes that at first "clubs" were "little more than informal groups of friends playing golf in pastures and orchards."

By 1901 country clubs had developed all over the country, becoming "country estates" in the suburbs where, as Moss writes, "the prosperous registered their social status. The transformation of the club from country retreat to suburban playground went hand in hand with a widespread shift in attitudes toward health and sport."

Golf also benefited, as Moss points out, "from the advent of professional golf architects, the rise of public golf courses, increased discretionary time and income for many Americans, and a shift away from the Protestant ethic of deferred gratification toward values that justified increased leisure and pleasure."

Many of these shifts in society are captured in Marquand's novel Life at Happy Knoll. Marquand brings golf culture and socially changes down to a very human level and the situations that private clubs experienced with societal changes.
In one chapter entitled, "Are Women People at Happy Knoll?" Marquand has a letter from the wife of a member to the chairman of the Board of Governors. She starts with a complaint about the condition of the ladies' locker room, noting in the same paragraph that there are "unfortunately no women as yet on any Happy Knoll governing board." This begins her list of slights to the wives of members and sums up each one with the comment, "Are women people?"

In her long letter she goes on to make the point that Happy Knoll was founded by men who were "afraid of women who have ideas which are even remotely abstract." Then she writes, "Happy Knoll continues this outmoded practice, except for a growing number of enlightened young couples who share the burdens of marriage equally, including dish washing and the care and entertainment of infants."

Moss in his scholarly book focuses on the same issues that Marquand dealt with in his novel. Moss, however, makes the point that at the center of golf tradition is the idea that all should have access to the game.

He writes "Golf was a game, and a social and cultural institution, dominated by white businessmen."

He next describes how in the early 1950s country clubs began to change.

"It was clear that postwar affluence had unleashed other forces that were quickly and fundamentally transforming the golf community.

The changes that began in the early 1950s would reshape the golf community to the present day.


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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