Celebrity Swing: Blue-bloods On The Green

"Golf Green Island" by jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Golf occupies a particular status among sports, or recreational activities in general, as the ultimate celebrity photo-op. Nobody is rich, successful, or famous until they’re caught on their off-days teeing up at the range in their finest button-ups and trousers. From presidents to CEOs to MVPs to EGOTers, the true gathering place of modern-day nobility has always been the golf course. But why is this the case? From where did this trend emerge? 

While golf has traditionally held a very high entrance cost compared to other sports, it’s certainly not alone in its high price— hockey, baseball, and tennis are all similarly steep in equipment costs and membership fees— but none of these activities carry quite the same cache as golf. To examine the origins of the perception of golf as an intersection of status and leisure, we need to evaluate the history and beginnings of the game.

Many civilizations have had similar games conceptually to golf, but Scotland is where the version of the game— which was then played with bent sticks and smooth pebbles—  first became widely popular. Almost absurdly popular, to the point where in 1457, the sport was outlawed entirely, on the basis that it was too often distracting the military from their duties. After the ban was lifted, the sport began to see more and more popularity amongst the nobility of Europe, first starting with James IV and gradually being introduced to English and French monarchs. As the game grew more and more popular with time, the rules and equipment standards began to minimize the impact of one’s actual physique through the implementation of a handicap which put golfers roughly on par with one another– meanwhile, a culture of etiquette began to grow out of the clubs which hosted golfers which ruled certain behaviors, and consequently certain people, out of the privileged spaces of golf. This coincided with the rise of an affluent middle class that was eager to find dignified means of displaying their status in the years following the industrial revolution, creating a space that was increasingly oriented and catered towards the wealthy.

… meanwhile, a culture of etiquette began to grow out of the clubs which hosted golfers which ruled certain behaviors, and consequently certain people, out of the privileged spaces of golf.

In the 1880s, golf clubs rapidly spread across the US and UK, granting a haven for high-status individuals to assemble in a social, highly polite context where relationships could form and business dealings could take place. By 1900, over 1000 golf clubs had been formed in the US, quickly placing it as the center of the golf world. Businessmen and aristocrats took to the sport with particular enthusiasm: even magnates like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller became avid golfers. 

The golf range provides an optimal environment for creating the kind of trust-based relationships upon which business culture is built. Golf scoring requires an honest counting of strokes against the handicap. What’s more, the game involves a minimal amount of physical effort and no contact, played at a slow pace on lovely, quiet, green open fields near ponds— an incredibly low-stress environment when compared to sports like football or soccer. This gives players the ability to show off their competitive drive while also being able to make light, pleasant, and leisurely conversation with their opponents, in line with the established codes of etiquette clubs often enforced. As golf has come to represent and embody so many of the qualities which are embraced by the industry, it should come as no surprise that the sport has become a mainstay of the business world. 

As time has gone by, golf has moved from the sport of dukes and duchesses to the game for celebrities and accomplished businesspeople, mirroring the way our society has re-defined nobility in the modern era. Considering the cost of a set of irons, exorbitant club membership fees, clothing that fits club dress codes, and lengthy-time requirements for a single round, the game has earned itself a reputation as the ultimate leisurely pass-time for the person with all the time and resources in the world. This image has granted golf a certain prestige in the mind of the common observer, but that perception has also been a source with occasional backlash towards the golfer. For instance, an increasingly common rhetorical metric of US presidential performance has become time spent at the range on off-days. While this is not so much a relevant and valid comparative tool for the leaders of the free world as it is an easily employed political football, it also exposes a common resentment of the game’s role as a bastion for powerful members of society to disregard their pressing commitments. 

… golf has moved from the sport of dukes and duchesses to the game for celebrities and accomplished businesspeople, mirroring the way our society has re-defined nobility in the modern era.

Interestingly, in the summer of 2020, golf saw a massive uptick in popularity with regards to rounds played in comparison to previous years, as pleasant disengagement with the grim realities of the pandemic became more and more desirable. Even with the advent of more casual golfing experiences such as TopGolf, golf itself is likely to remain bound in this conception– the sport remains restrictively expensive, heavily insulated by clubs, and strongly tied to the culture of aristocracy it has cultivated.

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