How to save golf

We can keep what’s best about the game while making it more sustainable and egalitarian

Jeff Winther of Denmark and caddie Ian Moore walk on the 18th hole during the final round of Mallorca Golf Open at Golf Santa Ponsa in Mallorca, Spain (Getty)
Text Size
Line Spacing

I’m not very good at golf, but that’s OK. I no longer play enough to expect to be good. I’ve long since lost my touch with my woods, and since I lack the time and inclination to reacquire it, I just tee off with a four-iron. My short game is atrocious. If I can sink a par or two and come in below 110 for 18 holes, I’m happy. As the old joke goes, golf and sex are two things you don’t have to be good at to enjoy.

If golf is like sex, it’s more…

I’m not very good at golf, but that’s OK. I no longer play enough to expect to be good. I’ve long since lost my touch with my woods, and since I lack the time and inclination to reacquire it, I just tee off with a four-iron. My short game is atrocious. If I can sink a par or two and come in below 110 for 18 holes, I’m happy. As the old joke goes, golf and sex are two things you don’t have to be good at to enjoy.

If golf is like sex, it’s more like a marital coupling than a hookup. To play a course skillfully requires familiarity with its every curve that can only be gained by a years-long relationship as well as a certain degree of respect (interspersed with bouts of frustration). Obviously, though, your hometown course won’t get mad if you play 18 at Pebble Beach on a business trip. No analogy is perfect.

Sex might be a more proletarian pastime than golf, but both marriage and golf are fast becoming the preserve of the gentry. That’s unfortunate. Both are civilizing institutions. If golf is an elitist game, it’s because golf embodies aristocratic values. The proper response to this elitism is not to abandon the values, but to make them more universally accessible, to create what Micah Meadowcroft calls the “aristocracy of everyone.”

I learned those values from Garen Steele, a steelworker who became a local golf pro after the mills shut down. When I was still knee-high to a grasshopper, I joined a cohort of local children for the First Tee program, a summer day camp that taught kids about golf. But Garen, who ran this program without ever talking down to his diminutive students, taught us more than just how to swing a club. We learned to fix divots and ballmarks, to rake sand traps, to be respectful of other players, to maintain composure in the midst of an infuriatingly bad round, to be scrupulously honest about stroke count, and to do all of this even if no one was watching. He distilled his wisdom into one word: integrity.

Maybe that’s where I became a conservative. The idea of both the golf course and the game of golf as patrimonies to be received, preserved, and passed on is very Burkean. The idea that this preservation cannot be outsourced to professionals but requires care and commitment from every member of the community is straight out of Tocqueville.

In the great millennial killing spree of the late 2010s, one prominent victim was golf. Reasons for the decline abound. Golf is boring, difficult, time-consuming, and (even for those purists who eschew the cart) less beneficial to one’s health than almost any other form of exercise. Perhaps, though, golf’s incompatibility with our culture of instant gratification only highlights how badly we still need it.

Golf has also run afoul of crusaders for economic and environmental justice. One such SJW is a socialist TikTok Zoomer who seems to have a personal vendetta against the game. In a popular video, she imagines a utopian society in which golf doesn’t exist: “The rich don’t monopolize our green spaces. Water isn’t wasted on giant purposeless lawns. Native plant and wildlife can exist instead of endless grass. We use the land for localized agriculture. And we vibe.”

These are valid concerns, but I’m not ready to give up on golf. There are ways we can keep what’s best about the game and still vibe.

First, the question of class.

A TV commentator in Happy Gilmore (1996) comments on the “large and economically diverse crowd” that turns out to watch the volatile parvenu compete in a professional golf tournament. Happy may be a fictional character, but he reflected a real trend in the game.

In a 2018 column for Golf Course Industry magazine, analyst Larry Hirsh asked whether, after “a long growth period from the 1950s and 60s originally spearheaded by Arnold Palmer and later Tiger Woods,” golf is “returning to its elitist roots.” Around 200 courses close in a typical year, but it is the middle-market public and municipal courses, which dramatically increased their market share since the 60s, that bear the brunt of these closures. Upscale private clubs and “destination” courses serving the ultra-rich have mostly survived.

Hirsh also offers a solution: spend less on course maintenance. He specifically addresses this advice to private clubs that go broke trying to keep up velvety fairways and greens like blocks of marble, but it could equally apply to public courses.

Golf courses necessarily partake of the 18th-century landscaping debate. It’s the manicured lawns and geometric shrubs of the Age of Reason versus Burke’s “sublime,” defined by its irregularity and Romantic natural grandeur. Jane Austen falls on the latter side of the debate when she praises Mr. Darcy’s estate as a place in which nature has been improved upon subtly, “without any artificial appearance” or imposition of “awkward taste.” Perhaps our golf courses should be less Versailles and more Pemberley.

This would be a return to tradition. In Surrey, England, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, golfers found themselves “sharing — or competing for — use of the common land with non-golf-playing people and non-golf-playing animals. With little to nothing in the way of design and landscaping, the short courses would be laid out on top of the land to best make use of natural features available. A playable grass length would be maintained by grazing animals.” One of the caddies’ main duties was to prevent players from getting lost.

Golf courses that imposed less upon nature would more effectively cultivate the virtues of stewardship I mentioned earlier. If the players don’t rake the sand traps, the sand traps won’t get raked. It’d be up to the players to shame each other into it. It would also make for a game that was more manful (especially if they restricted the abomination that is the golf cart), more economically accessible, and more environmentally friendly.

There is already mixed research on the environmental impact of golf courses. In areas like Las Vegas, they suck up vast quantities of scarce water. It’s possible that golf simply doesn’t belong in the desert. Even in areas ecologically suited for vast tracts of grass, huge amounts of pesticides are often used to kill weeds and keep fairways vibrantly verdant. On the other hand, some studies suggest that golf courses provide excellent habitats for birds, bees, bats, beetles, and other forms of flora and fauna. A more laissez-faire approach to course maintenance would surely minimize environmental harm while maximizing the benefits.

We could start implementing these changes today. A majority of the courses constructed in the past half-century are part of “residential golf communities,” McMansion developments with courses threading through them. One scholar observed that, although being near a golf course helps buoy property values in these communities, only 10 to 30 percent of households bordering the courses actually make use of them. He concludes that the real appeal for these residents is not golf, but “open space, beauty/aesthetics, and exclusivity,” all of which could be achieved equally well by parkland.

Enter the Darcyesque golf course. By embracing the shift in landscaping aesthetics that provides the backdrop to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, we could bring back the grazing animals, the picturesque unpaved trails, and the largely untamed natural beauty of golf’s early days while offering added benefits to non-golfing homeowners. We could even make the TikTok girl happy: less elitism, less water waste, more biodiversity, and maybe community garden plots bordering the fairways. Shank your drive? Congratulations, you’re hitting your second shot from between two rows of radishes. The golf course would become a mixed-use green space.

Manicured courses would still exist, of course, but as playgrounds for plutocrats or pilgrimage sites for true enthusiasts. For the rest of us, a populist approach to golf course design would mean that the beauty of our landscape and the virtues of a great and venerable game would live on.