Golf is a game where individual players hit a small plastic and rubber ball (a descendant of the ‘hairy ball’ it is believed), with a largely metal club. It is widely understood to have originated in Fife, on the east coast of Scotland during the 15th century. The game, linked with royals including King Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots, has a long history of elitism. Especially in the UK and US, golf courses can be understood as places where those with combined social, cultural and economic capital (royal or otherwise) meet socially, make business deals and generally rule the world. There’s little subtlety to the privilege associated with the sport: ‘let golf stay elitist’ were the words of President Donald Trump prior to his election in an interview with Fortune Magazine in 2015.
This class based differential in golfing is the focus of a new film ‘Tommy’s Honour’, which has been released to coincide with the (men’s) Open (which begins July 16th at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, England) and the Ricoh Women’s British Open (starting August 3rd at the Links Kingsbarn Course, Scotland). The film tells the ‘incredible true story’ of Tommy Morris Jr from Fife, who doesn’t want to spend his life ‘tee-ing up for gentlemen who think they’re better than [him]’. It gives an account that frames Tommy (who in real-life was privately educated and relatively wealthy) as a plucky working lad with wild aspirations, who in the late 19th century faces, and beats the proponents of gentrified golfing traditions and who changes the course of golf forever…or perhaps not.
The divide between golfers and non-golfers has existed and continues to exist on a number of fronts. As well as the class divide featured in ‘Tommy’s Honour’, golf also has a long history of excluding black and minority ethnic players and/or women. Augusta National Golf Club, the home of the US open, actively excluded black golfers from using the course for over forty years (until Lee Elder participated in the 1975 Masters), and only began granting membership to women as recently as 2012. Golf therefore provides a particularly explicit microcosm of wider inequalities.
There are key financial barriers to accessing golf – one has to have enough green to get on the green. Whether as a result of travel to a course, gaining entry, or renting/buying equipment – golf is expensive. Further to this, there are a limited number of municipal golf courses in the UK, and even those that are free to enter maintain many of the exclusionary tactics employed by the elite. An intimidating combination of golfing etiquette, language and dress has been deliberately upheld to maintain social divisions and limit any golfing aspirations for particular groups in society based on class, race and gender. This sense of distance and superiority is reinforced through high-end product sponsorship within the sport, including support from Rolex, Mercedes and BMW, as well as associated luxury hotel complexes. All of which are linked with wealth, power and indulgence.
One of the clear ironies here is that golf could be the perfect inclusive sport. Firstly, it is a low impact, walking sport that is appropriate for people of any age, including those with limited mobility. It doesn’t require additional team players or intense timed periods of play, meaning that those experiencing long term conditions and/or fluctuating symptoms could engage at times they feel well enough, free from concern about letting team mates down if cancelling at short notice. Golf is also a sport that includes balance work, core strength and stretching – helpful at all stages of the life course, but with particular implications for older people for whom balance can become an issue. Additionally, though not without some critique regarding its ecological impact, the golfing green represents green space, access to which has been evidenced to have positive mental and physical health outcomes. Golf courses could, and should be places that can be accessed by anyone, instead they are acutely representative of the symbolic violence perpetuated by elites.
As I have argued in a previous blog, people have long had their access to physical activity limited, policed and moralised. Dog whistle politics encourage people to report their benefit claiming neighbours if they’re seen engaging in physical activity, whipped up by a baying press that delight in ‘benefit scroungers’ being found on the green mid-swing – what bad back?! It is particularly galling to those commentators that the chosen sport is golf. Search engine finds are not half as numerous for ‘benefit cheat’ in combination with ‘football’ or ‘netball’ as they are when the term is partnered with golf. This reflects the discourses of deservingness that can be located in discussions relating to welfare benefits and social policy. To be deserving, claimants or poor people more generally, are required to act in particular ways, and not get ideas above their station (see refugees with mobile phones).
At a time when class distinctions have been so devastatingly illustrated to the public as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire, it is important to remember the multitude of limitations placed on poor people in relation to their access to physical activity, and as a result their associated health outcomes. Access to golf is one of a myriad of reminders to people of their place in the social hierarchy, a hierarchy that has important material implications. Golf is an ongoing bastion of social divides, and the stark difference between a smouldering tower block in London and the well-sprinkled golfing greens government ministers and CEOs spend their leisure time on is a succinct reflection of the persisting economic and health inequalities in the UK. Tommy Morris Jr’s golfing legacy did not trigger any fundamental change in the accessibility or inclusivity of golf and though a pleasant story, it is unlikely that a feature film in his name will either. It is necessary to see golf in the context of wider inequalities, and demand radical and structural changes that promote the universality of the conditions of participation.