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  • Alistair Tait

Golf’s traditional balancing act

Cars sometimes have to stop at the bottom of the street I live on to let the Tour de France pass. Okay, not the actual Tour de France, but the onrushing peloton must appear as if sleepy Bedfordshire has become a stage in the world’s most famous bike race.

The relatively flat roads around my wee village are perfect for cycling. The throngs that do so, especially on weekends, are proof of that.

A few days ago, I chuckled as a group of middle aged men passed dressed as if they were heading for the Alps stage. The guy in the yellow top especially made me laugh, like he was the incarnation of Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins or Geraint Thomas.

The sight of old geezers dressed in lycra on bicycles worth thousands of pounds seemed somehow absurd, as if they were acting out some fantasy.

Golfers are no less absurd. No doubt the lycra brigade would be incredulous at the cost of a new drivers.

No doubt some cyclists scoff at us with our expensive clubs, stylish clothes and seemingly outlandish rules, regulations and traditions. Yet, like cycling, it’s those traditions that make us want to take part in this stick and ball game. The trick is to make sure those traditions do not deter newcomers from taking up this great game. As psychologist Stephen Smith of the University of St Andrews writes in a paper entitled “What Colour is Santa’s Coat:

“Traditions create a sense of belonging that is a fundamental part of human existence.”

Those middle-aged men in that amateur peloton have bought into cycling’s culture, its tradition. They’ve formed a club, a bond between them because of their love for two wheels. That's why they wear the same uniform. I see it in hill walking too. Golf clubs are no different.

As with cycling, hill walking, golf has to strike a fine balance. We want traditions to bind us together, but that the same time we don’t want newcomers to feel excluded because ignorance of those traditions makes them feel uncomfortable.

How many times have we seen long standing golf club members look down their noses at visitors who perhaps don’t quite look the part, who aren’t familiar with the game's norms and traditions. We’ve perhaps done it ourselves. I definitely remember walking on egg shells in established clubs when I first came back to the UK from Canada. Those old established clubhouses of courses on the Open rota look magnificent, but just entering their doors can strike even the most confident of people with trepidation, wondering if they're dressed properly or venturing where they aren't allowed.

It’s the same when it comes to the language of golf. Henry Longhurst penned one of my favourite golf quotes. He said:

“Golf is the Esperanto of sport. All over the world golfers talk the same language – much of it nonsense and much unprintable.”

Learning this language is all part of the game’s lure. Yet, as Smith notes, we’ve somehow forgotten this.

“Golf has also misunderstood that having a unique language/jargon is vital to creating a sense of belonging to something special. In trying to appeal by getting rid of traditional language it has only made itself bland and no different from anything else.”

Think of the new rules that came into effect on 1 January 2019. In order to appeal to newcomers, the term "tied" is now preferred to "all-square." There are no longer "hazards," but "penalty areas," as if golf had turned into a game of football. "Through the green" is now "the general area." That great word “dormie” was written out of the rule book. Whoever made that decision should have to spend the rest of his or her life with bad case of the shanks! TV announcers in the United States keep uttering the term “hole location” instead of pin or flag, much to the chagrin of many traditional golfers. How bland can you get?

Why is this important? Because language, tradition is all part of the fabric of golf. Yes it should evolve, but don't ignore the long standing tradition, the "Esperanto of sport." As Smith also notes:

“Traditions do not stand still – they evolve with time and people love them all the more for that. It is folly to try and stop traditions from changing or to throw beloved traditions in the garbage bin to artificially try and make yourself more relevant. Sadly, golf may have committed both these cardinal sins over the last few years.

It’s a balancing act trying to maintain tradition while letting the game evolve to be sure, but I’m with Smith: we need to maintain golf’s traditions while at the same time making the game as inclusive as possible. Yes, that means Tyrrell Hatton is perfectly okay wearing a hoodie just as that 80-year-old male is perfectly entitled to wear plus fours.

Oh look, Miguel Induráin just cycled past my window wearing a yellow jersey…..

#JustSaying: “For those people fortunate enough to have escaped golf’s clutches, the devotion it inspires from its followers must appear quite absurd.” Dale Concannon

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