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  • Alistair Tait

If only golf had listened to Henry Cotton

Golf might be in a far better place if the game’s authorities had listened to Sir Henry Cotton 40 years ago. Dare I say it, we might not be talking about diversity and inclusion if Cotton had his way.

Cotton was ahead of time. The three-time Open champion was an advocate of simple golf courses to open the game up to people from all walks of life. Writing in 1980, he said:

“I do not see the luxurious country club type of operation with its necessary steep subscriptions and high green fees as a golf need of the future, but public golf or even private clubs geared to a lower key are wanted.
“This would provide a place to play golf for a small annual subscription and a cheap green fee.
“It is a pity that many fields owned by brewers near their county inns have been sold off, because the pubs and inns would be ready made clubhouses for par 3 courses, which could blossom and be used by beginners.”

It’s taken a man’s death for the game to start talking seriously about diversity, about inclusion. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the game’s authorities, even golf magazines, have come out with statements about making the game more inclusive.

The USGA put out a statement on June 4 which read:

“While the game of golf is built on values of fairness, integrity and respect toward all individuals, we recognize that our game’s history has not always represented the best of these ideals, and at times our own organisation has fallen short. The USGA joins the call for open dialogue, understanding, unity and the courage to envision and build a better world. We commit to being part of the solution moving forward.”

The PGA Tour and other bodies have made similar commitments to try to build a better world. That’s to be commended, but why has it taken this long? As I wrote recently, our game hasn’t exactly been painted as one that appeals to all walks of society. Whether we like it or not, golf is still seen in many quarters as elitist, as a game for predominantly rich white people.

While there are many in the game doing their best to change the status quo, it hasn’t been easy. Golf’s image hasn’t helped attract players from a wide range of society. Just the opposite.

Perhaps if Cotton’s voice had been heard 40 years ago, there would be more affordable golf facilities to encourage people from all walks of life, people from diverse backgrounds, find a route into this great game. It hasn’t happened. Indeed, there's a danger the game is slipping backwards. For instance, municipal courses are struggling in the Home of Golf, with public courses in Glasgow, Ayrshire and Dundee facing closure.

Talk is cheap. My fear is this issue will only receive lip service and things will carry on as normal. Action speaks louder than words. A plan is needed to make the game more diverse, more inclusive.

I’m not holding my breath. After all, women are still fighting for equality. It took some of our top clubs over a century to open their doors to women. Some still haven’t. Cotton was ahead of his time on this issue too. Aside from cheap courses available to all, he was an advocate of a “floater” ball so that women and men could compete together.

“This change to a lighter ball would bring thousands more courses automatically up to championship standards and cut down on the reign of the power players, for skill would count more than sheer strength and the day of the female Open Champion could approach. There would be some turning of male bodies in their graves at the thought of Mrs Nancy Lopez Melton’s name on the old trophy plinth!”

Forty years later and we’re only now talking seriously about women and men competing together.

So well done to the USGA, the PGA Tour. The game salutes you. However, if only Cotton’s credo had been taken seriously then maybe golf would be far more diverse and inclusive than it is right now.

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