A Gentlemen's Game
Oh my, have I made a terrible mistake!
I’ve heard since even before I played the game that golf was a “Gentlemen’s Game” and I
have had it in my mind that this phrase meant a game played by a well-mannered and
considerate man with high standards of proper behavior. So when I saw players throw clubs,
swear obsessively, throw temper tantrums, and display improper behavior on a golf course, I
thought to myself that this person simply doesn’t get what golf is all about. Well, I believe that
I am the one who has made a mistake. My study of history and the game’s origins leads me
to the concrete conclusion that in fact this “Gentlemen’s Game” has always been a game
played by men of noble birth or superior social position.
In fact, both are acceptable definitions of the term “gentlemen” but it is clear given the games
history in the United States that the game has its roots with men of superior social position.
CB MacDonald, who is considered the Father of American Golf, came from a wealthy family.
And it was from his family’s wealth that he was afforded the opportunity to attend St. Andrews
University in Scotland and, therefore, gain his first exposure to the game of golf. Upon his
return, he became a driving force behind the proliferation of golf within the United States. He
was a founding member of the historic Chicago Golf Club as well as the United States Golfing
Association which was a entity filled with men of de facto noble positions. In fact, the first
President of the USGA was Theo Havemeyer. Mr. Havemeyer was another gentleman of
superior social position with ownership interests in major commodity companies.
Frankly, I could go on and on about the list of “gentlemen” that populated the United States
golfing community from its inaugural years. But the point is quite clear, the “Gentlemen’s
Game” of golf within the United States has always been a game played by wealthy/well-to-do
men of superior social status. I think this is why the vast majority of the Top 100 courses in
the United States are private clubs which relish in their exclusivity. And that is fine. I, in fact,
belong to a private golf club and frequently play other private clubs with my friends who are
members. Still being new to the game, I always thought that was just the way it was. If you
wanted to play a high quality course, have access to prime tee times, and play fairly quick
rounds of golf, you simply had to join a private club. But to be able to do this, you had to be
a “Gentlemen” or else you wouldn’t be able to afford that privilege.
I suppose this is the way it is with American golf, but I have to believe that isn’t the way golf
was originally played. Scotland, the birth place of golf, has many courses ranked among the
worlds finest but you have a vast amount of those world-class courses that are available to
the public. In fact, The Old Course at St. Andrews is said to have had people playing golf on
it since the 1400’s and it is, and has always been, owned by the people of St. Andrews and
open for anyone and everyone to play at anytime. It is said that everyone is equal on the
golf course in Scotland. A Member of Parliament or the local postman could be paired
together for a game and both be on equal footing. Perhaps this is where I got the idea that
golf was a game for the well-mannered and considerate person with high standards of proper
I suppose it doesn’t really matter where I got the notion that this game was a “Gentlemen’s
Game” as defined in the last paragraph. What really matters is that I plan to proceed with
that idea and try to push forward that agenda. In my mind, it should be a game open for
anyone to enjoy as long as they show respect to the game, the course, and their playing
partners. This essentially encapsulates my vision of what a Gentlemen Golfer represents.
The ball will undoubtedly take a bad bounce here or there, putts will lip out from time to time,
and your score might not end up being as low as you would like it to be. But as long as you
take each of these setbacks (and successes that will also be encountered along the way) in
stride and behave with respect, dignity, and restraint then you will be a true Gentlemen in my
mind. Payne Stewart once said, “that if you can’t shake the hand of your opponent after a
match, then you’ve missed the point” and I think he is spot on. Golf is not only a game and
an adventure, but it is also a test of character. Pass the test and you will undoubtedly
become a better golfer.
In fact, one of the greatest golfers of all-time was Ben Hogan. There is no question that Mr.
Hogan was not a “gentlemen” in terms of coming from noble birth as he lived in poverty,
watched his father commit suicide, caddied to make some money as a youngster, went broke
twice while trying to become a professional golfer during the Great Depression, and was in a
nearly fatal car crash during the prime of his golfing career. Nevertheless, Mr. Hogan passed
the test of character that life and golf require and went on to become a legend in the game of
golf and a legend in the game of life in some people’s eyes. What is accepted about Ben
Hogan is his gruff demeanor relative to people he didn’t know too well, but what isn’t widely
known about him is his generous and giving side. It is detailed that he lent struggling, but
promising, golfers money early in their career in order to help them stay on Tour and
hopefully become successful. Furthermore, he reached out to help up and coming amateur
golfers and, in fact, was a driving force behind what is now refered to as the Nationwide
Tour. To those in his inner-circle, and to complete strangers who seemed to share his love
and respect for the game of golf, he was far from gruff and more along the lines of loving. I
find it interesting that when he was asked how he wants to be remembered, his answer was,
“As a gentleman.”
So, indeed, I may have made a mistake concerning the origin and definition of the term
“Gentlemen’s Game.” But I think it is clear that the seemingly long lost roots of the game, as
played at St. Andrews and the mind-set of some of the games greatest successes, seem to
be focused on the type of game that is played by gentlemen who are well-mannered,
considerate, and who display the highest standards of proper behavior. For me this is how I
am going to strive to conduct myself not only on the golf course, but in every facet of life.
There is no question that I will stumble and encounter hurdles along the way, but I hope to be
mindful of my options and actions and make the right choices on a frequent basis.