Funny things, golf dress codes, aren’t they? And it’s not only the case in the UK. In 1987 I played the Los Angeles Country Club’s highly rated North Course. I was on holiday in the city and rang the club asking if there was any chance I could get on. I expected to be told ‘no’ – it does, after all, have an enormous reputation for exclusivity – but somehow or other saying I was a British golf journalist on a trip to the States did the trick. The head pro was charming, told me he or his assistant would play with me, and it would absolutely be no problem for my wife to walk with us. (That is, she doesn’t play, not that women are barred.)
We duly turned up on the appointed day to be told immediately we got to the clubhouse that there was something of a problem – my wife was wearing trousers and the club’s rule was strictly that women had to wear skirts. I protested (gently and politely) that no one had explained this to me in advance and I guessed that meant we’d have to drive back to our hotel so she could change. The woman then said: “Oh, it’s not really a big problem. We have skirts in every size for just this eventuality.” Problem solved.
As the Swedish golfer, Carin Koch, noted last year, if we want to encourage more young people to come into golf, why do we not permit jeans to be worn on the course? In some respects, given the number of pockets that jeans have, they would be ideal for golf. And maybe allow trainers, too, at least for people who may just be taking up the game? But golf has always had an unusual relationship with clothing. And this doesn’t only apply to women.
When the Royal & Ancient and the Honourable Company were in their comparative infancies, it was de rigueur for golfers to wear a red jacket when playing their rounds (usually to be swapped for a blue or grey one when it came time to start tipping back the rounds of port). Harry Vardon won six Open Championships while wearing a jacket. Not only was that how one dressed in those days, Vardon believed the constraints this imposed on his body helped him to maintain a solid and repeating swing.
Vardon’s last shot at a major was in the 1920 US Open at Inverness in Ohio. In the stifling summer heat he wore a jacket, as did Ted Ray, who won the tournament. Most of the American competitors that week binned their jackets but still wore shirt and tie with plus-fours. And the colour of the clothing was sober. There was no pre-war equivalent of Rickie Fowler until Jimmy Demaret, who won the Masters three times either side of World War II, added colours such as pink, violet and lemon – sometimes at the same time – to his on-course wardrobe. Later Doug Sanders came along and nothing has been the same since.
Of course, it was worse for women. It always has been, whether about clothing or other things. The golfing mores of a century ago dictated that women be not so much dressed as bedecked. Being forced to wear so much clothing that no man might see anything of their flesh other than the face and hands, it was rather astonishing women golfers of that era could play a half-pitch let alone execute a full swing. Some clubs didn’t even permit them that luxury, restricting their activities to the putting green. So, overall, things have improved, though it will be interesting to see what happens if the LACC one day accedes to the blandishments of the USGA and agrees to allow its course to host the US Open. I mean, will there be a dress code for female spectators?
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