Scottish Aesthetics and the Game of Golf

June 11, 2014

Multiple Pages
Scottish Aesthetics and the Game of Golf

As the professional golf season crests this week at the U.S. Open, it’s worth noting that the game, while still growing in popularity among the robber barons of ex-communist countries like China and Russia, has been in long-term decline in the United States since the 2001 recession.

Although frequently derided as an old man’s sport, golf in fact appeals most to 30-something men. After the Baby Boomer cohort aged out of their prime golf years, the old Scottish sport has failed to gain cultural traction with America’s newer cohorts, who are alienated by golf’s obsolete customs, such as not cheating (even when nobody is looking).

By contrast, golf swept this country in the first three decades of the 20th century in large part due to the magnetic economic dynamism of Scottish-Americans. In the age of Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell, golf was seen as a manifestation of the Scottish spirit that had driven its sons to tremendous business success throughout America and Canada.

“With no demand for new courses, much of the cultural energy in the game is currently devoted to restoring exclusive old golf courses to their eccentric pre-WWII aesthetic glories.”

It’s difficult to make clear for 21st century audiences how successful Scots were back then—though even now Scots remain among the most prosperous of Americans. The 1996 study The Millionaire Next Door reported that the Census Bureau had found:

The Scottish ancestry group makes up only 1.7 percent of all households. But it accounts for 9.3 percent of the millionaire households in America. Thus, in terms of concentration, the Scottish ancestry group is more than five times (5.47) more likely to contain millionaire households than would be expected from its overall portion (1.7 percent) of American households.

That’s almost thrice the proportion of millionaires among Americans reporting their ancestry as English. The stereotype of Scottish thriftiness remains true:

First, Scottish Americans tend to be frugal. … In the chapters that follow, we reveal the highest prices typical millionaires reported paying for suits, shoes, watches, and motor vehicles. A significantly greater number of millionaires with Scottish ancestry reported paying less for each item than the norm for all millionaires in the sample.

While golf can be an enormously expensive sport today due to extravagant real estate, construction, and greens-keeping budgets, it started out centuries ago in Scotland as merely something cheap to do on coastal sand dunes that couldn’t grow crops.

Golf links evolved as players trampled down the grass on the most topographically interesting targets. Early golf courses emerged like the unplanned free market economy extolled by Scottish philosopher Adam Smith.

Despite the similarities between how St. Andrews developed and the central British intellectual interest in theories of self-organization, I’ve never found any evidence that Smith played golf, nor his great successor Charles Darwin, who attended medical school in Edinburgh. (Charles’ grandson Bernard Darwin did become the leading golf architecture critic of his time, though.)

However, the chief polemic for evolutionary theory in the decade before Darwin’s Origin of Species, the anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation of 1844, a book that much influenced Darwin, turned out to have been penned by the keen golfer Robert Chambers while in St. Andrews.

It was around 1840 that St. Andrews pro Allan Robertson became the first golf course architect. Assisted by his apprentice, the then-young Old Tom Morris, Robertson began to intentionally reshape St. Andrews into the course that hosts the British Open still today.

For Scottish-Americans such as Charles Blair Macdonald, designer of this country’s first great course, the National Golf Links of America, the game was a sort of ethnic pride parade. (Macdonald entitled his autobiography Scotland’s Gift: Golf.) For other Americans, it was a mysterious but hopeful opportunity for a little of that Scottish moneymaking mojo to rub off on them.

In the 21st century, however, the demographic, economic, and cultural tides have turned against the old game. The country has so many more golf courses than it needs, that whereas 15 years ago scores of courses competed to be honored as one of the ten best new courses of the year, today golf magazines annually scramble to find ten new courses.

Recently, golf’s leaders seem to have largely given up trying to attract the attention of the masses of 21st century Kardashian-Americans. The U.S. Open tournament, for example, has become an increasingly exquisite but insular exercise in Protestant pride. Last year the United States Golf Association sacrificed millions in ticket revenue to return its championship for the first time since 1981 to the tiny 126-acre Merion Golf Club on Philadelphia’s Main Line, designed by Hugh Wilson in 1912.

With no demand for new courses, much of the cultural energy in the game is currently devoted to restoring exclusive old golf courses to their eccentric pre-WWII aesthetic glories.

For instance, this week the U.S. Open goes back to the genteel Bostonian old money resort of Pinehurst in North Carolina’s central Sandhills. Pinehurst was the winter home of Donald Ross, the prodigious Scottish golf architect from Dornoch who apprenticed under Old Tom Morris at St. Andrews and went on to design or remodel 413 American courses during the pre-1929 golden age of course building. He tinkered with Pinehurst’s No. 2 course from 1901 until his death in 1948, using it as a laboratory for refinements in golf strategy.

But being exposed to the elements, golf courses inevitably change. They generally are helped along by architects, greenkeepers, and club committeemen to evolve in the directions of the fashions of the time. Thus, after Ross’s death, Pinehurst devolved from an intricate and scraggly-looking version of the Scottish sand dunes where golf emerged over the last half-millennium to a well-watered modernist parkland course like thousands of others across America. No. 2 remained supremely difficult—nobody broke par when the Open visited in 2005 due to the turtle-shaped greens that cause all but the best approaches to slowly trickle into trouble—but Ross wouldn’t have recognized the manicured modern course.

In 2009-10, however, the architectural team of Bill Coore and former tour star Ben Crenshaw ripped up much of the green grass of No. 2, restoring the sandy wastelands full of shaggy weeds alongside the fairways. If it doesn’t rain too much (although the weather forecast suggests it will likely pour), even the fairways will ideally be dry and brownish so that the ball can roll in amusing arcs across the rumpled terrain, just the way Old Tom liked it.

To the small number of golf architecture aficionados, the Pinehurst renovation is galvanizing news. But to an American public more interested in Kim and Kanye’s wedding, however, thrifty-looking Scottish aesthetics will only further alienate the masses from the game of golf.

But the folks who run golf increasingly don’t care. Perhaps that’s for the best for everyone.


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