Golf in England is often portrayed as stuffy and part of the establishment – a view that is incorrect and can harm the game, says Glyn Pritchard.
Is golf ‘cool’ and does it matter if it isn’t? Whenever golf gets mentioned in the media outside of the sports pages and broadcasts, it seems to provoke sneers and ridicule. Usually there are comments about a boring game played by stuffy old geezers. Where once golf was seen as aspirational, it’s now viewed in English popular culture as a bit of a joke. This negativity is particular to England – golf doesn’t have such a negative image in the rest of the UK, Europe or the States. In Japan they are golf crazy and in the rest of the world golf retains its aspirational prestige status.
The popular image of golf matters, because if it’s prejudicial then young people who might be tempted to try it will be put off. It’s irrelevant that most of those doing the sneering in the media have never been near a golf course or picked up a golf club – the damage is done in the pulled faces and the knowing looks of the ignorant.
In the recent past golf was considered both cool and aspirational. Like a lot of men his generation, my father was inspired to take up golf by watching Sean Connery playing the game as James Bond in Goldfinger. This subsequently led to me pulling a trolley almost as big as myself around Barnehurst golf course – it was either that or going to Sainsbury’s with Mum.
Almost every American President since WWII has played golf. Eisenhower was a member of Augusta National and played there so much that they actually named a tree after him on the 17th hole. President Obama is reputed to have played more rounds of golf while in office than any previous president – 248 at the time of writing. Even Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, whose poster adorned millions of student bedsit walls, enjoyed playing golf, the ultimate symbol of capitalist decadence.
Why then in England did golf get this negative image? It doesn’t help that many in the light entertainment industry who first popularised the game, such as Bruce Forsyth, Russ Abbot and Ronnie Corbett, are now considered passé. However, there are also plenty of popular figures in the public eye who play golf including Chris Evans, Ant and Dec, Ronan Keating and Jodie Kidd. Samuel L Jackson, who has a good claim to be the coolest man on the planet, plays golf. Niall Horan from One Direction plays golf and even caddied for Rory McIlroy in the nine-hole prequel competition to last year’s Masters.
As golf is played by sports personalities and celebrities, it should be considered cool in English popular culture. That it is not must be due to a large extent to golf being seen as a game played by ‘the establishment’ and there’s a strong anti-establishment sentiment in English popular culture. Golf is also a satirist’s dream, with its arcane rules and etiquette, clothing and equipment. It’s quite simple; golf is an easy and safe target to poke fun at.
It’s difficult to see what can be done to remedy the situation. Interest in golf and its popularity are boosted by events such as the Ryder Cup and the Open Championship, but increasingly these events can only be viewed on subscription TV channels, which further removes golf from the mainstream. In the sixties there were a series of made-for-television golf matches which featured the ‘big three’ of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player on the then new BBC2 colour television channel. Something similar featuring top pros and celebrities might help to improve the game’s image now. But given the demanding tournament playing schedules most tour pros now have to play, few top pros could find the time to take part in such events.
Ultimately though, being considered cool is just one of those things that cannot be achieved by conscious effort, whether by individuals or sports. Maybe it’s just a question of letting the wheel of fashion turn. After all, not so long ago cycling was considered to be dreary with its bicycle clips, pedals and bells and now it’s right on trend.