Author: C.B. Macdonald, 1927
Publisher: Coventry House Publishing, 2020.
Upon first glance, at least, the golfing environment that C.B. Macdonald chronicles in Scotland’s Gift seems to have little in common with today’s. Those seeking in depth theory about architecture and construction in its pages are likely to be slightly let-down. Instead, Mr. Macdonald dedicates most of his memoir to exploring his role in and explaining his stance on the various issues, controversies, and events that marked the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when golf, like millions of immigrants in this period, journeyed across the ocean to the open, green pastures of the new world.
As explored throughout the first part of the book, the major golfing issue, or conundrum, of the period, as the game expanded rapidly and new golfing clubs were established throughout the country in response, was whether its governance should remain perfectly faithful to its British roots and traditions, or whether it should be adapted to its new, American environment. Mr. Macdonald, who was first exposed to the game while studying at the University of St. Andrews, was of a steadfastly conservative opinion, namely that golf in America—eventually under the governance of the USGA—ought to be played in accordance with the rules as they had been laid out by the R&A. As he writes:
“That I could be of some service to the game of Golf in America if by endeavor I could successfully implant into the player’s mind and heart the character of the game as I knew it as a boy in Scotland, ennobling and endearing as it always has been to me. President Robertson, advocating Americanized golf, advocating changing the constitution of the USGA, speaking slightingly of tradition, determined me to fight for real golf with all its traditions and high sportsmanship.”(Scotland’s Gift, 100)
I don’t think it’s too bold of a statement to claim that Mr. Macdonald viewed the R&A as a near holy institution, one which had to be defended at all costs. Even when he claims to have disagreed with their course of action—as during the controversy surrounding Walter Travis’ center shafted Schenectady Putter—, he chooses his words carefully and minces them uncommonly.
Obviously, writing in 1927, Macdonald already knew that his conservative vision, at least to the tremendous extent with which he sought to uphold it, had been, by and large, defeated. Yet there’s still a note of optimist and contentment in his closing remark: “as I dedicate this book to my grandchildren and to golfing posterity, I should like to commend them in the leisure moments to pursue the game of golf for diversion, for health, and for companionship, forever endeavoring to find the soul of golf, for possibly if they do they may discover their own souls” (Scotland’s Gift 244).
…Skip a century and a bit in time….
“Beer, Bets, and Golf Cart Races.”
“Can We Finish 18 Beers in 9 Holes?”
“Chug a White Claw Every Hole.”
It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Macdonald, for even as great of a visionary as he was, could have ever imagined that one day hundreds of thousands of golfers would sit in front of a screen to watch other golfers perform any of the previously stated activities. I do so, myself, and I enjoy watching them do so. As in the late 19th century, Golf is currently in a boom, thanks in no small part, I believe, to the rise of alternative platforms, such as Barstool (in particular), which have introduced—or perhaps, more accurately, re-introduced—golf in a new manner. For lack of a better term, they’ve gone to great lengths to “de-country-club” the sport, to liven it up, to unstuff it. And this effect, I hope to convey, despite the generally curmudgeonly tone I am about to adopt, has been positive for the game and its growth. Speaking from personal experience, at my club there are now more women playing than ever, more young adults, and more children, especially teenagers, all of which are welcome sights. During my high school years, which wasn’t that long ago, I was routinely ribbed for playing and studying the sport with ardent enthusiasm, somewhat similarly to how Mr. Macdonald remembers being tormented and razzed for his early efforts to introduce the sport to America upon his return from his sojourn abroad in the 1870s.
At risk of sounding elitist, however, I also fear that we’ve lost something along the way. Mr. Macdonald’s aim—in his role in the early development of the game, in his work as its steward and builder, and in his writing—is pedagogical: above all, he wishes to convey that there’s a manner with which to do things and behave, a deeper, spiritual side that makes golf the most unique and greatest pursuit of all.
Since its beginnings, nearly every golfer, more or less, followed a similar path to enlightenment: the inspiring sportsman, or sportswoman, was brought to the game and introduced to its rules, regulations, and customs by a more experienced one; from there, he/she was slowly indoctrinated and learned through osmosis and observation as much as anything. The occasional breach was reprimanded and he/she learned the errors of his ways. How great of an ambassador he/she became depended on different factors, but he/she was aided in his/her growth.
The other day, I arrived at my course and was informed that my four-ball would be following another four-ball of beginners. None of these four men had, according to the starter that day, ever before been on a regulation length course—perfectly fine, except that this was the Sunday morning of a long weekend, when my club, like most every publicly accessible club in the country since the beginning of the pandemic, was packed from dusk until dawn. I watched with an equal mix of agony and annoyance and embarrassment, for myself, for them, and for the rest of the groups behind us, as they topped, scruffed, whiffed, and shanked their first, second, and third shots up the hole, only finally getting out of view ten minutes later. These were all athletic looking young men humbled to nothing much greater than bumbling idiots.
Upon climbing the hill to the landing area of the 1st fairway, I reacted in horror when I saw their carts parked not more than a few feet from the edge of the green. I decided to let it slide; even from a hundred yards away, I could see a plethora of cracked beer cans in their carts and I could the hear loathsome drum-and-bass music blasting they were belting. Walking towards the first green, I eyed them similarly struggling to get off it once again. Golf cannot be easy, nor enticing to play when one is this bad at it, I thought. But, I guess, unless you learned the sport as a toddler, as I did, then this stage is a natural step upon the journey, and one must thus trudge through it. Frankly, as I stated just now, because my parents, thankfully, stuck a golf club in my hands about as soon as I could walk, I can’t remember ever really struggling—sure, I went through a brief spell, in my late teens, during which my game deteriorated, due to growth and off-course distractions, but my version of struggling was being 3 handicap. I played my first eighteen at the age of ten and shot 91, I think, which at that age seemed a great achievement, so the concept of arriving at course and merely hoping to break ninety or one-hundred, and being content to do so, is, I will admit, foreign and something I can’t really grasp. For better or worse, each time I play golf, even when rating a course, I do so with the intention, at least for the first few holes, of trying to grind out a good score—that’s the point of paying the green fee and being there, in my eyes. The drinking, jokes, company, comradery, and distraction it provides from life’s annoyances all come secondary to playing well.
Returning to the scene, as we arrived to the first green, my partner and I looked over to the second tee, which had become visible over the little crest beyond the surface, and saw that they had parked their carts not a foot from the edge of the blue tee box—what they were doing playing from sixty-six hundred yards is a separate issue. I, being a person naturally undisposed to confrontation, at least in person, would have simply allowed my blood to simmer quietly and continued on with my game; however, my partner, whose disposition is more naturally inclined towards confrontation, gestured annoyingly and yelled over at them. To make a long story short, after some less than friendly back and forth between the groups, which may or may not have been the result of the rather unfriendly manner in which my partner opted to ask them what exactly in the hell they were doing, the four new-golfers admitted that they simply didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to park their carts as close to the tees and greens as they had—fair enough. We instructed them to the right course of action and they proceeded with the rest of their rounds and lives as better custodians of the sport. Now, granted, a little more common sense could probably have been exercised on their parts, but their shared ignorance gets to the crux of the issue I am trying to get at, albeit in an admittedly round-a-bout way perhaps.
For all the positive benefits that have been brought about by this “de-country-clubization” of the sport, I do still and honestly believe that we must proceed carefully, that we must balance tradition and innovation, and that we must retain some of the customs and age-old courtesies that have passed down from generation to generation – those traditions and courtesies that Mr. Macdonald so staunchly wanted to preserve and instill as golf traversed from the old world to the new one. Years ago, on the brilliant State of The Game podcast, with Geoff Ogilvy, the ever-erudite Mike Clayton remarked that, to paraphrase, “golf didn’t need more cart riding, beer drinking Americans; that, conversely, it needed folks who loved the sport, who loved going out there to improve their games, who understood its spirit and the simple pleasures it provides”, a statement I wholeheartedly agreed with then as now. Yet it seems as if golf has gained many of the former and, sadly, too few of latter.
In truth, if it was up to me, golf would be played in two-somes, pants would be required, carts would be outlawed, untucked shirts would be grounds for ejection, and jackets would be required in clubhouses—in short, we’d essentially play golf pretty much as Mr. Macdonald wanted and marshaled it until his passing at the National Golf Links of America, and how it is still played at Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Memphremagog, Piping Rock, Baltusrol, Morfontaine, Sunningdale, Royal Melbourne, and Royal Liverpool. The game is better and purer and, in my estimation, funner in this manner. But I am not delusional (at least I don’t think I am)—I know that I am lucky to get to experience it, from time to time, at these cherished haunts of the game, and I also understand that the world has evolved and that the vast majority of players do not share my conservative disposition towards it.
Most errors of judgment, such as the one described earlier, I do believe, are due to ignorance, not malice. Sure, there’s always going to be the occasional idiot, but most people are respectful and courteous of others. At risk of sounding preachy, a tone that many of Mr. Macdonald’s critics accused him of, I do think that we – we, as seasoned players; we, as preservers of its traditions; we, as lovers of the sport; and we, as those who wish to introduce new players to its charms and vagarities, maddening and delightful as they are – have a duty to educate newer players and even older ones, for, heaven knows, we all make mistakes – to err is human, as Alexander Pope declared. I understand that not every golfer will walk upon a links and receive that same spiritual ebullience that fills some of us, that not every golfer senses it “like a dawn or the twilight of a brilliant day day; it can only be felt; The charm, the fascination of it all, cannot be conveyed in words” (Scotland’s Gift 15), that some simply do it for the exercise or company it provides, that others do it as a kind of drinking game.
To over-simplify it: the sport functions better for all of us, is infinitely more enjoyable, when it is not a complete “gongshow”, when most of its customs and traditions are still respected and practiced. In other words, playing golf to drink a beer a hole—or the countless spiritual variations of this ilk—is a secondary element, not its essential pursuit—when golf is not merely a means to an end to get hammered. Music shouldn’t be audible to the whole course, divots should be fixed, carts shouldn’t be ripping across fairways, and bunkers should be raked, etc, all of which I’ve seen routinely at my golf course since the beginning of Covid, which, for as bad as it was for many other sectors and businesses, essentially “rescued” golf from the doldrum it had been in since the 2008 economic crash/Tiger scandal. I really don’t think I am asking too much, or that I am an old man screaming at clouds as the world speeds by. From personal experience, a few times a year at our club, my friends and I—some of whom are new golfers, others of whom are seasoned—organize an event during which the goal is as much to win as it to drink as much as we can; yet, for as drunk as we get, we still respect the course, the other golfers, and the general etiquette of the sport, primarily because we marshal ourselves. A balance can be struck.
I fully understand that the various platforms I named earlier, and the livelihoods of those running them, depend upon views, and that a video about the etiquette of the sport isn’t likely to attract a ton of them. Yet, I think we—again, the royal “we”—do need to be cautious about the kind of content we put out, and that we must still promote some of the traditions and customs that Mr. Macdonald cherished, for they do make this game what it is, make it different and greater than all of the others. As in the late 19th century, there are a ton of new men, women, and children picking up this greatest of games, oftentimes because of what they watched on the internet. Through no fault of their own, viewing these kinds of rambunctious videos is their initial exposure to golf. I think that everyone is aware of the countless benefits afternoon on the links can provide, the life lessons it teaches: respect, dignity, compassion, honesty. And, I do believe, ardently, that they are best apprehended in fashion that is not that dissimilar from how Mr. Macdonald first witnessed it and how must of us learned it from our parents, or older friends: “the greatest and wisest of the land were to be seen on the Links of Leith, mingling freely with the humblest mechanics in pursuit of their common and beloved amusement. All distinctions of rank were levelled by the joyous spirit of the game” (Scotland’s Gift 5).