About 15 years ago, I made plans to spend an off day playing golf in the suburbs of New Jersey with a good buddy of mine. A couple of hours before our tee time, I drove to the PATH train station in Hoboken and found my friend standing near the steps to the subway entrance, wearing wrinkled plaid swim trunks, with his shirt untucked and his golf bag by his side. Just for good measure, he also was unshaven.
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My recollection is that I was borderline horrified by his appearance. Would he even be allowed on the course looking like that, I wondered, as I stroked the placket of my neatly ironed, double-mercerized Ashworth shirt? (Remember, this was before performance fabrics became all the rage.) I pondered the odd looks he must have received as he rode the subway from his apartment in Brooklyn to Penn Station, then transferred to the Trans-Hudson line with his golf bag slung across the back of his unkempt shirt.
I recall giving him grief about his appearance as we drove to the course. His excuse was that he hadn’t done laundry and didn’t have any clean golf clothes to wear. (At the time he was a hapless bachelor. Times have changed. Now he’s a hapless husband and father.)
While I don’t recall the specifics, I can tell you that the good folks at Royce Brook Golf Club in Hillsborough, NJ, took mercy on my pal. They swiped his credit card and waved that scraggly, stray dog of a golfer onto the practice range, then to the first tee of the East Course, where he proceeded to play golf better than I had ever seen him play. He shot a 79 that day, probably at least five shots better than even his vanity handicap would suggest was possible.
I remember thinking: How can he look so bad and play so well? Wouldn’t the sheer embarrassment of looking like a South Beach bum bring about an acute case of the shanks? But a part of me admired his unselfconscious approach — like a country music star showing up at the Grammys in jeans, knowing full well that the black-tie-clad attendees will be so thrilled by his mere presence that they’ll overlook his shoddy appearance.
I was reminded of that episode when Troon Golf, the large, Arizona-based course operator, announced last week that it is relaxing the dress code at its daily-fee courses. T-shirts, gym shorts and — as Walter Hagen is my witness — denim are, if not embraced, at least permitted on such swank fairways as The Phoenician in Arizona and Indian Wells (Calif.) Golf Resort.
The announcement, ironically, came on the same day as news stories reporting that Michael Jordan had been banned from Miami’s famously exclusive La Gorce CC for wearing cargo shorts.
There’s a distinction to be drawn here. La Gorce is a private club; if guests don’t want to abide by its rules, the club can kick them out. Public courses have to be more accommodating.
Ryan Walls, senior vice president of operations at Troon, acknowledges that dichotomy, but thinks “the message (from the Jordan episode) is not good for golf.”
Walls spearheaded Troon’s dress-down policy, which is more of a recommendation than an iron-clad dictate to the pros at its courses. He recognizes that some clubs might be uncomfortable with the relaxed standards. But he wants to address perceived barriers that might steer people away from golf.
“I don’t think relaxing the dress code is going to increase our rounds by 10 percent, but I think if we chip away at those individual barriers that keep people from getting engaged in the game or wanting to play more often or wanting to come back, I think that collectively adds to the greater good,” Walls said.
As a practical matter, the policy codifies a shift that already was under way. At the Five Diamond Phoenician, director of golf Kevin Betts said that when a customer used to show up in jeans, he would ask that person to buy a pair of golf slacks. No longer, he said.
“His money spends as well as anyone else’s,” Betts said, adding, “I don’t think we’re in a market where we can afford to turn away players.”
There’s rarely a need to do so. Golfers understand the expectations that go along with making a tee time: arrive early and look the part.
“Most of the avid golfers who pay $150 for a round of golf are going to show up in a collared shirt,” said Anthony Holder, head pro at Indian Wells Golf Resort.
But Holder said the relaxed standards don’t sit well with some of his older staff members who value the game’s traditions. I don’t think you have to fall into the category of “old fuddy-duddy” to share that view. My sense is that the game has been so battered economically in recent years that we sometimes feel the need to apologize for setting reasonable standards.
Holder is mildly concerned about what will happen when the bargain-basement summer months “bring in a different type of customer.” The test, he said, probably will come on the practice tee when a nattily clad traditionalist finds himself beating balls next to a guy in a tank top.
“That’s where we’re really going to have to stand behind the policy,” he said.