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Thursday, September 02, 2010


T-shirt and jeans in the winter. T-shirt and shorts in the summer. It says to the world, “I have more important things on my mind than how I appear to you.” Occasionally a message, ironic or otherwise, will declare my loyalty to the Kansas City Royals, Amish country, or Irish dance. I ensconced myself with this mixed message ensemble the morning of our family golf tournament. A pair of cargo shorts, a t-shirt displaying an image of Huey from The Boondocks, and an utterly awesome yellow bucket hat were, as far as I knew, acceptable golf wear. Until a phone call from the lead car in our caravan delivered the news that the lack of a collar on my shirt would preclude my participation.

I am not, by nature, an avid golfer, and as such was ignorant of many of the written rules and entirely unaware of the unwritten ones. Prior to this tournament it had been nearly two years since I had sliced and hooked my way through the links. Until now my puttering was limited to public courses. The propensity for golfers to don knit shirts and khakis had not gone unnoticed, but I attributed this to the same urge that made all middle class people, who may have at one time in their life experienced a chill, buy a North Face jacket. These knit shirts had become so intertwined with the Polo brand that, like Kleenex, a distinction between authentic Ralph Lauren clothing and a generic knit shirt could no longer be sufficiently made. These were Polo shirts. And while the iconic logo did feature a man hitting a ball with a stick, I could see no other connection to the game of golf. Until, I became aware of the unwritten rules. Rules passed along by those in the know to keep the unclean, unkempt and unwanted away from the genteel sport of gentlemen.

Different societies and cultures have often designed elaborate rules and procedures to determine if one belongs to the group. Uniforms, secret hand-shakes, shibboleths, and circumcisions all indicate one’s fidelity to the organization. You are a team member, and you respect the traditions of our society. Etiquette is your ticket to enter. So why is the etiquette to golf unwritten? The answer is simple. Like the mysterious placement of utensils at the dining table, the arbitrary cut-off dates for wearing white, and prescriptivist prohibitions against ending sentences with prepositions, golf etiquette is designed to clearly delineate between those that have and those that have not.

Some may say that it is out of respect for the game, and of them I would ask, is respect for the game more important than respect for other people. When rules of etiquette are broken we do not feel moral outrage because the game has been disrespected; we just calmly elevate our noses so as to better look down them. Soft-spiked golf shoes will chuckle lightly under their breath at the $150 Nikes because they know that you can’t buy class. Cuffless slacks will battle their cuffed brothers cruelly pointing out their propensity to trap dirt. Slacks of any sort will join forces to berate anything denim. And the collared shirts laugh derisively at their collarless counterparts, “That buffoon should be riding an ATV and drinking a domestic beer.”

Despite my reservation concerning conformity, I did stop at the Goodwill in a nearby town to buy a shirt for $4.00. The tournament was held in honor of my grandfather, so out of respect for him, not the game, I modified my principles. I was now acceptable to the fine folks of the golf community. I was one of them. After the first couple of holes the collar began to whisper to me. First just giving some tips on club selection, but later suggesting that we should strengthen border security. By the 13th hole I was often putting for par and thinking that Fox News may actually be on to something. My clothes really do say a lot.

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