By James Corrigan
Call it a bare-legged stride forwards for golf; although, if one listened to some of the complaints when the European Tour decided to allow the players to wear shorts in practice rounds one might have suspected this was not the work of a progressive sporting organisation, but of the Devil himself.
Of course, it was inevitable the traditionalists would all be up in arms about the suddenly-exposed legs and it says much about the perceived seriousness of the relaxed dress rules. This was not a decision taken lightly. Doubtless, other sports giggled at the bureaucracy involved, but the new policy actually had to go in front of the Players Tournament Committee to be ratified at the Abu Dhabi Championship in January. Keith Pelley, the Tour’s new CEO, was surprised himself. ‘Wearing shorts was a lot bigger story than I thought it would be, but it is something the players have certainly embraced,’ he said. Bizarre did not begin to describe it.
All we can surmise is that golf moves in mysterious ways. There we were in the United Arab Emirates, it was 25C, the boys with their knees out all looked cooler in temperature and style, but there were onlookers who genuinely felt uncomfortable. Naturally some of the old chaps harrumphed; but then there are still certain blazers out there who feel women’s tennis players should drag skirts along the court. Yet there were also young professionals who expressed their unease.
One of them told me he did not think it correct and although part of his argument was that he had grown up on the course looking down at trousers and that he feared the sight of his ankle might unsettle his rhythm, he also believed it was ‘unprofessional’. He insisted other players were of a similar mind and were adamant the Tour should not abandon the game’s culture and deem shorts acceptable for tournament rounds. ‘It’s the thin end of the wedge,’ he said.
Well, maybe it is, but it is the thick end of the wedge that golfers hit it with and if the Tour does not eventually finish what it started at that committee meeting then, to my mind, that would be a blow to the sport. At last, things are changing in the ancient game, the modernists have finally stolen a march and are a couple up at the turn. This is time for bold, inspired thinking and although plenty will snigger at the notion that there is anything at all revolutionary about grown adults being permitted to ditch the slacks, we are talking about a sport which still boasts clubs divided on gender.
So what could be the objection? Rory McIlroy tried to think of what it could be, but failed. ‘We’re supposed to be athletes nowadays aren’t we?’ he said. ‘It is definitely a more athletic sport these days and we should be showing that off. I can’t understand why anybody would think it a bad thing. Why not? It really depends if guys are comfortable or not. I don’t think it takes anything away from the tradition of the game or etiquette, or how guys look on the course.’
The naysayers will point to the erosion of standards and the abandonment of tradition. What a load of complete and utter balata. Have you seen John Daly’s uniform nowadays? Fine, it complies with the rules, but to any sense of sartorial etiquette it deserves punishment. And as far as tradition goes, that smug bunch who believe themselves to be its greatest supporter are confusing it with pomposity. Golf is never in a worse light than when it is cast in the smog caused by tradition being mixed with pomposity.
The tradition should be extolled; the pomposity excommunicated. Just because golf did it once does not mean it should still be done today. This is a ball-sport which has been affected by the advances in technology perhaps more than any other, but in terms of perception it has been depressingly rooted. For so long the powers that be refused to recognise the necessity to go forwards and kidded themselves and their audience with all that ‘tradition’ claptrap.
They summarily dismissed the opinion that children were being put off by the perception of the old man’s pursuit and, as regards participation, woefully failed to capitalise on the gift that was Tiger Woods. Essentially, many protected their ivory towers at the same time as totally letting down their sport, spreading the caviar on their bread, instead of the gospel of the game. Most reprehensibly they perpetuated the existence of single-sex clubs, some of which still survive to this very day.
So granted, in the light of such abominations shorts do seem a daft little topic, which will be waved off as an irrelevance. In fact, it is another brick out of the wall, another significant point in the overhauling of golf’s self-damaging image. As Ian Poulter said: ‘It’s 2016 not 1990. Get rid of the stuffy rules that hold golf back. Make it more fun for everyone.’
To this end, if only, the PGA Tour would take the example of their European counterparts. Jordan Spieth, the world No 1, basically pleaded with them to do so. ‘It’s awesome. It will be something I would love to see on the PGA Tour too,’ he told reporters in Abu Dhabi.
But they will not because they do no want to be seen as the follower but as the leader and so will portray a faux respect ‘to the traditions and history of this great game’. And there is golf’s problem, right there. Self-interest over what is good for the sport, what makes sense for the sport and what could help golf from disappearing into the dust of its own creation. Yes, we are ‘only’ talking about shorts. But, come on, it is bigger than that. We are talking about an attitude.
The game is in the midst of a participation problem and one of the reasons for the lack of new people taking up golf is the strict dress rules. Surveys of non-golfers have long shown that unwelcoming restrictions, such as what you can and cannot wear, have acted as a barrier to would-be members.
But what was interesting in a survey undertaken by the British magazine Today’s Golfer two years ago is that it asked 1 000 golf members what they thought. The feedback was staggering – 71% believed golf’s dress codes did deter people from taking up the game, 67% felt trainers should be allowed in the clubhouse; 93% thought evening meals should not require a jacket and tie; and just 36% said relaxing the dress code would lead to poor behaviour on the course.
Goodness knows what that 36% of respondents expect to happen if and when jeans are accepted, but what is certain is that their archaic, ‘Colonel Blimp’ beliefs are ripe for the ribbing. In 2009, the comedian Mark Steel, in the Independent newspaper, could not resist having a dig at one Oxford club which had stipulated that ‘caps must not be worn the wrong way round at any time’. ‘Because,’ remarked Steel with tongue firmly pressed in check, ‘if they relax that rule the Oxford spire posse would be down there yelling “Hey caddie I don’t want no four-iron muthah, pass me my Uzi, I’m gonna SHOOT the ball out the rough.”‘
And so Steel went on, quite mercilessly and understandably. Dress codes bar denim and insist on jackets and ties in the bar to ‘protect standards’. They must fear that if they let the working class in, they’d drag a piano to the hole and all dance up and down to “My Old Man Said Follow the Van”, until the green was ruined. Then they’d tape all the clubs together to make one long pole and use it as a chimney sweep, getting dirt all over the fairways, then turn the clubhouse into a shop selling everything for a pound. The place would be WRECKED.
The point is that the sport is routinely laughed at for its stuffiness and its seemed enslavery to customs that should have sailed off on Noah’s Ark. Shorts is a just another small step on the road to enlightenment, but it is not insignificant. With the rise of McIlroy, Spieth, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and other under-30s this is such an opportune time to show that yes, golf can be cool. And so, too, can your legs be cool. Uncovered and unashamed.