Like so many hardcore golfers, I’ve teed it up on every major holiday, including Christmas and my personal favorite, Thanksgiving. And, yes, the Fourth of July.
Nothing wrong with that, right? Golf is as American a game as any I can think of, including baseball.
Some will call that blasphemy, but think about it: Without America embracing the game when it finally established itself on this side of “the pond” in the late 19th century, it would likely remain a U.K.-centric holdover from the halcyon days of the British Empire, a Royal & Ancient curiosity with a deeper foothold in, say, the river plans of India than on U.S. soil in all its geologically and geographically rich glory.
OK, OK, before you purists get in my grill, let me say that I love original, Old World links golf and consider it the game’s purest form to this day, some 500 years after a couple shepherds started knocking stones around those strands of forlorn sand between village and sea.
In fact, I’ve waited until my 60th year on earth to finally notch a round on the Old Course, this coming October as part of a 25th anniversary trek to Scotland and Ireland with my wife. And she doesn’t even play golf — still, she knows how much this means to me, and she’ll walk alongside me as I stand on that famous first tee, holding back tears and hoping to hold on to that rented club without it shaking out of my hands.
Only then will I be a Golfer in Full.
But in my estimation, America has made golf better as a game for, by and of the people. It’s the perfect Fourth of July pursuit.
It took us a while. Perhaps since they were built as the Gilded Age set in, most of those first U.S. golf courses were private: Newport Country Club, Shinnecock Hills, Chicago Golf Club, Myopia Hunt Club, Baltimore Country Club, Philadelphia Cricket Club, and on and on.
Even when the U.S. Open began in 1895, then gained momentum as the ultimate test of public-field golf, it was contested on private links, including those mentioned above — and won by the U.K.’s best for its first 16 editions. Then a guy named John McDermott broke through as the first American champion, in 1911, spurring the U.S. to pretty much own its marquee competition for the next 125 years.
Sure, non-American-born players took the trophy now and then, including a four-year stretch from 2004 to 2007 — Retief Goosen, Michal Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera. But it had long since established itself as the toughest mountain to scale in major golf, and therefore all golf. The Open Championship might crown the “Champion Golfer Of The World” every July, but our national championship is the one most players, male or female, pine for, no matter where they were born.
And yet, private clubs continued to host it, mostly because it was more efficient and less disruptive to put a few hundred members out for a couple weeks, rather than a slew of public golfers. But when a little links called Pebble Beach hosted its first U.S. Open in 1972, the tournament gained a new Everyman dimension; a few other publicly accessible courses, such as Bethpage Black, followed suit.
American players like Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer had long since taken golf mainstream in the U.S. Jack Nicklaus dominated for nearly three decades. Then came Tiger Woods, easily the biggest mass star the game has ever seen, and probably will ever see.
In fact, some would say Tiger saved golf from probable serious decline as a democracy-driven (and multicultural) sport, even as he pushed pro purses into the stratosphere — and even as it continues, to this day, to come up short in terms of attracting, embracing and supporting minorities on a large scale.
But Tiger, Jack and the rest notwithstanding, think of the myriad ways America has brought the game to millions more people than it might not have otherwise reached.
Think of how this nation’s technological know-how and industrial might have improved golf equipment, making clubs and balls more user-friendly; expanded the game’s horizons to previously impossible sites, including mountains and deserts, thanks to the wonders of irrigation, turf science and, yes, the abundance of almighty-dollar investment driven by never-say-never Yankee spirit; and created steward-of-the-game organizations like the USGA and, especially, the PGA of America, whose dedicated members took instruction to the masses on practice tees from coast to coast.
Think how America has expanded the game’s social horizons, too. Despite its nagging reputation as a white man’s pursuit, more women, more people of color and more physically and mentally disabled folks are taking it up than ever.
The walls to golf enjoyment for all have indeed come down.
After all, America has always been about breaking barriers, not erecting them.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. While we proudly celebrate our independence, it’s this nation’s generous and inclusive and welcoming ways that truly keep the flag flying high … and keep golf growing for all.
So, this Fourth of July, go ahead — tee it up before the barbecue and fireworks. Wear red, white and blue if you want.
This land is golf land, made for you, me, and everyone.