Comment: The English middle classes have ruined golf

Golf, Scotland's great sporting export, is one of the least democratic sports around. And it is the English middle class which has ruined it.

How strange, then, that it is a row about equality – not class – which is forcing those in plus-fours to ask difficult questions of themselves. Golf and politics do not usually mix. But when the Open Championship's hosts refuse to let in women, the custodians of Muirfield are rightly damned for being sickeningly out-of-date.

This is a shame, because the game itself is entirely egalitarian: there are few sports where women can play with men and comprehensively thrash them into the ground. In golf that happens frequently, especially when this particular writer is playing. And whenever women are actually allowed to play, of course.

Most golf courses, for obvious financial reasons, practice complete equality these days. But the game has never been seen as an obvious past-time for young girls. Right now up and down the country spotty adolescents will be marching up and down the fairways. They will be taking advantage of the lengthy summer holidays to improve their short game and hit golf balls into neighbouring lakes, woods and conservatory windows. Sadly, the legacy of past snootiness means the vast majority will be male.

Nothing about the men-only Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers hosting the Open Championship sounds normal. It is a club which charges punters an eye-watering £195 to play a round – a fair price for one of Britain's most famous courses, but one which only encourages its custodians to endow themselves with excessive levels of self-importance. Their elite status should increase their responsibility to make the club a role model for the rest. Instead it is used as an excuse for sticking to a sickeningly outdated conservatism which is now being damned by our politicians. Unlike the Honourable Company, those in Westminster are operating in the 21st century.

It is a painful irony that this row is taking place in Scotland, which has avoided the suffocating middle-class hang-ups that pervade the sport in England. Golf is a more egalitarian sport north of the border. There are fewer hang-ups about wearing jeans on the course, for example. Who cares about this? Why does it matter? All the ban on denim does is deter and alienate.

And this goes to the real heart of the issue. The frontline of politics in golf right now is not equality. It is class.

The chief preoccupation of those in power in the nation's golf clubs is keeping the hoi polloi away from their carefully cultivated greens. They are going far too far in trying to preserve a balance between preserving the calm, civilised atmosphere of a middle-class haven and letting in the feared chaos of working class mayhem. It is a false choice. And not just because the wealthiest of weekday golfers are capable of hacking up a course like the worst of them.

The best clubs are those that entice the kids in with cheap offers and support them in their development. Golf requires a natural etiquette but its semi-unwritten rules are naturally picked up, not something to be learned via tut-tuts and sharp intakes of breath.

Class' insidious influence over golf endures because money talks. In England – and especially in the south of England – the wealthiest are prepared to pay more to avoid being egalitarian. They might argue this is nonsense, because those new to the game are invariably hopeless at it and will therefore ruin the enjoyment of superior players. This would only convince if the standard were uniformly high at our poshest clubs. It is not, because those who can afford to will use their cash to cover up their inadequacies.

Golf is a reflection of life, for good or ill. Playing a round means a player faces triumph and disaster, and must try hard to treat them both the same. The simplest and most effective way to really fit in at a golf club is to be good at the game.

Being a member of a club is an aspirant choice, but money doesn't necessarily buy you respect. The finest men's golfers in the world are at Muirfield this week and more than deserve admiration as they play at one of Britain's elite courses. Those who use money rather than ability to associate themselves with it – and in so doing reinforce a ban on women which only serves to propagate the game's inequalities – deserve nothing but contempt.

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