Exploring the Etiquette of Golf

RSU Professor Plumbs Trappings of Golf in New Book

American golf spent most of its first century concealed behind country club gates. That exclusionary impulse was carefully calculated, not only by the game’s U.S. originators, but by the European aristocracy who invented the game, according to Rogers State University professor Monica Varner.

In her new book “American Golf and the Development of Civility: Rituals of Etiquette in the World of Golf,” Dr. Varner examines the origins of American golf from 1894 to 1920 and its “rituals of civility” that resulted in a century of social exclusion.

Golf was developed in the 15th Century by the landed gentry in Scotland, seeking to separate themselves from the lower classes and strengthen their hold on wealth and resources, Varner said.

“Examples of this could be found across Europe. Members of the nobility developed pastimes that were intentionally made inaccessible to the lower classes in an effort to keep a hold on status,” she said.

For example, the English tradition of fox hunting ensured that the hunter’s hand would remain clean: dogs pursued and killed the fox by proxy. The color white became signature dress for tennis. Even fishing was not immune: the upper classes often purchased property abutting streams to ensure access to the best angling.

Varner located records that the Scottish king actually outlawed common golf for the masses in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, instead requiring them to pursue archery to achieve success in battle. Those restrictions were later lifted, but the expensive nature of golfing equipment, private courses, and high standards of etiquette kept the game exclusive.

When golf came to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, the game became Americanized, with an emphasis on equity, individualism, and entrepreneurship. “The American game of golf was a combination of old world traditions and new American values,” Varner explains in her book. “But the traditions of etiquette continued to distinguish the moneyed class from other groups.”

Golf slowly became more accessible over the twentieth century. The game has gained popularity among the middle class and accessibility among minority youths through school programs and public courses. But the U.S. Golf Association continues to enforce strict standards of rules and etiquette. These high behavioral expectations recently clashed with human nature through the game’s best professional player and biggest celebrity, Tiger Woods.

“Infidelity is not uncommon in most sports,” Varner observed. “But in golf, the leader was dethroned by the loss of million dollar endorsements and the loss of his swing coach when he didn’t live up to these standards.”

As a sociologist, Varner uses “structural ritualization theory” to explain the emergence of social inequality in golf. Structural ritualization theory is a theoretical tool used among sociologists to explain behaviors of embedded groups within a larger environment.

She also conducted countless hours of research to reach her conclusions, interviewing golf historians, pouring through popular golf magazines throughout the early twentieth century, and scouring documents at the Library of Congress and U.S. Golf Association headquarters in Far Hill, N.J.

Varner has had a life-long love affair with the game. In 1977, as a high school student in Arkansas City, Kan., she was recruited to join a women’s golf team as a result of Title IX requirements.

Her husband, Scott Varner, is the director of golf and head men’s and women’s golf coach at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. Their two sons, Michael, 18, and Brian, 13, both play golf, and the family recently built their dream home on Heritage Hills Golf Course in Claremore.

“My research focused on structural ritualization theory and social exclusion, and I have always loved the game of golf, so this book was really the divergence of two major aspects of my life,” she said.

The book, whose secondary author is J. David Knottnerus, sociology professor at Oklahoma State University, is available at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in the Centennial Center on the RSU campus in Claremore, and at www.amazon.com.