Golf makes an interesting topic for an ethnology study because it brings people together who may belong to different subgroups and joins them in a new group, that of "golfers." Playing golf has rules for the game, but there are also social rules about how to behave while playing the game. Sometimes those who belong to the group called "golfers" assume a common background among all the players, and sometimes that assumption is misplaced.
For my study I interviewed two men who play golf at a local golf club. The two men are friends and often play together. One man is 34 and a graduate of Washington University. He is married with one child. He has played golf since he was 12, and is Caucasian. The other man is named George. He is 32 and a graduate of Stanford University. He was on the Stanford golf team and has played golf since he was ten. He is married with two children, and of African-American heritage.
Although the two men are of different races, in some ways their backgrounds are similar. Both men were only able to go to the universities they attended because of academic scholarships, and both majored in chemistry. This is in fact how they first met each other: they both worked for the same company as chemists. As they worked together and gradually got to know each other, they found that they had a fair amount of things in common, including their college background, similarities in their family, and a shared passion for golf. In fact the golf club Henry belonged to had broadened its membership rules after decades of barring not only Blacks but also Jews and women, and Henry sponsored George for membership. Both men were willing to talk freely with me.
I talked to Henry first. He got into golf because his father played golf. His father gave him lessons, and he developed ability. He was on his high school and his college golf teams. In addition, when he was in high school he played competitively and by the time he graduated had accumulated, as he said, "quite a few trophies." He was never interested in playing professionally. He did not think he was good enough to do that, but also he was a strong student who enjoyed learning. He couldn't see himself as a professional athlete.
George got into golf via a different route. George's father made quite a bit of money caddying at a local country club, and when George was old enough to do that job, he began caddying also. George's father was a good caddy and sought after by many of the men at the club. They would often show George some fine point of the game, probably because it made him a better caddy, but also because George was a pleasant man who knew how to get along with all sorts of people, according to his son. Eventually one of the elder caddy's clients gave him an old set of clubs, and George started playing on his own at a public golf course, and George began accompanying him. Just as Henry's father taught him how to play, George's father taught him also. However, Henry had the benefit of private lessons that were not available to George because George could not play at a country club -- he could only caddy. Eventually, however, players started giving him pointers as well.
Today, both Henry and George belong to the same golf club, a club that would never have admitted George's father as a member. George joined when he was 28, and had some interesting stories to tell about the experience of being one of the first Black members of a formerly highly discriminatory club. The first time he showed up at the club, he went into the men's locker room and someone politely directed him to the caddy room. George kept his cool and said blandly, "Is that where I would go to hire a caddy?" The other man was embarrassed and apologized, introduced himself, shook his hand, turned beet red and was generally what George called "flummoxed." Mercifully, he said, Henry arrived shortly after. George greeted him, and the other man was off the hook.
The next week, George said, the same thing happened in a slightly different way. He walked into the men's locker room, and another man politely inquired if he might be lost? Interestingly, George found that once he had changed into "golf clothes" these errors didn't happen. Once he had on golf shoes and was out of jeans, these mistakes didn't happen -- even though caddies were not allowed to wear jeans. George realized something was true at this club that is true in so many other places: part of appropriate behavior includes how one is dressed. From then on he walked into the dressing room briskly and immediately demonstrated that he knew what the "uniform" was, and he was often mistaken for a caddy.
Henry noticed things that George probably noticed but did not mention. Except for the few, new, Black members, every other Black person was employed there in one way or another. The dining room had Black waiters, some of the groundskeepers were Black, and many of the caddies were Black. After a few weeks of this, Henry says he had a frank talk with George. He wanted to make sure he was not putting his friend in an uncomfortable situation. George acknowledged that it was awkward sometimes, but the pleasure of playing on a really good golf course was worth the aggravation.
This was not an expensive or exclusive country club. Neither George nor Henry were in a position to afford an upscale club, but the grounds were maintained well.
Henry told me that he and George also played sometimes at the public course. He noted that at the public course, the informal rules were not as strict. Golf shoes were of course required, but at the public course, people played in jeans (long or as shorts). They simply did not have to dress as carefully in order to not stand out. I asked George about the public course, and he said that many Blacks play that course and that he was never mistaken for a caddy there.
I asked George if being mistaken for a caddy angered him. He said that it did not, and that since he had been a caddy at one time he saw no shame in it. He said that the members of the club had seen only one kind of person there for decades and gave the people there credit for not snubbing him. George feels he has an advantage because he is a good player, and he and Henry have been invited to play in foursomes. He is invited to join people at tables in the bar after a round, but does not socialize with any of these people outside the club except for Henry.
They both noted other rules for playing golf in this club. There is no smoking on the greens, it's against the rules to throw the clubs, and in fact some swear words are accepted while others are not. If provoked by, say, a water or sand trap, a word starting with "sh" is acceptable, but the one starting with "f" is not. It's OK to make a bet on a game or a hole, but not OK to take it too seriously. Conversation in the bar is light, not serious, and does not get deeply personal.
Getting ready to interview George and Henry, I decided to do a little research, and put "Blacks" and "golf" into GOOGLE. I discovered that Blacks actually have a long history of playing golf in this country, ever since it was first…