RULES of the Road (Club) – Are they hindering sustainability of the COVID surge?

Among the many elements that define the culture of private clubs is each club’s rules. Some clubs are inundated with rules. Some years ago, I was a member at a club with 219 golf rules compared to the USGA’s (then) 34 rules, which have since been reduced to 22. I thought it would be interesting to examine the rules of the many clubs we get to visit and find out which rules are broadly adopted and which are more unique.

Among the policy focus of many clubs are the issues of cell phone usage, transportation around the course and dress code elements, such as cargo shorts/pants, collared shirts, tucked-in shirts, and length of shorts/skirts. These issues often seem to be of great concern to club leaders who establish the rules and the club staff charged with enforcing them. Members often consider some rules an imposition but respond passively simply because they prefer not to be involved, seek to avoid conflict, and would rather focus on the enjoyment of their membership privileges, fellow members company and club facilities.

Rules are a necessary element in society. They provide order. That said, much of our political discourse is about the rules (laws) imposed by governments and whether they’re too much or not enough, depending on the issue at hand. Balance is sometimes hard to find and this is often the case at clubs. Club rules (especially new ones) often create considerable (private) discussion among the membership and cause conflict between club leaders focused on enforcing those rules and the broader membership who largely seek to retreat from the rules at work or elsewhere. It’s not unusual for members to wonder or ask why certain rules exist.

Dress codes in particular often have elements that some perceive as having no purpose. Why are cargo pants/shorts so universally prohibited at clubs? Are collarless shirts offensive? Rules are usually established in response to a problem. For instance, speed limits exist to enhance driver and road safety. Recent mask rules were implemented to protect citizens from the COVID pandemic. At many clubs, it often seems as though solutions are created for problems that don’t yet exist. Does that happen at your club?

Despite the recent surge in golf participation and club membership spurred by the COVID pandemic, golf and clubs still need to be concerned about and motivate the next generation of players and members if the increase in golf participation and membership is to be sustained. During the telecast of the recent Open Championship so many of the commercials (and even the tournament) featured golfers wearing hoodies, untucked or collarless shirts and “jogger” style pants, just to name a few. There was one commercial where one player was delivering beer to the others on-course. The millennial generation (golf’s next generation of club members) see golf as a more casual and party-like atmosphere than the serious tone at many clubs and this could be the key to golf’s successful future, including at private clubs.

Cell phone policies vary from club to club. As the preponderance of cell phone usage has grown, Golf Digest did this piece on the topic, in 2015 including a survey of readers about cell phone use at the club. I’ve observed that cell phone use at clubs is pretty widespread, even when/where prohibited. It’s certainly not uncommon to observe committee/board members, seemingly immune from reprisal using their cell phones on property. While it’s certainly up to each club to make their own policy regarding cell phone use, there’s also an economic consideration. For many members, especially the younger ones, the reason they’re able to leave their offices and use the club (thereby spending money there) is because they can play golf and not miss that one call that may come in the middle of the round. In my humble opinion it comes down to common courtesy. As the GD article suggests, just be polite and considerate.

For sure, it can be bothersome if someone insists on conducting a call during a round. But, if they’re willing to step away, skip a hole or otherwise not intrude on the rest of the group, who does it hurt? If you take away an inconsiderate person’s cell phone, they’re likely to find another way to be inconsiderate.

Among the other rules often found and enforced at clubs include a variety of behavioral rules like removing hats inside, treating club staff with proper respect, avoiding the use of foul language and more. There are often rules about pace of play, guests, use of push/pull carts and operation of golf cars. Usually, most clubs will include in their rules a section mandating that players replace divots, repair ball marks, and rake bunkers. It doesn’t take any rocket science to expect players to take care of the course, even though many don’t and are rarely subject to consequences. Rules about care of the course impact others the most and would seem to be among those that should be more rigorously enforced. Ever hit a perfect tee shot, only to find your ball in an unreplaced divot? It always seemed to me that the best way to encourage members to “do the right thing” is to first orient them to club customs and then create a culture where the membership takes pride in these practices and encourages their fellow members to do the same. It’s much “kinder and gentler” than having members constantly “looking over their shoulder” for the inevitable “member police” that exist at every club.

Some years ago, I witnessed a caddy drop to the ground as he had a heart attack. Since then, I’ve always carried my cell phone on the golf course. Not long thereafter, I was a guest at a very prestigious club and the first question my host asked as he met me in the parking lot was “where’s your phone?” I indicated that the ringer was turned off and it was in my golf bag. He said “leave it in your car”. Sometimes, the inflexible enforcement of some rules can compromise safety or response to an emergency. One can only imagine the possibilities here.

Some clubs have more rules than others. The level of adherence and enforcement varies as well. Do more rules make happy members? Adherence to rules or discipline of members, especially for minor violations not only varies between clubs, but sometimes within a club is inconsistent. The stories are endless, at most clubs, about “getting a letter” or even worse suspension of membership privileges at some clubs for rule violations that often seem trivial. No doubt, rules are essential to maintain order. However, our clubs are places for relaxation and recreation. As President George HW Bush said that he sought to make a “kinder and gentler” nation, it seems our clubs could do the same. Many rules are appropriate and worthwhile. Others could be outdated, and in some cases exceptions are warranted.

The bottom line is that the foundation of any club’s long-term cultural and financial success is happy, satisfied members who not only want to use the club, but will continue their membership long term, paying dues and using the facilities creating the economic stability every club seeks. Having sensible rules is good business for any club and will contribute to taking advantage of golf’s recent growth and sustaining the benefits of that growth.