Vol.6 No.16, 26 April 2006

Golf: Global Sport of Modern Kings

Margaret Legum

This article appeared in the Business Report on Monday 24 April 2006. Follow the link below.


A personal disappointment, and a lost cause, in a small but beautiful corner of our land drew a new train of thought on what lies behind the hierarchies of sport. They are linked, like everything else, to the economic system we have chosen to espouse. Economics maketh man.

In the charming mouth of the Fish Hoek valley lies the historic Clovelly Country Club. It is shortly to close forever its tennis and bowls sections, the former of which has been the apple of my leisure hours for many years. That tiny proportion of Clovelly’s land that constitutes the doomed sections – that fraction of one per cent – will enhance the golf facilities by the addition of a practice range. We fought the closure, and we lost.

Because the Club has a generous benefactor in the person of Raymond Ackerman, we are leaving with a package that will enable us to create something else – deeply inferior but better than nothing, and enabling some of us to stay together.

Clovelly has an honourable history. Ackerman started it when he was barred, as a Jew, from other Cape Town golfing establishments: golfers are nothing if not exclusive. In that tradition he insisted, even under apartheid, on the right to bring in Black members. Currently a large transformation process is in train, including a junior golfing ‘academy’ for Black youngsters – whose needs, at least partly, the new driving range is to serve. It is hard to oppose such honourable intent.

And the truth is that had I not been personally deeply sad about losing my tennis, I might have considered the whole thing a quarrel between well-heeled competitors for resources. And in a way so it is.

Looking deeper, I wondered why golf, as a sport, is being allowed to take over the best bits of every country in the accessible world. Why is there no debate around one sport monopolising so much land and so many resources - many of which, like water, are becoming seriously scarce. Is there not something disproportionate about so much natural beauty being ring-fenced for one sport? It could be said, for instance, that tennis – which takes up a piffling acreage of land – would be an excellent, and much cheaper, sport into which disadvantaged youngsters might be schooled and developed. Why must it be profligate golf?

You might say it is obvious why golf gets to use so much land. First, it involves people hitting the ball as far as they can –and that means space. Second, the laws of supply and demand mean that anyone who can pay for something gets it, like it or not; and golfers have been prepared to pay a lot for their sport and its accoutrements. By contrast, however rich we tennis players are we do not need, and therefore will not pay for, millions of acres of ground.

That is true, but not enough. It is something deeper. It is around the fact that, in the industrial age, golf has become the sport of preference for the top leaders and executives in commerce, industry and government. Perhaps because they are generally men in middle age or older, whose golden age of running after balls has yielded to the years. Perhaps because walking with a purpose in beautiful surroundings is a pleasure and also accords with the orders of their doctors and fitness trainers. Perhaps because golfers play out of earshot of others, in pairs or fours and at a relatively leisurely pace; so golf courses become arenas for secret deal-making in beautiful surroundings where the smoking guns are easily concealed.

Those may be some of the reason it started; and once on track it becomes self-perpetuating. Membership of golf clubs becomes de rigeur for ambitious executives. That includes all sorts of people that one would have thought would be deeply bored by the whole idea of its slow pace and its dearth of thrills or spills. Golf is surely skillful, but hardly fast and furious.

So the transcendence of golf is not about sport. It is about access to power. It is the modern equivalent of the estates of the European landed gentry, which hunted, shot and fished in the company of their peers and the to the exclusion of those they wished to keep down and out. That class of person made sports around horses and dogs the most desirable of all; and to take part it was necessary to have access to large amounts of land. They were able top get that land because they inherited money; and that is the way these things perpetuate themselves.

Huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ is still an arcane form of privilege in parts of Europe, especially the British Isles. But golf is its international modern equivalent. That is why to argue the unfairness of land allocation to golf is received with incomprehension. That is why the poor little tennis section never had a chance, even though its demands were puny. Within the economic power hierarchy sport plays its part. There is a sport in every era which ring-fences access to power. Dull as it may seem to some, golf is the sport of chief executives, the modern version of kings. The reason it has taken over so much land is that modern kings are even richer than the old kind.

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