I am golfer, and people often ask, “since when?,” or “for how long?” I can’t answer that accurately, and my response is generally, “since my aunt took me out on early summer mornings when I was a youngster.” Seven years old? Maybe nine or ten—I’m not sure. But I do recall my Red Ball Jets being thoroughly saturated by the morning dew. My aunt loved to play, and I loved it too. The etiquette, she reminded me often, was what really mattered. Little did I realize back then just how much that etiquette, especially as it relates to being a “lady,” would speak to my place in the larger world.
On the cover of Sara Ahmed’s new book, Living a Feminist Life (2017), bell hooks is quoted as stating, “[e]veryone should read this….” And while this piece is not a book review, nor an epistle on the merits of feminism, Ahmed’s work offers us additional insight to what lies at the core of gender and the game of golf.
I’ll get back to Ahmed’s work shortly, but in the interim you—the reader—will have to engage a passion of a game I hope to play for a lifetime. Golf, a symbol of elitism and arguably one of the culture’s most racist, sexist and classist of sports still garners wide-spread social appeal. A major sport in terms of socioeconomic impact, the classical sociological thinker Thorstein Veblen would likely find it a fitting example of his notion of “conspicuous consumption”—the idea that (golf as a form of) leisure marks one’s social status. As a critic of capitalism, Veblen would likely ally this leisurely practice with the notion of waste.
Still, in golf’s wasteland lie a trove of stories as the history of the game supports a rich body of literature. Yet when reading deeply through that history, the stories yield little on women in comparison to men. As a woman who has played since childhood when my sexed body mattered less, I have ensconced myself into its field of play, and it is from that vantage point that I want to describe, rather re-describe its everydayness—from the greeting at the pro shop, to the labeling on the card, to playing the “forward” tees. Golf, in all of its pretense and associated vogue, could use some diversity training, and a retreat through a feminist lens might help.
Here, I would like to draw attention to the gendered assumptions, the judgments embedded in the games’ social constitution. Out of this vocabulary is the game’s need for the “ladies.” The more culturally sensitive or perhaps astute (read: classed) venues, may offer the equivalent “gentlemen” and perhaps “seniors” or “juniors”, but more often than not, the golfing literature and venues writ large prefer the designation of women as “ladies.” So embedded in the rhetoric of golf is the term that it constitutes nothing less than institutionalized sexism. “Ladies” who golf are simply not—nor arguably are they intended to be—the social equivalent of the men who play.
Almost immediately upon entering a golfing venue—we, Simone de Beauvoir’s “second sex”—are identified accordingly with the greeting, “Good morning, ladies!” The scorecard—a necessary accouterment to play, bills a woman’s standing in similar ways. Generally, men are assumed to play the white tees and “ladies” the red tees. To rationalize the seeming respect shown to women who play golf by affirming their “lady-ness,” is to cater to the point. An interpreted overly sensitive (a.k.a., feminist) response to this disruption expresses the problem of labels. Pointing to such labels is to call consciousness to the game’s unreflexive expectations and outcomes. Even when peers upon approaching the green suggest in golf’s most affirming hopes, just a “chip and a putt, ladies,” my gut moves to unrest.
The media’s commentary on golf is no less absent the vernacular. Consider a recent NBC commentary at Kingsbarns Golf Links of Scotland, host to the 2017 Ricoh Women’s (thank you) British Open. On discussing the old links style of course, the female commentator described it as a “modern links” while the male commentator added that, “the guy who designed the course the ladies played … the men played … last week ….” [sic.] Emphasis mine.
It is here that Ahmad’s work aptly applies to golf’s everydayness. “Through feminism,” she writes, “you make sense of wrongs; you realize that you are not in the wrong. But when you speak of something as being wrong, you end up being in the wrong all over again. The sensation of being wronged can thus end up magnified: you feel wronged by being perceived as in the wrong just for pointing out something is wrong. It’s frustrating” (p. 38).
Golf can be frustrating enough without the every-hole-reminder of my lady-ness—the unreflective point that I am not quite enough for this game, that I don’t fully belong to the club. To this end, I am happy to accept Ahmad’s notion that I am—by virtue of this simple narrative—a feminist killjoy. I have leapt into the socially unconscious golfer’s mind and stepped on their buzz. I am fully aware that it is preferred of those speaking on oppressions (as seemingly minor as this) that we ignore such matters (and they will go away). While those more privileged and uninterested in hearing the label—benefit by taking no notice. But in an effort to understand such underlying meanings, paying attention matters.
In spite of my vantage point, I find the game pleasurable, pleasing, enjoyable, delightful really. My pleasure. The term pleasure itself appeals to the “ladies” as by definition such women are cast to please, to give pleasure, to be approved (of). But it is the natural elements of the humanly constituted landscape offering pastoral images that I prefer—the shadows, sunsets, dew, wildlife, water. The sounds. And nowhere as a woman can I find acres of space—often to myself—as I might on a golf course. In the game and its settings, I find a turn toward beauty.
Still, when its sexist, racist and pretentious inklings enter its environs, my pleasure retreats. My joy has been killed. Call me overly sensitive, call me wrong—but please don’t call me a “lady.” It’s endless really. Just look and listen carefully, that’s all it takes, and then maybe another other can help make it go away. Or just maybe, we could wo-“man up” and take it even one step further.
Jane Stangl, Ph.D. is a sociologist of sport and currently serves as the dean of the first year class at Smith College in Northampton, MA. She is an avid golfer and a professional instructor of the game working with JBC Golf, Inc.