2004: Collars, khakis and staying up to code

My friend Simpson and I were having lunch last summer when we were unexpectedly summoned to a meeting with the club president. The problem? A member had gone off the first hole clad in a pair of blue jeans. And she had dressed her three children the same way. The foursome, looking like an advertisement for Levi Strauss, headed out despite the polite protestations of our golf pro.

Our club has a dress code prohibiting that kind of apparel, so the president asked her to come in from the course for a little chat. Simpson and I are on the board, and we arrived just as our fearless leader was delivering a stern lecture about abiding by the rules regarding course attire (as this was not her first violation). A half-hour later, I was back at lunch, feeling pretty good about the intervention. After all, we seemed to have made a strong impression on the deviant member and sent a message to the rest of the club by confronting her. We knew word of the incident would quickly seep out and serve as a not-so-subtle reminder for members to pay attention to what they wore on the course.

But Simpson seemed uncharacteristically distraught as he picked at his lobster salad, and soon explained why.

“I hate the idea of belonging to a club that has to have a dress code,” he said. “You’d think we’d only let in people who knew what to wear on a course.”

On the surface, it seems a simple enough issue. Either you learn early in life what to don for a round of golf by caddying, for example, or following the lead of your golf-playing parents or grandparents. Or you figure it out as you go along, perhaps by observing what other people at the club wear or by talking to the pro about the general mode of attire. Touring pros are not necessarily a bad place to go for fashion tips so long as you stay away from items such as mock T-shirts, which look fine on a buff Tiger Woods but are as unseemly on an overweight 16-handicapper as his golf swing. And under no circumstances should you consider those Tabasco golf shirts, which look as if they were made from drapes that hung in a New Orleans bordello.

Sadly, such logic appears to be way too deep for many country clubbers to fathom. You see it in the knuckleheads who show up on the first tee in black bicycle shorts or T-shirts from the latest Metallica concert. You find it in the bums so sloppily attired they look like unmade beds. And you wonder why they seem incapable of adhering to Simpson’s basic adage for golf course dress: Wear what you wore when you were trying to get into the club in the first place.

However, even approved articles of clothing can cause consternation. Like golf hats, which look fine on the course but should never be worn inside. Most members at my club pride themselves on their good manners. Yet I frequently see some keeping their lids on right through lunch. I’ll make snide and rather audible comments about the practice on occasion, but those never work as well as the time my friend Stratford’s nearly 4-year-old son looked at two middle-aged captains of industry eating lunch with their caps on and said in a loud voice: “Daddy, what does a gentleman do when he walks into a room?”

“He takes his hat off,” his father replied, and much chagrined, that’s exactly what those fellows quickly did.

Shorts are another matter altogether. Even though I often wear Bermudas in summer, I struggle at times with their place on the golf course. Part of that comes from having a father who never wore shorts on the links. His view, shared by many of his generation, was that shorts were for children, and you stopped dressing in them once you were old enough to go to the bathroom by yourself. Real men, the thinking went, wore slacks at their clubs, unless, of course, they were playing tennis or swimming.

For many years, some of the finest clubs in America did not allow shorts on their courses, but only a few enforce that policy today. One such place is Augusta National, and its long-held view on the subject is best demonstrated by a classic Clifford Roberts story.

One morning, it seems, the longtime Augusta chairman spied a club member walking to the grill room for lunch in a pair of Bermudas. “What are you doing today, Charlie?” Roberts asked. The response was, “Playing golf,” and Roberts’ simple retort was, “Where?”

I know, some folks might bristle at the necessity of a dress code, and I can understand the aversion to conforming to what can no doubt be viewed as silly and capricious norms. But the simple response is, if you don’t like dress codes, then don’t join a club that has them.

Obviously, some people don’t like to be told what to wear no matter where they play, and musician Willie Nelson counts himself among them. One time, he and a few of his band mates appeared at a daily fee course in Florida clad in blue jeans and T-shirts, only to be told at the first tee that they did not have “proper attire.” So Nelson took his friends back to the pro shop, and asked the clerk if everything sold there was indeed “proper.”

“Absolutely,” the man replied.

Nelson then bought several outfits for his friends in the women’s department, and they soon reappeared at the tee, dressed this time in skirts and halter tops. The pro tried to stop him again, but Nelson would have none of it.

“You said these clothes were all proper attire,” he said.

And off they went, striking a victory for social protest and creating a dress code loophole through which others can walk.

But only if they have the legs.

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