Lessons to be learned from golf in Scotland

Tiger Woods during a practice round in advance of the British Open at St. Andrews.

Tiger Woods during a practice round in advance of the British Open at St. Andrews.


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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Think again if you believed Tiger Woods to be the inventor of Sunday Red.

At Wimbledon Golf Club, located just nine miles from downtown London, golfers are required to wear red shirts. Always and forever, red shirts. Every day, every time they play, red shirts.

The sight of these golfers scurrying across the landscape might remind a casual observer of a colony of red-jacketed beetles. It is an odd spectacle that is repeated day after day.

This red-shirted exhibition is part of the multi-use recreational philosophy behind Wimbledon Common, established and protected for the use of citizens by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871. For the record, that’s 139 years ago.

Increased visibility is intended to identify and protect golfers from balls, bats, kicks, tackles and whatever traffic may exist as a result of the sporting and sociable activity at the Common.

As Americans, we should be fascinated by this broad concept in the United Kingdom of common land that is designated for public use. Sure, America has its parks, but generally they don’t have the size, scope or comprehensive usage of the commons found in Europe.

Here at St. Andrews, site of this week’s British Open, the Old Course is owned by the town and is the heartbeat of most local activities. It is crisscrossed by footpaths for pedestrians. Although golf is the primary pursuit, the course is closed for golf every Sunday in favor of recreational use by citizens.

Try that one in America.

While golf courses in the United States tend to be outlying and remote, many towns in Scotland feature their own golf courses. They are located in or near the center of town, and they are used for much more than just golf – for dog walkers, those out for a pleasant stroll, or those who play cricket and other sports.

Golfweek writer Alistair Tait, who lives in England, tells a story about horse traffic: “I had an interesting experience during a medal round a few years ago on the 16th hole of our Dukes Course. The tee is right next to the bridleway, and when I teed off there were three horse riders approaching the tee. I thought they were far enough off that it would be OK to tee off. I did so, and one of the horses bolted after being scared by the sound of titanium on balata. A little girl of about 10 was on the horse and luckily managed to control the animal after about 50 yards. I felt really badly about it, and I now wait until horse riders have passed before teeing off.”

The bottom line: Golf in the U.K. often is played over land that is accessible to all. Perhaps the most impressive example is North Berwick in Scotland, where North Berwick Golf Club was started in 1832 and is the second-oldest golf course in continuous play, behind St. Andrews.

North Berwick has a Children’s Course, established in 1888 as a course for ladies, and it has several adjacent fields used for golf practice and various other sports. Parents and their offspring can frequently be observed hitting practice balls. Pedestrians and their animals have the right of way on the many footpaths that intersect the golf course.

In addition to the genius of their public origins, these Scottish golf courses are affordable. Fancy that. Translated from the standard U.K. currency, which is the pound, annual memberships at Wimbledon Common start at roughly $900 U.S.

Golf in the United States is in trouble. Participation is flat or diminishing. The sport has failed to change adequately with the times. It takes too much time to play. In general, it is too expensive.

We need to make it more accessible and more affordable. We need to discard impractical maintenance standards and accept the reality that brown grass is just as playable as green grass.

We in America should learn our lessons from Scotland’s rich golf heritage. In order to thrive and prosper, golf needs to be a game of the people. It needs a diverse foundation of men, women and children playing the game. It needs more exposure to youngsters who will grow up with golf and spread an affection for the sport to future generations.

We need to replace the notion that Augusta National Golf Club, with its ultra-exclusive membership and perfectly nurtured turf, is everybody’s ideal golf facility. We need to change our focus to public golf. In this regard, the U.S. Golf Association should be highly praised for its dramatic and appropriate revision of the U.S. Open rotation – bringing our national championship to six courses available to the public (Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Bethpage, Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay, Erin Hills).  

From Scotland, with love, let us look wisely and discerningly to the future.

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