- Golf and the American Country Club
Golf has been an important component of upper and upper-middle class culture for nearly one hundred years on this continent. Only in the last forty years has it displayed a prominent role in the mass culture. Golf and the American Country Club is the story of golf's rise in the mass culture, and more specifically the role the country club played in the popularity of golf. Richard Moss argues that country clubs served multiple functions: a response and counterexample to modernity, a retreat from the urbanized city, a vehicle through which one could control one's own leisure, and an opportunity to organize in a way that protected one's social status by the maintenance of social barriers through exclusivity to access. Moss also clearly demonstrates that golf provided the impetus for the growth and long-term survival of the country club movement in America.
Voluntary associations have been central to American life. Moss sees the country club movement in part as a response to the slow demise of Victorianism in the later portion of the nineteenth century. The Protestant elite felt threatened by waves of immigrants moving into the country, and, by the late nineteenth century, perceived another challenge to the roots of power and prestige with a growing nouveau riche. Moss draws upon the work of other historians, such as Robert Wiebe, who examine the late nineteenth century, and analyze the trend toward organization in an effort to maintain power, agency, and personal autonomy. Values of gentility, modesty, and decorum were being challenged on a national scale. The country club fit into this analysis as a reaction to a world that was growing more impersonal, and as an antidote for the new concept of equality. While the country was seeking to solve national problems, the country club was a local response to these challenges, to values, and the dissolution of village America with its structures of power, offering for its members a sense of community.
Early in the country club movement, the horse was the center of the culture and country clubs were centers for equestrian activities. The popularity of the horse was a product of discretionary income. As discretionary income declined, members began turning to other forms of recreation, but Moss demonstrates that the popularity of golf proved instrumental to the growth and popularity of the country club, even where discretionary income was never an issue. Country clubs began to increase exponentially with the introduction of golf. From the 1880s through the 1930s golf and the country club evolved together.
Although country clubs worked to exclude all but the socially prominent, golf was inexpensive compared to the country club activities of the past. In the twentieth century there was room for a growing middle class, but it was still expensive enough and exclusive enough to keep out the masses. It is significant that the governing body of golf became the United States Golf Association. The USGA was an affiliation of country clubs that directed golf's early development in America. Golf's early rules, etiquette, and even control over eligibility in competition were all products of the country club movement. In spite of [End Page 176] golf's rapid growth, this control by the country clubs created barriers against anyone who sought to commercialize the sport during the early years.
The emerging woman of the late nineteenth century moved naturally into voluntary associations. As an outlet for modern expressions of femininity, country clubs strangely enough functioned as an agent to challenge Victorian values by reducing separate spheres for men and women. This was clearly an unintended consequence of the early country clubs. Women's desire to play golf not only forced men to accommodate them, but also forced restrictive and antiquated clothing into the closet.
Even though public courses were growing in the 1920s, private clubs still vastly outnumbered them. The economic realities of the 1930s forced many private clubs to either close, go semi-private, or even public in order to...