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Reviewed by:
  • Golf in America
  • Zachary Michael Jack
Kirsch, George B. Golf in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Pp xi+280. Selected bibliography, illustrations, and index. $29.95 cb.

Golf is essentially conservative, not necessarily in the political-ideological sense, but in its penchant for tradition, and in its perpetuating of sponsored and official histories. The sport's very inclination toward apolitical and often socially sanitized recounting is what makes George B. Kirsch's Golf in America such an interesting read.

Kirsch, a professor of history at Manhattan College, presents us with a work of careful scholarship, a studied monograph that despite its complete absence of footnotes, relatively slim page count, and handful of crisp archival photographs, remains academic. Kirsch documents and describes the fraught social history of golf in America more than he debates or debunks it. As a consequence, the writing style may strike some readers in interdisciplinary sports studies and sports literature programs as muted, while scholars in sports history and social history may celebrate its clarity and lack of clutter.

On the back jacket, Steven Scholssman of Carnegie Mellon University calls Golf in America the "first true social history of American Golf," and while that statement may be an overreach, it is not far from the truth. Kirsch's book may well, in hindsight, mark a sea-change in golf scholarship—the moment existing in every sport when the original, founding [End Page 470] narratives give way to aggressive, post-modern critique with an eye toward identifying not the winners and losers on the course or on the field, but among vested racial, ethnic, and gender groups. That Kirsch's book marks this moment for golf is likely, though so too, is the inevitable lament felt by those who, for example, prefer to read of Bobby Jones's heroic ideals and achievements, which receive scant treatment in these pages.

While Jones-era amateur golf gets short shrift in Golf in America, the book shines at its gist: social history. Kirsch's analysis in his opening chapter, "The Rise of Golf in America" is first-rate in its pithy originality ("The Scottish pastime put the spotlight back on the lone human being, struggling to overcome obstacles encountered on his journey across the countryside" [p. 19]). Wisely, Kirsch examines America's golfing presidents as sport opinion leaders and trend-setters, writing well on William Howard Taft especially, whose oft-caricatured love of the game doubled participation in New York City. The author likewise excels in his social history of World War I and Depression Era golf, showing, for instance, that a surprising 15 percent of the members of private clubs served in the armed forces even as golf continued to be thought of as an elitist game. In his considered treatment of a fact such as this, Kirsch demonstrates a historian's discipline; a less poised writer in possession of the same fact would doubtless have spun it, arguing that it showed this or that. Kirsch's staid, documentary style allows the reader to reach their own judgments, as he focuses instead on supplying provocative data.

As might be expected, Kirsch's treatment of women and African-American golfers is both sympathetic and path-breaking. We learn, for example, that African-American participation in golf continued to grow during the Depression while it flagged badly among whites; we learn of Joseph M. Bartholomew—a New Orleans-born, African-American golfer and golf course architect—who was unable to play the very courses he built. We learn of the "female Bobby Jones," Glenna Collett, and the underappreciated Marion Hollins, who proved instrumental in the building of Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula. In his analysis of Collett and Hollins, Kirsch once again proves astute, pointing out that "the overwhelming majority of early American female golfers were Protestant or Catholic white girls" (p. 107). Here as before, Kirsch avoids expedient, politically correct history, offering exceptional space and time to the history of women's golf, without letting it off the social criticism hook. His book is the better for it.

Pursuing a chronological treatment, the author lands briefly on World War II before moving too hastily into his...


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pp. 470-472
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