We might be tempted to think that today’s populist adaptations of the traditional game of golf, such as those that I have featured in previous posts [StreetGolf, SpeedGolf, FootGolf and BeachGolf] are ground-breaking and original in their conception, but actually a trip to the British Golf Museum is all that is needed to put the record straight!
It appears that in 15th-century Scotland there were two distinct versions of golf: one played by the nobles and elites, and a second played by the commoners, not on areas of land designed specifically for the purpose, but within churchyards and out on the streets.
Assimilating the fascinating information and exhibits on display, one quickly realises that this 15th-century shorter, less ruly version had much in common with some of the ‘modern alternatives’ on offer today. All of them are attempts to make the game appealing to ‘the man in the street’, to ordinary folk who may well feel excluded by the traditional longer version of the game.
Short golf was usually played on Sundays and festival days when country folk converged on the towns. The precise rules are unknown and were probably something of a movable feast! Players used a single club, and the consumption of alcohol was commonplace, so behaviour was often spirited!
A perusal of the rules of StreetGolf makes this similarity, in terms of fluid rules, quickly apparent. Here are a few just to prove the point: respect the urban environment and the public; do not disturb traffic on the roadway; use soft balls; always look around you before swinging your club (we recommend playing in groups); the player who has already hit his ball must go to the reception area (green or fairway) to make sure the area is safe before the second player plays; the first hole is decided jointly by all players; the target of the second hole is set by the winning team.
Back in the 15th century, ‘long golf’ (the ancestor of our modern game, played on lengthy courses in accordance with an extensive set of rules) prevailed – mainly owing to the fact that, over a period of time, Scottish kings and Parliament issued various edicts banning short golf. They considered it to be a nuisance and thought that it distracted the common man from practicing his archery, which they felt was vital for the nation's defence. The Protestant church also played its part by condemning any kind of fun on the Sabbath!
The privileged gentry continued to play ‘long golf’ in parkland fields and on links land near the sea. The fact that long golf required a player to use multiple clubs and expensive balls placed it beyond the pocket of the common man. However, as Scotland’s economy prospered, tradesmen began playing long golf alongside their superiors. This was made possible in Scotland because most links land was common land, which no one could own, and to which all had equal access.
It is very illuminating that well into the 18th century a different variety of short golf coexisted with long golf. Less wealthy golfers couldn’t afford the expensive hand-crafted clubs and balls required to threaten the longest holes, and for this reason many courses maintained shorter golf loops for the more miserly equipped.
Personally speaking, I think it is vitally important that we continue this process of making golf accessible to all, irrespective of gender or background, and that the influence of people like Donald Trump is to be resisted. Ever a controversial figure, he is on record as saying: ‘Maybe golf doesn’t need to be for everyone; it’s an aspirational sport, something you aspire to play someday if you get rich enough.’ and his Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey is intentionally and unashamedly elitist.
The divide between long golf and short golf continues to stem, at least in part, from the kind of equipment issues previously mentioned. Modern equipment is scientifically engineered with great precision and custom fitted so that, not only is it expensive (and out of reach for many), it has enabled players to hit the ball further and further. Consequently, many courses, have spent vast sums of money lengthening holes, relocating fairway bunkers and the like. These adaptations, along with the ever more stringent standards being demanded of course maintenance, are raising the cost of golf and contributing to yet another drop in the numbers of working people playing the traditional ‘long’ version of the game.
It is ‘short golf’, the game of the people, that is being revived by today's golf alternatives, and I would include the increasingly popular indoor golf facilities, like the one shown below, offering driving ranges with electronic scoring, analytical feedback and the opportunity to play a host of virtual courses, all with a lounge-like atmosphere. So, this new breed of short golf formats that some people are hailing as the future of golf are, in a sense, little more than a re-branding exercise that stems from roots firmly planted in the past.
The latest breed of driving ranges with concentric-ring targets and automatic electronic scoring, may be seen as a modern counterpart to 15th century short golf. They don’t require much space, just like the street and churchyard golf back then, and alcohol is usually part of the deal. I have spent many an enjoyable couple of hours or so at just such an indoor facility. Sometimes I play a ‘virtual round’ on a top Championship course and sometimes I just practice.
The Topgolf UK website describes its product as “the premier golf entertainment complex where the competition of sport meets your favourite local bar. You can challenge your friends and family to addictive point-scoring golf games that anyone from the hopeful pro golfer to your 7-year-old cousin can play all year-round.”
“Just picture a 240-yard outfield with dartboard-like targets in the ground. The closer to the centre or “bull’s-eye” you get and the further you hit your microchipped balls, the more points you get. Score even bigger with Topgolf’s extensive food and drink menu, served to you by one of our bayhosts.”
In my experience, the targets Topgolf incorporate focus your concentration far better than the normal ranges do. Also, the scoring system not only creates a fun, competitive atmosphere, it brings a sense of pressure as you try to beat your best score (valuable for the more serious golfer). Topgolf is proving to be a good family activity, but, just as importantly, it is emerging as a young person’s entertainment, both sporting and social. “One more round” is as likely to mean more drinks as more balls!
My brother-in-law is fast becoming a FootGolf fan, in which one brings the skills of football to an adapted golf course that is shorter than a standard golf course, with some being not unlike the ‘short golf” alternative loops at courses like Leith and Musselburgh all those years ago.
How all this will pan out is anybody’s guess. Can we learn anything from post-Packer cricket? Cricket has successfully spawned two distinct versions of the game: Test Match and T20 formats, each with its own distinctive appeal. Might we one day see a brand of competitive golf played over 9 holes? Or might golf take a lead from tennis and introduce competitive mixed foursomes/fourballs?
The ultimate “short golf” game may yet prove to be simulator golf, which is increasingly realistic and already wildly popular in countries where space is at a premium, like South Korea and Japan and which allows us to ‘virtually play’ the world’s top courses for a tiny fraction of what, in reality, it would cost us. [Interestingly, part of Jordan Spieth’s preparation for this year’s Open Championship was getting to know the Old Course by playing it on a simulator in Dallas!]
Whatever the future of the sport holds, historically golf has always kept a place at its table for the common man and it must remain ever thus. Golf is a game that everyone can enjoy, irrespective of age and gender, and its handicap system means that any pairing can experience a truly competitive round. Put simply, it is too good a game for it ever to become the sole preserve of the privileged few.