Clive Agran, indisputably Britain’s wittiest golf writer, loves playing golf on what for him is the other side of the Atlantic. Now he reveals why.
Despite their nation’s abysmal recent Ryder Cup record, employees of American golf clubs somehow manage to remain unremittingly cheerful. No matter what time you turn up, even if it’s pre-dawn, when arriving at an American course you will invariably be greeted by a beaming fellow who will welcome you with extraordinary zeal. “How you folks doing?” he will enquire before whisking your bags away faster than you can say, “Hang on, my golf socks are in there.” And if he detects an unfamiliar accent, be prepared to be mistaken for an Australian and told Adam Scott is awesome.
The frighteningly high level of super friendliness is maintained by everyone from the assistant in the pro shop to the locker room attendant and from the barman to the green staff. Although it comes as something of a culture shock to Brits used to hostility at worst and grudging acceptance at best when visiting a golf club, it is all rather refreshing.
Call me cynical if you like, but I suspect the warm welcome has more to do with market forces, competition and the pursuit of profit than it does with human kindness. Whether they actually like you matters not at all, golf course staff are genuinely pleased to see you because, to put it bluntly, they want your dollars. And that is why they insist you ‘have a nice day’ and ‘come back real soon’. And although some might argue it is a little insincere, you can be reasonably confident no one is going to shout at you for not wearing a tie.
The dress code, as you might imagine, is remarkably relaxed which, given the appetite Americans have for garish garb, is probably as well. Roughly speaking, provided your genitalia are concealed, you will almost certainly be okay. In my experience the only thing you can do that will introduce a slightly sour note is to ask if it is okay to walk. Because, historically, much of the American economy has been built around the automotive industry, they assume anyone suggesting eschewing riding in a buggy – or ‘cart’ as they call them – must be a crypto communist. We all know they don’t speed up play but buggies are compulsory because they generate much-needed revenue. For those athletes amongst us, not being permitted to walk the course is perhaps the single biggest negative about golfing in the States.
Okay, having had your bags strapped on the back of them and however irritated you might be about having to ride in them, you now drive your buggy to the first tee to be greeted (yet again). This time it is the relentlessly cheery starter who does the honours. “Good morning, gentlemen. Have you played Moose Droppings before?” Few things demonstrate the more innovative approach Americans possess to what they perceive as business opportunities than does the christening of clubs and courses. Whereas we are content to take the geographic route and name them after a village, town or county, Americans look for something rather more creative and frequently combine a present participle with some form of wildlife e.g. Singing Buffalo, Whispering Tortoise and Dancing Rabbit. Although not sure if the first two exist, I have played Dancing Rabbit, which is in Mississippi. I remember it principally because the Mississippi Visitor and Convention Bureau kindly gave me a sleeve of decent golf balls with their name stamped across them. Standing over a putt when all I could see was “Miss…” was rather disconcerting.
Famous Course Architect
While I was recounting that little anecdote, the starter will have been droning on about the features to look out for on the course. Who cares if there is a raccoon’s nest, or whatever, behind the 14th green when all you want is to get away from the first tee?
One thing that will strike you immediately is the alarmingly close proximity of rather expensive-looking houses fringing the course. With their neat lawns, swimming pools and barbecues, they are quintessentially American, a fact obligingly confirmed by the stars and stripes fluttering from a flagpole in the garden. Unlike the UK where planning constraints ordinarily preclude building anywhere near a golf course, in the USA it’s almost mandatory. You see, the sale of real estate effectively finances the construction of the course. The usual plan is to pay a famous course architect several million dollars and hope his reputation will be sufficient to persuade wealthy golfers to purchase an adjoining house. The symbiotic relationship between the course and the surrounding real estate often entails siting a sales office in the clubhouse, a strategy Muirfield, for example, might be reluctant to embrace.
Another consequence can be the buggy path appearing to leave the course entirely as it snakes its way through a posh housing estate before eventually re-emerging at the next tee box. It is hard to imagine Jack Nicklaus saying, “Let’s put the three-bedroom duplexes between the long par four and the tough par five.” But something similar must go on. Perhaps all the big-name firms of golf course architects include a town planner in their team. Of course, these suburban detours provide the perfect excuse for the management to oblige all golfers to take a buggy and I must concede pushing a golf trolley around even a smart neighbourhood is unlikely to provide a major holiday highlight.
Back to the game you have just begun and before reaching the fourth green you will have had your first encounter with the drinks’ cart. This is invariably driven by Cindy, a pretty young girl hoping to finance her college education with the tips she receives. After college she is hoping to work in a refugee camp somewhere in the third world so don’t even think about dropping a miserable quarter into her gratuity box. You will see her several more times before the end of the round by which time, given the tear-jerking account of her deprived childhood and abusive father, you will quite likely have run out of dollars.
On the food and beverage front, you will notice the GPS system installed in your buggy light up as you leave the eighth green. Instead of yardages, the screen will display a menu offering six varieties of burger. Whichever you select will be waiting for you at the halfway house. Partly because you will have put so much business Cindy’s way, you will quite likely struggle to remember any of the holes at Moose Droppings but, strangely enough, you will easily recall the brilliant GPS that delivered burgers unto you. Whereas in Britain we tend to concentrate on the golf, in America they are altogether more ambitious and try to deliver a complete and unforgettable experience.
There are, of course, other more prosaic differences between them and us such as calling bunkers ‘traps’ and steadfastly refusing to embrace the rather delightful ‘albatross’ in favour of the unimaginative ‘double eagle’. Americans are also extremely generous when it comes to giving themselves putts and seemingly can never score worse than a double bogey. For these reasons and the fact that, for handicapping purposes, they take the best 10 of their last 20 rounds, their handicaps are significantly more flattering than ours. But don’t start feeling sorry for them and be sure to take the money at the end of the round because you will be needing those bills in a moment or two.
Before your buggy has stopped in front of the clubhouse, an energetic young assistant called Chuck will have whipped your clubs off the back and have begun cleaning the heads right in front of you. You guessed it, the tips Chuck picks up here are helping him pay his way through college before he joins the Peace Corps in Africa. Thanks goodness you prevailed over your opponent and were able to replenish your stock of dollars with your winnings.
The atmosphere on the terrace where you sip your icy, tasteless, post-round beer is significantly more boisterous than it is in the members’ bar at home. This is partly because there is a lot of teasing, joshing and bet-settling going on and partly because Americans are just very loud.
Despite the blasted buggies, ostentatious houses and having to tip pretty well everybody you encounter, I love golfing in the USA for the same reason I enjoy eating in American restaurants and staying in American hotels. Unlike in the UK where most of those employed in the hospitality industry seem to bear a deep grudge against the rest of humanity, in the States they take great pride in providing top-notch service. But the single greatest reason I love it in the States is it is so much fun quietly reminding Americans of their recent Ryder Cup performances.
Golf writer Clive Agran, 65 and a journalist for more than 40 years, Clive Agran still wonders what he’ll do when he grows up. Nicknamed ‘Silky Swing’, he travels the globe looking for the world’s best golf courses.