Golf Dress Codes Matter

The only thing my wife didn’t hate about golf—when I started playing, a dozen years into our marriage—was the clothes. Khakis and polos were an upgrade from blue jeans and T-shirts, and although my new wardrobe didn’t make up for everything, in her mind it made up for something. (One exception: saddle-shoe golf shoes, which she couldn’t stand.) Partly because of her, maybe, I don’t resent having to make myself presentable before I head to the course.

Golf dress codes aren’t necessarily rational. I know of one club that requires golfers in shorts to wear socks that completely cover their ankles, and another that requires them to wear socks that don’t. Neither rule has a basis in objective reality, but even arbitrary standards have a function. When you put on a collared shirt before teeing it up, you are implicitly endorsing golf’s fundamental association with civilized behavior—in effect, you are acknowledging your responsibility to replace divots, rake bunkers, and call penalties on yourself. Observing the local sock requirement, whatever it happens to be, is like ticking the little box that says “I accept the terms and conditions.” It’s also like joining a fraternity with a secret handshake: We are brothers of this particular kind of sock!

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A friend, whose husband recently forced a last-minute change of dinner plans by refusing to wear a jacket, told me, “Dress codes serve the same purpose as requiring people to get out of their pajamas in order to start their day.” Changing clothes before an activity elevates the activity. And dress codes, like manners, actually simplify existence by eliminating guesswork: if you know what isn’t allowed, you also know what is. They’re inclusive, rather than elitist, even if (as at a wedding) you have to rent what you’re supposed to show up in.

Nevertheless, ideas about acceptable golf attire evolve. No golfer nowadays dresses like Harry Vardon, in plus-fours and a coat and tie—even though jackets and suspenders improve the swing, Vardon believed, by keeping the arms lashed to the torso. Los Angeles Country Club used to allow women to wear rain pants only if they also wore a skirt, on top. (Skirts are no longer required at LACC, although shorts are forbidden.) Royal Lytham & St. Annes, in deference to its many American visitors, has eased its former requirement that shorts be worn only with “knee-high hose.” And my own club unofficially suspended its ban on cargo shorts after a longtime member innocently bought many pairs on eBay at an irresistible price.

Golf has been shrinking in recent years, and some people who worry about that also worry that dress codes of any kind make the game seem stupid to young people who might otherwise be tempted to try it. I don’t buy that, partly because young people nowadays spend more on athletic clothing than I spend on clothing of any kind. My father-in-law used to go running in what gym teachers call “street clothes.” Even he doesn’t do that anymore. I want golf to flourish as much as the next addict does, but some of the game’s fuddy-duddy traditions are worth hanging on to. Look decent, act decent, and leave the jeans at home.