Why long socks do NOT hold golf

A few weeks ago, the latest Golf Monthly article ‘6 Ways Golf Etiquette Needs To Modernize‘ stumbled upon my social media feed, offering insight into the lore that is holding back the game’s progress. One of them was long socks…

The article makes some fair points, many of which I support, but part of me can’t help but wonder if we’re missing the real elephant in the room here.

“After the honor” of a casual fiddle on Wednesday bands oblivious to their own slow playing, “not wanting to call a band” are all painful to see, but dress codes (especially long socks) are coming for an unnecessarily difficult moment for some time. It became a flashpoint in a dark crusade for ‘grow the game‘, shortcut to homogenize the sport and take advantage of commercial opportunities for brands.

This is the part I make an exception with: golf has always been an indicator of diversity – 1st tee initiatives for those less likely to come to the game organically, mini-putt sites, pitch & putt for a faster game, Bentley-driving-Barry playing 9 holes with Jim who does not have a driver’s license: golf does not practice the policy of the composite portrait. Let’s not even start with the clothes. Faldo in his Pringle sweaters and John Daly winning the St Andrews Open in a green Reebok sweatshirt… each happy with their dress and happy to have a choice.

Golf is the one sport that stands out as being vast and expansive in every possible way. Courses of all lengths and all shapes, suitable for players of all levels and all budgets. Basically, it’s an accessible and diverse game. There are endless forms of play, just as there are gear options, subcultures, and, sadly, potential scores you can rack up while standing on the tee.

To suggest that we should standardize dress codes across all public and private clubs is not only naive, but overlooks key issues.

Dress codes are important – but why? It’s not just golf clubs; dress codes dictate much of how we interact as humans. It helps us define an occasion or create a sense of belonging. Whether it’s football on a Saturday or a 7 day Indian wedding requiring 15 costume changes, clothes are a statement of where you are and who you are with. Does this author think all golf clubs should mandate long socks – absolutely not; but some clubs like Rye or Royal West Norfolk have evolved around these idiosyncrasies which give them their own distinct personality, in the same way that a relaxed atmosphere defines a day at Cleeve Hill, or a match at Wimbledon Common in a high red in the shape of a pillar is a nod to an outdated local law. It’s something we should celebrate, not eliminate.

The suggestion that long socks somehow keep people from getting into the game is wrong. A few simple facts here: long socks are compulsory at less than a dozen clubs in England. There are over 3,000 golf courses in Britain, and those that impose long socks belong to small club substrates of a certain tradition and type. They may not be suitable for some visiting golfers, but the visiting golfer has a choice in the same way that the price may be a deterrent or the difficulty of the course.

They are not “barriers to entry” for people looking to gamble. In England we sometimes feel that golf has a ‘stuffy image’, but the reality is that ‘the game’ and our club culture in Britain is the envy of the golfing world. Not only do we have the longest history with the sport, but our approach to access is integral. In America many courses are not open to the public, whereas in Britain we can all seek to create Seve’s magic chip at Royal Birkdale or try to replicate Ernie’s bunker at Muirfield’s 13th. Our club culture is inclusive, and while no club is perfect, they are generally fairly democratic places.

So what are the barriers to entry? Perhaps the commercial pressure that makes you think you have to spend £500 on a new driver, or that a handicap and playing 18-hole ‘card and pencil’ golf is the only form of gambling. Following the Joneses is a business expensive, but you can find the same fun in a half set of Wilson irons from eBay and pay a green fee on one of the wonderful courses right on your doorstep.

Ultimately, slow play is the real scourge of modern gaming. Golf has moved away from the original form of matchplay to become obsessed with four-and-a-half-hour rounds, slavishly marking our cards in the hope that one day a course will fall to its knees before us. It doesn’t have to be that way. We all share a desire to go back to ‘guidance’, adding significant time to a lap and we’re obsessed with green gears; Yet no one seems to recognize that for every foot faster our greens roll, playing time can increase by an additional 30 minutes (not to mention the added cost).

We should leave the sock debate locked and focus our efforts elsewhere. Golf clubs should make their courses easier for all golfers, eliminate unnecessary penalty risks, and widen lanes of play so they don’t spend hours looking for balls. As golfers we would be in a much better position to accept that we could have more fun if we stuck to the yellows (or even the reds), if we experienced the rush of playing an 18 hole match in less than 3 hours or if we consider certain peculiarities of the club as a defining characteristic of our wonderful sport.

Time and space. It’s the hot commodity in today’s game.

Michael C. Ford