‘Dress codes in golf are harmful to the business of the clubs’

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir July 5, 2014 10:47 Updated

The dress code debate is one that is gathering momentum and I feel is a factor that golf club owners and managers have to be aware of as dress codes do influence the commercial business of golf clubs.

This issue seems to divide opinion and, from reading blogs and forums, strongly in some case. As with most things, ‘one size does not fit all’ and each business will need to carefully consider what is right for its specific business aims, vision and market – now and in the future.

There does seem to be some ‘myths’ about dress codes that seem a little unbalanced and therefore unhelpful in a sensible debate about what is right for a specific business – which at the end of the day has to make a decision about what is right for itself. So the following are a few examples of discussions that I have heard and read recently.

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‘Relaxing the dress code will somehow lead to a deterioration in etiquette and honesty, and infer a lesser quality of client’

I have seen this written and said numerous times but I certainly do not agree. Let’s face it, regardless of how well dressed they are and complying with the dress code, we all see golfers (members and visitors) not rake bunkers, not repair pitch marks, even bend the rules, so I do not subscribe to this myth. Golf is a great game and we want to preserve the fact it is one of the most honest sports today and that, in general, people are respectful of the etiquette and rules placed on them by governing bodies and golf clubs alike. Our job as golf managers is to uphold and improve this with continued positive education and communication.

‘It is a tradition of the game’

As the saying goes the only thing that stays constant and will not change is that ‘things will change’. Golf rightly holds on to many traditions, but I would suggest that changes in trends, society and what people consider ‘smart’ dress is something that golf clubs have to consider and adapt to. Golf has changed hugely over time, including golf attire.

We no longer play in tweed jackets, shirt and ties as the likes of Vardon and Ray did. And trainers have been a complete no-no in golf clubs – on or off the course. But, the latest golf shoes from Puma are ‘trainers’ – the Faas Lite Mesh shoes are the lightest golf shoe in the industry and will be seen on golf courses – and surely they will have to be accepted in golf clubs as many clubhouses now allow ‘golf shoes’.

In other areas of the hospitality business, changes have to be made as our clients are telling us they need to.

56-57 jeans golf fourth photography

One of my first examples of this was in my first job in the golf industry at the beautiful Gleneagles. For years the famous Strathearn restaurant was ‘black tie’ – but it was clear it was not moving with the times and client preferences. This was relaxed and allowed what was a bit of a dying reputation to once again thrive as a business and experience.

I also heard a very apt anecdote recently from the general manager of Claridges on the excellent fly on the wall documentary about the workings of one of London’s finest and most traditional hotels. The general manager stated that its traditions were “innovations that people liked and we kept” – we need to keep innovating to create tomorrow’s traditions – if that makes sense!

Relaxing the dress code will lead to a scruffy image

Again, this needs to be taken into context and different businesses and even parts of a golf club will ask their members and guests to respect certain dress codes – no one is saying it will be a free for all. A great example of this I heard at a recent KPMG golf business forum, from a manager of a very nice club in Surrey. He recalled a meeting they were having at the golf club with their chosen architect for some clubhouse work they were doing.

The architect turned up, looking very smart in jacket, shirt, but smart (and expensive!) dark denims. After the meeting, it took no more than a couple of minutes for some members to express their dissatisfaction at this happening in the clubhouse. The manager rightly pointed out that although they were ‘technically right’, in fact when he looked around, the architect was the smartest dressed person in the clubhouse and some of the members, whilst complying with the dress code, could not even be considered smart!

This was one of the factors, along with some pure commercial reasons, why the club in question has changed its dress policy for the clubhouse to ‘smart casual dress’.

 The ‘commercial’ rationale

Although different clubs will be in different commercial situations, I think most people would agree that golf is not exactly in rude health in terms of participation and many clubs have commercial challenges.

Now, the dress code of golf clubs is not to blame – but I think it is a contributing factor (how much is debatable).

From a participation point of view, I think it is time to consider being more open minded about attire on the golf course but especially on the range and in the clubhouse. As per the point about the architect, trends have changed and the focus should be more on being ‘smart’ more than specific dress codes. Golf clubs and managers need to do all they can to encourage more golfers but also encourage use of the hospitality facilities. In tough times, dress codes can make it even harder.

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Another great example of this was another reason why the golf club in Surrey changed its policy. The manager again recounted how many times he would call his wife and suggest she stop by the club and have lunch with him – but the answer was often ‘I’m out and in jeans so I can’t’. This was a massive issue stopping valuable spend at the club – but not anymore and it is seeing an increase in food and beverage spend as a result of giving people what they want.

Although based in the ‘Home of Golf’, St Andrews, the majority of the work Braemar Golf is involved in is in continental Europe, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Experiencing different cultures and different attitudes to business and dress has been illuminating. Growing the game of golf in such new markets is essential to the health of the game. Believe you me, if the traditions of dress codes were implemented in important markets such as Russia – golf would just not take off. Dress codes are different and you either work with this, or have no one in your clubhouse! Yes, we have to work very hard to instil the great things about golf in new markets, but this surely is etiquette, honesty and respect before worrying about whether a £250 pair of jeans are allowed in the clubhouse or practice range.

Gladly, rules such as wearing ‘knee length socks’ on the golf course are mostly gone – but they still do exist! Maybe it is also time for the professional tours to also help – it certainly is not offensive to me if we saw tour players in shorts. It would not appeal to all golfers, but why not allow those who want to do this – at least in some events? I saw this in the unsanctioned event in Turkey last year promoted by Chubby Chandler and thought it refreshing. The ladies’ tour seems more relaxed about dress codes and the girls seem more fashionable and trendy and it is great to see some of the younger players, such as Charley Hull, coming through – this will only encourage participation in the junior ranks.

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We need to make golf ‘cool’ and, to quote Charley Hull, ‘wicked’!

In summary, this is not a black and white issue, as few are and each business will need to determine what is right for its circumstances, but surely time has come (and commercial and client pressure) to make changes to the management of our industry to secure the future.

Keith Haslam is the managing director of golf course management, advisory and construction company Braemar Golf.

Do you agree or disagree with his comments? Tell us in the boxes below.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir July 5, 2014 10:47 Updated
  • While I do agree with the concept of golf needing to “change with the times”, I’ve also seen other places, namely church, where people seem to have no concept of dressing respectfully. I’ve seen people dress provocatively, wearing shorts, bluejeans with holes in the knees and for as uncomfortable as this makes me feel, I’ve heard people say, “Well look at what Jesus wore.” I just feel that there needs to be somewhat of an attempt shown that you’re trying to look the part. If you look like you just rolled out of bed, then you should be barred! Be respectful of the other people who will be around you…or is respect a word that people have forgotten?

  • Cooky

    Totally agree have the same problem when I ask my wife to join me at club

  • The Colonel

    Great article, as the Manager of a Golf club in the Northwest I feel we have to review our dress code if we want to survive.

  • I couldn’t agree more! #DressCode #golf

  • Superb article makes sense so will be ignored by many! >>RT@Don_LB: I couldn’t agree more! #DressCode

  • ‘Dress codes in golf are harmful to the business of the clubs’ Interesting…Whats everyones thoughts?

  • ‘Dress codes in golf are harmful to the business of the clubs’ | Golf Club Management

  • Golf clubs (in the UK) take note … before it’s too late!

  • Secretary

    Our Society is going through a difficult period. Many older members have sadly passed on and we are trying to encourage younger golfers to join us.
    In order to provide a golf day which generates enough interest to be viable to both Club and Society we dropped the evening meal due to dress code and instead opt to dine in a local pub or restaurant, for less money, whilst dressing as we wish (within reason).
    Golf clubs have lost this valuable business from us because of their refusal to change and because the demographic of our membership has changed.
    My role is to provide our members with a golf day that they will participate in, and encourage growth within the Society. Until certain clubs relax a little they will find more, younger, societies will do the same.

  • Great article Keith,
    As you know I am a touroperator,not a golfer but surronded by golfers. This gives me the change spot the golfers most at the Bulgarian courses. Actually this young golfnation is not doing bad at all with dresscodes although they are not English 🙂
    The difference is big indeed as golfcourses need to earn from the horeca

  • Pat O’Brien

    I read the article with interest, only noticed relaxed rules were for Russia, Turkey etc. there was a Club in Surrey mentioned (where a managers wife wears jeans day in and day out) always invited to lunch while she was out shopping, hopefully for clothes, and not another pair of jeans. Not sure how many times he called her to join him though.

    Which club was this? And one club mentioned in the whole of United Kingdom does not represent the norm. Fourteen years ago, I played at a “Club” note I do not mention which club, with relaxed dress code, where a man with sandals was on the green putting out.

    Relax a code! A little yes, but too much and human nature takes over, and relaxed into slippers.
    Why do men want girls in too short shorts, showing midriff? Are they asking for the men to dress the same? No…sexist……a few dollies on the course to bring in the young junior men. How sad, real Golfers Junior or otherwise are playing the real game of golf….

    Interesting one sided report. Think about short shorts, tight leggings and bare midriff on a fifty year old”!!,!,!, Male or Female. After all we are equality.

  • Another key factor that springs to mind here is how the golf club is seen by the general public.

    Many clubs are based in rural, idyllic locations and make up an important part of the scenery. It may well be that if club members are as well-manicured as the green, then golf clubs may be more acceptable to local residents.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting this necessarily *is* the case but rather raising an added point for consideration.