Luther Spoehr: Review of George B. Kirsch, Golf in America (University of Illinois Press, 2009).
George B. Kirsch, a historian at Manhattan College, intends his “Golf in America” to be a “concise narrative and social history of the sport in America from the 1880s to the present” that pays particular attention to the “surprising growth of golf as a popular, mainstream sport in the United States.” His book, the latest volume in the Illinois History of Sports series, is written in a clear but textbookish style, has more breadth than depth, and will leave readers not already immersed in the game wondering about why its devotees find it so appealing. But overall it achieves its author’s goals, providing a brief, reliable overview of American golf from the 1888 founding of St. Andrews (in Yonkers) to the age of Tiger Woods.
Each step of the way, Kirsch alternates between calling the roll of familiar, influential players (Francis Ouimet, Bob Jones, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Arnold Palmer, Nancy Lopez, and the like) and painstakingly documenting golf’s growing appeal to middle class and working class players, too. Duffers (at least as a group) in his overall scheme of history are just as important as scratch players, and public courses such as New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park (the first municipal golf course) and Bethpage get equal billing with the likes of Augusta National and Congressional.
Readers encountering the stories of great players and memorable tournaments for the first time will find that part of Kirsch’s narrative the equivalent of trying to understand Ted Williams’s career by reading the back of his baseball card: you get the general idea in a sketchy sort of way, but not the color or the flavor. But even readers who are familiar with such tales (and so resort to skimming) will surely find some new and revealing information and observations in Kirsch’s social history. He has a particularly good eye for the telling statistic, so readers will come away knowing, for instance, that public courses first outnumbered private ones in 1962; that the price of a set of irons rose between 1940 and 1960 from $68 to $140, but the number of hours of labor needed to buy them dropped from 103 to less than 62; and that by 1997 almost 80% of American golfers played most of their rounds on public courses. And Kirsch is a reliable guide when explaining the social and economic forces at work behind those statistics.
Still, although Kirsch celebrates the democratization of American golf and makes a point of describing golf’s gains among minorities (especially African-Americans) and women, he does not lose sight of the fact that even at the end of the 20th century “social class still shaped the overall golfing experience for public links players.” And, although somewhat reduced by the appearance of expensive, “high-end” daily-fee courses, the differences between golf on a public course and at a private country club persist.
Even before the current recession began, the golf business was in some economic trouble. Kirsch occasionally acknowledges the downturn, but nevertheless ends his book on a triumphal note: “Just over a century after the Scottish game invaded America, it had conquered the land.” Readers who love the game but worry about finding time to play or paying for $300 titanium drivers and $80 greens fees can only hope he is right.
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