Feature Interview with Tom Paul

Part OnePage Four

Is golf still a game for gentlemen?

Ran, before attempting to answer this question, and I warn you, this answer will be a mini book, let me preface it with the following:

Having known you for some years and having spoken with you quite often over those years about this subject, I’m aware this particular subject and question is one you care a great deal about and have thought about carefully over the years. I believe both of us realize this subject is one fraught with many misunderstandings, misconceptions and disagreements of opinion about the realities of its history. There are also all kinds of perceptions of political incorrectness today involved in its recorded history and its historical realities. I accept that; I suspect you do as well, but at least let’s first try to document those historical realities, including perhaps some of the reasons for them, and then move forward to our own time since your question does ask—-Is golf STILL a game for gentlemen?

I believe golf is still a game for gentlemen and it always will be, although no longer anything at all like as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries or at least in some of the important ways it was at that time.

Moreover, I think one must carefully consider what’s meant by the word or term “gentlemen,” or was meant by it a century and more ago. It may not be possible today to reach a consensus of opinion on what “gentleman” means or even what it meant back then. But then again, the older I get and the deeper I get into the study of golf and golf architecture history, the more I realize that a consensus of opinion very well may be the one thing that golf and golf architecture should never have or should never attempt to achieve. I take more seriously every day that fascinating observation of both Macdonald and Mackenzie that controversy is perhaps the very thing any golf architect worth his spurs should strive to achieve with what he creates. And as golf and golf architecture will always be joined at the hip, I suppose controversy is just as essential to golf and its history too.

Therefore, the question becomes—-does “gentleman” mean to people of the late 20th and early 21st centuries anything like what it meant to most people in the 19th or early 20th centuries; and if not, why not?

So, what did it mean to most people a century and more ago, and what did it mean to people involved in golf back then? Towards the end of the 19th century when golf expanded rapidly abroad and began to find a foothold in America from which it expanded immensely in the beginning of the 20th century, I believe the role of the so-called “gentleman” in golf clubs and in golf’s regulatory association administrations was far greater than it is today. I also believe the role of the gentleman, and even more specifically the Anglo Saxon Protestant gentleman (commonly referred today as the WASP), virtually dominated the administrations of many local and regional golf associations both here and in the UK and they certainly dominated our two golf associations that back then and still today run world amateur golf and its golfers. These were the approximately 20-30 men (the boards of the R&A and USGA) who wrote and administered all of golf’s playing Rules, amateur status Rules and I&B Rules and Regulations, etc. This was and is the R&A and the USGA, two amateur associations who still run a larger slice of a world-wide sport than do any other amateur organizations of any other world wide sport. That alone is very unusual in this day and age.

The term gentleman back then did not refer to or define all peoples of Anglo Saxon ancestry and ethnicity; it only referred to and defined those of Anglo Saxon ancestry, and generally Protestants of the UK (The Church of England), who were considered to be upper class or aristocratic and largely synonymous with what was called the “Landed Gentry.” There were rare exceptions of course, perhaps Disraeli being a first class example, but this was a world in which those rare exceptions probably did prove the rule!

What was the effect of that essentially Anglo Saxon class structure and its social establishment back then, and what did it mean? Certainly the definition, and apparently the role of the “gentleman” in the United Kingdom at that time, was more formally structured and accepted than it is today. I believe it is provable that the designation of “gentleman” at that time was part of the actual ranking of the British Aristocracy (Peerage) or “Landed Gentry”——eg Duke, Earl, Baron, Gentleman—–that could be found in a resource book such as Burke’s Peerage and Gentry that contained over a million names and family connections.* The designation of “gentleman” was essentially reserved just for men (the formal designation for women of that aristocratic world was “Lady”) of that upper class world of the British so-called “aristocracy” that included so many of the Landed Gentry. The formal designation of gentleman was also and always attached to the younger male siblings in that world of the “Landed Gentry” who were without formal royal title in the structure of UK royal primogeniture (titles, estates, wealth essentially passed to the eldest son, generation after generation). The structure and process of primogeniture in the UK Landed Gentry back then may be looked upon as perhaps the most effective long term preservationist mechanism imaginable of its power, wealth and status which originally resided in its massive land holdings and agricultural output. It lasted for nearly a thousand years and at one time encompassed and included close to 80% of the real estate of the UK.

The actual and listed designation of “Gentleman” was, in fact, underneath or at the bottom rung of the rankings of royal designations, mostly royal “landed” designations. While the eldest son inherited the title and lived on and was responsible for the estate, in the structure of UK primogeniture the male siblings of the eldest son and title-holder entered a few select and socially acceptable careers—-homeland political offices, law, medicine, arts and sciences, building architecture, religion (particularly missionary work), academia, hierarchical positions in the military or governmental apparatus of the far-flung British Empire, or they became what I would call “the adventurers” who plied the business and transport end of the British Empire’s raw and finished material apparatus outside of the homeland. I hesitate to mention the British and American slave transportation trade but it cannot be overlooked (regarding its legislated demise one should research the life and times of William Wilberforce, a “landed gentleman” of extraordinary philosophical and futuristic vision).

Many of the latter group used their educations, family, social and business connections to Great Britain to prosper in America and other geographical areas of the former British Empire such as Australia, Africa and the Asian sphere. The American version of those UK families and their ancestral connections became known as the American WASP (White, Anglo Saxon, Protestant) who were often listed in what is known as The Social Register or the Blue Book or the “400.”** Obviously those American ancestors of the British aristocracy, landed gentry or upper class were certainly not royal or even officially aristocratic in the new democracy of the United States of America but that never seemed to mean they didn’t feel that way, act that way, and even be that way in their adopted new country.

During the last seventy five years or so, and certainly today, that kind of social stratification, distinction and designation upon which the idea of the “gentleman” once rested has gradually disappeared in all walks of life including in sports and in golf. It has become far less important, less accepted and less understood than it once was—-certainly in America. Today a “gentleman” is probably perceived by most to be someone who possesses good manners, a certain degree of equanimity of philosophy and purpose or is just considered by all to be an all around “good guy.”

However, back then a century and more ago could someone who most all considered to be an all around “good guy” but who did not come from that aristocratic or upper class world be considered or even called a “gentleman?” That perhaps is the most interesting question of all, and probably the most controversial question of all for us today to consider about the way things were back then both in life and in golf. To begin to answer that question, let’s take arguably the best example of a man in golf apparently considered an all around “good guy” by everyone but who did not come from that aristocratic or upper class world—-Old Tom Morris! Was Old Tom Morris referred to as a “gentleman” by those from that aristocratic and upper class world? I would have to say assuredly not. Did that mean those from that aristocratic world thought of him as inferior to them in some way? I am not in a position to answer that question because I was not there then and so all I would venture is they may’ve just thought of him as different from them in social class because they knew he did not come from their upper class, aristocratic and landed gentry world. But did they love and respect him nonetheless? History seems to tell us they did.

It’s pretty hard to deny the reality of this history; that back then, for better or for worse, the upper class, the aristocracy or Landed Gentry really did matter to all, even if it no longer does today. And why did that attitude, sensibility, and that social reality devolve down to almost nothing today? To consider that let’s first look at where it came from and what it was supposed to mean or what it was supposed to accomplish if at the very least as a philosophical or theoretical ideal.

I think we have probably arrived at a concept very much of and from those same people known as elitism that was considered back then to be a leadership mechanism to more effectively bring Mankind into greater alignment somehow, generally through the combined idealistic mechanisms of education and influence. At least that was the idealistic presentation of it. Today, however, how hard is it to deny the idea of elitism has serious pejorative connotations?

I feel the ideal of a gentleman, or at least the concept of the “ideal gentleman” emanated from another concept known as “Noblesse Oblige” which is probably even less understood today. It revolved around the philosophy that if you were one from that “fortunate class” you had a moral responsibility to help mankind in some way or at least to treat all mankind with a certain degree of equanimity and fair-mindedness. I’ve always been fascinated by etymology and my (“English”) English teacher at St. Mark’s School was of the opinion that one of the etymologies of the word “snob” was an acronym that derived from the application process into clubs at “Public” schools in the UK (which were ironically the most private of schools). When those little boys of those schools selected applicants or candidates into their school’s social clubs, it was expected that the applicants practice the manners and philosophy of “Noblesse Oblige” (equanimity and fair-mindedness towards all) and if they did not they would be blackballed with the designation SNOB next to their name which was an acronym for “Sine Nobilis,” the English translation being—-without nobility.

The ethos of the world of my great, great grandparents, great grandparents, grandparents and parents, and in the vestigial world of that ethos I grew up in, a gentleman was still considered to be someone who treated all Mankind equally whether they were a president or a pauper, a cobbler or a king, a lord or a servant. However, in my own generation I did notice that ethos had definitely become diluted and the representatives of it had become increasingly defensive and frankly for more snobbish than their ancestors. My take on that evolution, or devolution, was that, compared to their ancestors, they had simply become increasingly insecure about who they were and what others thought of them.

I would like to add that I feel a general misconception, at least today, of the manner and mentality of a gentleman was that they always strove to not be needlessly critical of anyone or everyone or that they were always “mannerly.” My observations are that was never true of the classic gentleman type I grew up around. His opinions and his approach could be critical, often greatly critical of anyone, but that he strove to treat everyone equally in both his kindnesses and in his criticisms. I’ve known some gentlemen who were clearly thought by all to be gentlemen of that class who could be charming if they felt like being charming but they could also be positively miserable a good deal of the time. The most interesting aspect of it was they did not seem to hesitate being as miserable to a president as to a pauper, a lord, a servant or a king. And they did not seem to hesitate being as kind and charming to a servant or a pauper as to a lord, president or king.

I’ve always felt the mentality of the true gentleman and that “gentleman class” was that he truly knew he was of fortunate circumstances, at least socially, if not always financially,*** and consequently he felt no need and no motivation to be selectively rude or petty towards anyone in particular. I think that class sincerely felt they had no reason at all to try to impress anyone about who they were—they had nothing to prove to a lord or a servant, to a president or a pauper, to a cobbler or a king about who they were—–it was understood by all anyway because that’s the way the world was back then. They were at the top of it; they were the upper class; they knew it, and they knew all others knew it as well.  But today, as Margaret Mitchell once wrote about another slice of a once prominent American culture—‘(they are) gone with the wind.’

So, sure, in my opinion, golf is still a game for gentlemen even if the definition and meaning of “gentleman” has probably changed immensely over the years. They will still be out there playing golf somewhere, probably in their old traditional super exclusive private haunts.

If you run into one of them playing golf somewhere else you may not recognize the type unless you look again and look very carefully. Some of them have more money than most well capitalized small town banks but they often don’t look that part. Many of them came by their wealth the “old fashioned” way—they inherited it. The money is still cast down to them in dribs and drabs by multiple century old trusts from their once “captains of the universe” ancestors, but you might never know it to look at them. They usually appear a little old fashioned and out of date in dress or demeanor, sometimes even a bit shabby and eccentric; their automobiles usually aren’t the snappiest in the parking lot. If you think you’ve spotted one you might want to ask him what his grandfather thought the Haskell ball did to golf and architecture or what the onset of income taxes in the teens did to the world, particularly his world. If he looks like he’s interested and answers your question with alacrity you may’ve spotted an ancestral vestige of the Anglo-American gentleman whose forbears once dominated the halls of the greatest old clubs and organizational administrations of golf a century and more ago. And if you ask him who he voted for in the last American presidential election don’t be completely surprised if he says Barrack Obama.

This subject and question also relates in a number of ways to your question on how the private club has changed, if at all, in my lifetime? Again, most have changed a lot in my lifetime even if some haven’t changed much at all. What has changed the most about many of them, particularly the more marginal ones, is they have become far more generally inclusive in their memberships compared to the way they once were. In a sense many of them have become far more democratic with their membership makeup as the culture and society of our nation has become somewhat more democratic and all-inclusive over that period of time. While things like family heritage, class, particular professions, were once so important, now things like merit and present generation wealth accumulation, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do for a living, are the barometers and only requirements. Therefore, one obvious question becomes why did that “gentleman class” lose its importance, its power and its control in both golf and otherwise?

That is just another long and complex historical subject and question. However, a general fact seems to remain and to be virtually inevitable throughout time. And that seems to be, when those in a leadership role lose the respect of those they lead, they will ultimately fail and they will devolve into irrelevancy somehow and at some point. It may take a hundred years or a thousand years but eventually it will happen, and to me this singular historical reality is the everlasting hope for the future of Mankind, not to even mention the hope and future of golf. Of course the next question will always be—-who will replace them and what will their replacements have learned from the accumulated history that came before them?

But saying and noting all this, I would have to add that they, that gentleman class that once was, should be studied and considered very carefully both now and in the future because they truly did once offer some things very much worth considering. They produced an extraordinary sense of style and taste, and perhaps etiquette too. Today some might refer to it as tradition or what some think of as “traditional.” Even in the last century what they left appears to represent to some, perhaps many, an on-going perception of style and taste. It seems marketing and advertising still thinks so. The best example may be the life-work of a little Jewish man from the Bronx by the name of Ralph Lifschitz, who has a great deal of intuitive taste and sense of the history of style himself. He turned it into a forty year and counting multi billion dollar retail fashion industry that without altering its look and brand may continue to endure for the foreseeable future. That of course is highly unusual in retail fashion at any time in its peculiar history. I’m speaking of that enduring retail giant known as Ralph Lauren and Polo. Who could not notice that much of his brand and multi-year photographic advertisements are those very same sentimental, apparently romantic, sepia depictions of that “gentleman” WASP upper class world often at play in their recreational sports and their fashionable sports uniforms? Is that what it will take for the foreseeable future to make someone feel like they’ve “made it” in life—-like they’ve finally arrived at the pinnacle? Just throw on a polo shirt that looks like that great WASP gentleman polo player Tommy Hitchcock’s valet handed it to you out of a box that was packed away seventy five years ago? But don’t feel deceived—you really will be dressing like the great Tommy Hitchcock. The only difference is your logo says Lauren or Polo so everyone can recognize the importance, while his only said MHC or some other nom de terra initialization which only his little world recognized.

Leaving that 20th century marketing creation or recreation behind, for some years now I have felt that the fundamental uniqueness of golf lies in the fact that it is one of the few ball games, and perhaps the only stick and ball game in which the ball is not vied for between human opponents. I believe that alone makes golf extremely unique (as a stick and ball game) because unlike most every other ball or stick and ball game it brings into sway the reality or at least the perception of Nature itself—and that underlying perception is and probably always will be uniquely individualistic and personal, and consequently almost unfathomable in any general sense. In some way, does it evoke in some of us, even if subliminally, Man’s primordial struggle against his environment (Nature) and that on-going dynamic of love and fear?  I also believe it will inevitably continue to defy any attempt at consensus opinion.

Golf was a game of the UK gentleman going back many centuries that was flung around the world because of the incredible expansion around the globe of that extraordinary multi-century human phenomenon known as the British Empire that once covered one quarter of the globe and on which it was said the sun never set. Like many of his other recreational pastimes, golf was just one of a “gentleman’s” well-rounded athletic curricula vitae based somewhat in the Corinthian ideal or renaissance ideal of the educated “well-rounded” man, that included amateur sportsmanship (for the love of it, not the remuneration from it). With all that, I think it is pretty safe to say that the classic UK and US gentleman understood the outdoors world, he learned it in early family life, in school, he very often studied it in later life and he generally recreated in it constantly in many of his various outdoors sports (hunting, fishing, riding, sailing, and even in those famous English “Nature walks”). He loved Nature; he loved it as it not only supported his sports but apparently offered him his sports’ true character; he even just loved it as “a thing.” He respected it and understood it; it was indeed part of his daily life and daily mental and physical nourishment.

Perhaps the last and the best iconic representation of that world, that included golf, can be found in an area of the old homes and mansions of the UK and US “landed gentry” gentlemen and their progeny. It is that all important home space transition area that is filled with sporting jackets and caps, sporting boots and shoes and all other manner of athletic and recreational paraphernalia of his life and times. It is the true nexus between his outdoor recreational world of Nature herself and his glorious social and living rooms where his days begin and end. Without it he would not have been the man he was or the man he was supposed to be. It was essential to all sporting gentlemen; it was known as the “mud room.” What does any of this mean in the context of the future of golf and golf clubs, including private clubs? I think it means golf and its administrations at the club and association level that was largely dominated by the gentleman class back then, is no longer, and never will be again. What was once controlled by an upper class aristocracy (some might say upper-class oligarchy) has been replaced by a far more democratic influence and ethos.

Ran, you and I spoke of this very thing not so long ago and we ended with the question of whether or not this evolution or devolution, depending on how one wants to look at it, is ultimately a good thing or a bad thing. I cannot answer that question and neither could he, but I would hope and suggest everyone and anyone reading this would form their own opinions without any attempt at generating some consensus of opinion amongst others.

Again, I do think golf is still a game for “the gentleman” even if he has to find his niche in a much smaller and more protected area of golf than once was for him. And I do believe that golf will always look back in some ways to that time when the gentleman concept and its tradition reigned in golf, at the very least for its style and its ethos, warts and all.

I do not think golf can be or will ever be pinned down to any particular categorization or single tradition, even if there very well may be a lot more of some old-fashioned “tradition” left in golf than in any other world wide game or sport. Just as with all other games and sports and practically everything else in life golf will keep on evolving as it has but it will have an interesting future, and the gentleman will always have some part in it.

Thank you for reading and considering Part One. I’m sorry it is so long but does anyone who knows me expect that I would be succinct?!

*A most appealing recent depiction of that world is the popular PBS production called Downton Abbey. Cora, the wife of Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham is an American heiress from New York and Newport. My own paternal and maternal family connections to that UK world which in almost every case is through UK to US marriages in the last century or so, includes Astor, Camoy and Bessborough. The Astor connection is the only wife of Lord William Waldorf Astor who had expatriated from America to England in the 1880s and who some called the richest man in America. His only wife who died in 1894 in childbirth was Mary Paul from Philadelphia and what was then known as Villa Nova, Pa. Their son, William Waldorf Astor would marry Nancy Langhorne of the famous Virginia “Southern Belle” Langhorne sisters. Nancy (Langhorne) Astor was the famous Lady Astor who became the first woman to take a seat in the British House of Commons following her husband vacating their district’s seat in the House of Commons when he succeeded to the House of Lords on the death of his father, Lord Astor I. Considering Nancy (Langhorne) Astor was born American, that is quite extraordinary historically. Lady Astor is perhaps best known for her sometimes outrageous and always spirited opinions, and for a string of hilarious repartees with Winston Churchill——-


Lady Astor: “Winston, if I were your wife I would poison your coffee.” Winston Churchill: “Lady Astor, if I were your husband I would drink it.”


Lady Astor: “Winston, I see you’re drunk again.” Winston Churchill: “Lady Astor, I see you’re still ugly, and at least tomorrow I’ll be sober.”


Winston Churchill: “Lady Astor, I understand you are having another of your stupid costume balls. What should I come as so not to be recognized?” Lady Astor: “Prime Minister, you may want to try coming sober.”

And, another—-when asked by someone how she could be so critical of people, Lady Astor’s response was—-“We Virginians shoot to kill.”

** See sociologist E. Digby Balzell and his career works on the American WASP that  includes the books— •    Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (1958) •    American Business Aristocracy (1962) •    The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America (1964) •    Puritan Boston and QuakerPhiladelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (1979) •    The Protestant Establishment Revisited (1991) •    Judgment and Sensibility: Religion and Stratification (1994) •    Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar (1995)

***This is the singular reason that one thing a gentleman (and club member) was never expected to do, if he had any sense, was to ask those around him what they did for a living and certainly to never discuss the subject of personal money or worth. Matter of fact, the subject of discussing money itself, including the discussing of business, was frowned upon within those golf clubs that were designed strictly for recreation and relaxation (most of those men of those types of WASP clubs had separate business or lunch clubs generally in the city or around Wall Street where they discussed money and business amongst themselves). The over-riding idea was a complete acceptance of the fact that if you were there with them you deserved to be there with them without any interrogation or question whatsoever because you and your family and its essential social class was part of theirs. Even underlying that was apparently the realization that some members of even those socially prominent “upper class” families may not have much money. The way they got around dealing with that reality within clubs in practical economic or financial terms is another subject, but one no less interesting. Essentially they did not assess entire memberships pro rata back then as they tend to do today. They understood back then that would be financially stressful on those they did not want to lose. The last remaining vestige of that policy in those kinds of clubs is what one sees today as the membership application designation of “Legacy.” What Horatio Gates Lloyd and his “Guarantors” did in the form of capitalization for the purchase of the land for Merion East and generating the money to build the course was to create a corporation that only the wealthier of their membership would feel comfortable subscribing to. The rest were only encouraged to pay a nominal monthly or annual fee that in total would cover the debt and pay the stock subcribers a small percentage return on their capital investment over and above the interest the corporation had on its mortgage or debt service. Talk about “taking care of your own,” that is an example in spades of how it was done back then in that world of the WASP gentleman at many of those private clubs.

End of Part One