Bushwood Syndrome

 As seen in Golf Business July/August 2022 

How to Reconcile the Coast to Coast Clashing of Old School vs. New School

By Michael Williams:

I was flipping the channels the other night and came across Caddyshack. It was about a third of the way into it but naturally I had to stay and watch from there because it’s one of those movies that you have to watch no matter where you catch it. One of the most popular comedy movies ever that just happens to be about golf, Caddyshack is a look at the goings-on at Bushwood Country Club, where a thin veneer of gentility is overwhelmed by the raucous hijinks of the members and staff. The film is a commentary on the tensions that happen when old money meets new money and the establishment clashes with a new generation.

At courses across the country, millions of new players are coming to golf facilities. They found the game during the pandemic as a safe and enjoyable experience in a beautiful outdoor setting. And there are also a stream of golfers who are finding their way from alternative golf experiences like simulators and Topgolf to green grass facilities. So what happens when they get to the course and don’t have any experience in the customs and traditions of the game? 

The challenge for golf course owners and operators is dealing with what I call Bushwood Syndrome, that is, how to keep the long-time customers happy and content with the experience they have grown accustomed to while at the same time welcoming new golfers with an experience that will entice them to stay with the game even as the malls, theaters and other indoor experiences begin to become available again.

I have found that the Bushwood Syndrome manifests itself in a number of areas, but almost always includes the following:

  • What to wear 
  • Equipment
  • Rules vs. etiquette
  • Accessories

The discussion about what is appropriate to wear on the golf course is as old as the game itself. No doubt there were gasps and averted eyes the first time some Scotsman had the audacity to play a round with a jacket and tie. The modern game is far removed from that kind of formality but there are still expectations for proper attire at virtually every golf facility. At the National Park Service courses where I worked in Washington, D.C., it was almost literally come as you are. Jeans, t-shirts, flip flops and more were regularly seen on course and still are. Contrast that with the more upscale daily fees and clubs, where showing up in jeans would more likely prompt the starter to send you to the pro shop for a new wardrobe than to the first tee. And God forbid you should have your shirt untucked at some facilities, a crime that I have inadvertently committed and been asked to immediately correct. I understood that local customs vary and should be respected, but some might take it as a sign of not respecting them personally. Vendors like Tavis Matthew and LINKSOUL are creating golf gear that is equal parts stylish, fun and appropriate. Course owners would be wise to make room in their retail lineup for these and other brands that offer new golfers options that fit their tastes.

One of the biggest clashes of old and new is in the area of rules and etiquette. I always make the distinction that rules are about how to play the game of golf, while etiquette is about how to play the game of life. Pairing foursomes that are a mix of those who are sticklers about the rules and those not so versed in the minutiae can cause friction on the course. And there are many golfers coming to the courses today who are only thinking about getting the ball airborne and couldn’t care less about the official rules. At the end of the day, it’s really about the individual and how they want to get around the course on a given day. Some courses are encouraging new golfers to play alternative rules that allow them to remove a ball from a bunker without penalty, use a tee anywhere they like other than the green and have a maximum score of double bogey for any hole. Playing alternative rules allows newbies the opportunity to concentrate on getting the ball and themselves around the course with a maximum of fun and in the minimum amount of time. When they get more proficient at the game, they can begin to play using the standard rules. 

Speaking of time, one of the main points of etiquette on the golf course regards pace of play. Nothing can ruin the golf experience like a jam on the golf course. Slow play can be a problem with experienced players who tend to imitate the Tour players they see on television. New players tend to hit the ball more often and hit it into places where balls are hard to find. New players also may not be aware that a golf round is like a shark; it must keep moving or it dies. New players should be made aware of the importance of pace of play and given tips on how to maintain it as they make their way around the course. And those same instructional materials should have some tips on how to rake bunkers and fix divots on greens…just saying.

Accessories is a category that includes a range of things that affect the on-course experience. A couple of examples where operators are feeling Bushwood Syndrome are food offerings and on-course music. For years, when it came to food offerings many courses stood by the staples of hot dogs, burgers and various crunchy snacks. Beverage carts might offer adult beverages in addition to soft drinks, but in general the menu was fairly limited and predictable. Today, both new and experienced golfers expect to see items on the menu that are both tasty and healthy. New golfers who have preferences expect to see options including lactose-free and gluten-free choices on the menu. And the Topgolf experience has opened up the market for canned cocktails on the golf course that are the same quality as the ones you’d have delivered to your bay at a Topgolf facility. Any operator who isn‘t updating their menu is likely to see F&B sales shrink followed by declining rounds as golfers find venues willing to accommodate their preferences.

And then there is music on the golf course. I remember one time, during a pro-am I was playing in, when one of the pros pulled up to the first tee with Diana Ross and the Supremes blasting. I thought it was great but the other pro in the group was so offended that he almost came to blows with the music-loving pro. Nowadays, music is much more acceptable on the golf course and there is a growing market for Bluetooth speakers that are made to be carried in the cup holders of golf carts. And I was even pleased to see permanent speaker systems installed in the carts at private clubs that I would not have expected to make such a bold move.

I don’t know of a course that specifically bans music, but many embrace it. Allison George, of Toad Valley Golf Course, notes, ”We have been playing music on the golf course before it was even a thing, probably for 15 years. Every time we have a golf outing, I always have a playlist going. And the other day, you know, we had somebody who was complaining about someone young [playing music on the course] and I wanted to ask them, do you want me to only allow people who are 30 and older? You have to have young people on your course…they're not going to be the best golfers, but we have to make them feel welcome.”

Again, it comes down to operators embracing change and then setting up policies that allow all golfers to enjoy their experience. Personally, I have found that my 70’s AM Gold playlist gets even the most ardent opponents of music on the course tapping their toes and singing along within a few holes.

Self-expression and individuality have always been a part of the American experience. But golf is a culture where plaid pants were once considered a sign of rebellion. The new generation of golfers literally marches to the beat of a different drummer and, like the patrons of Bushwood, ways must be found to accommodate the old and the new traditions of the game. 

Perhaps Jeff Hoag of Scott Lake Golf Club, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says it best: “It has to do with how we are welcoming our customers to the golf course. It's been our ability to take that and to have enough staff around, to greet them when they arrive, greet them at the shop and greet them at the first tee. So we're going to work our way through a lot of those issues, making them comfortable while they’re figuring things out.” 

Sounds a lot better than “You’ll get nothing and like it!”, doesn’t it?