If, like me, you were looking forward to watching the British Open from Royal Troon these past few days, you might have mumbled some off-the-fairway oaths when you discovered The Big Allotment Challenge scheduled for BBC2 on Thursday. Apparently there’s room on our public broadcaster for using ‘helichrysum to create eye-catching table swags’. Golf, however, no longer warrants its place, having last year lost its status as a ‘crown jewel’ protected in the interests of the nation by the Broadcasting Act of 1996.
To the casual viewer, the loss might feel like a trivial one, but, for me, The Open has always been about something more than sport; more, even, than four days of advert-free calm only punctuated by Peter Allis and his garden roller of a voice. Despite its role in a global business involving sponsors, equipment manufacturers, and advertising deals, the Open has always retained a quality that is definitively British.
Golf as it exists in Britain is a sport played with nature rather than against nature. The Open is about golfers getting tangled in gorse and brambles, or, like Jean van de Velde did in his spectacular collapse in 1999, padding in a cold Carnoustie canal. As Gary Player once said of winning the Open in 1974, ‘wind is part of the British Open. It is an examination and it took me a long time to pass the examination.’ By contrast, golf in the United States takes place in an almost preternatural world where the wild is kept at bay. Trees grow pencil straight from ground cleared of undergrowth. Many courses are artificially lush spreads in bleached deserts with greens that are impossibly green and with a geometry like some model of the space time continuum disrupted by the odd gravity well. Putting isn’t about adapting to the landscape but understanding parabolic curves and Newtonian physics.
If each nation has the golf that best suits it, then, conversely, each country’s golf embodies something of the national spirit. Thinking about British golf makes you think about Britain. The biting cold winds ripping over some links course make you think about British resilience in the face of a climate that’s hardly conducive to outdoor sports. Golf reflects our national character, so divided between the old and the new; a nation slightly obsessed with its millennia of history but also quietly in love with innovation. Golf is even a reminder the segregation of the classes and the sexes in clubhouse politics. It is about our love of the eccentric and even that very British type of obsessive. Golf may have spread around the world but it has retained so much that it could only find here.
There is, then, an argument to make that the British Open represents more than our sporting culture. The Open isn’t simply the oldest celebration of golf. It is a celebration of the spirit of our country and the BBC losing the championship does feel like the loss of something that always reminded us all of who and what we are.
Now, this is a sentimental argument, I know, but it does also focus attention on the role of the free market. Like golf, markets have a certain beauty about them. They ‘exist’ in nature in that people gravitate towards pleasure or what Epicurus called ‘our first and kindred good’. To the scientific mind, the free market is as predictable as putting a ball on an American green. Force applied at a certain angle will make the ball travel along a predetermined path into the hole. We are taught that good products always succeed.
Yet there are times when the ideal is compromised by the indeterminacies of the real world. In that sense, it’s British golf that provides a better model of how markets work. Just like perfectly struck shots are susceptible to the weather, the ‘better’ product can often fail while ‘poorer’ products succeed. The American John Daly, not a great golfer by any stretch of the imagination, tended to do better in the British Open, which he won in 1995, because his booming drives were low and flat and were less susceptible to the wind.
Now, this can lead us into almost epistemological questions of what we know as ‘better’ and ‘poor’. Supporters of free market logic would argue that the ‘better’ product that failed must have actually been demonstrably poorer. This makes sense. Free markets are Darwinian in that there’s a life and death cycle that naturally selects which products get revised and move forward. Daly could win because his game was more suited to British weather. Betamax (a better product) failed because VHS was cheaper. Apple (excellent products) will fail if they don’t adapt to the new reality of much cheaper technology that does much more.
What Adam Smith called the ‘invisible hand’ is really the natural condition of systems to find their own order, much in the same way that Darwinian evolution ensures that the organisms with the best traits to survive in their environment have the best chance to reproduce. Neither precludes, however, the possibility that any agent in the system is self-aware. Self-awareness can be an evolutionary tactic. The wise golfer doesn’t use a lofted club in windy weather. Failing products can quickly become successful products if they have a proactive advertising campaign or even a firmware update. Humanity might well adapt to climate change and could at some point, perhaps, reverse it.
This is an important distinction. Proponents of laissez faire market economies sometimes treat them as entirely autonomous systems in which human interaction is forbidden. ‘Let the market decide’ can sound as cruel as ‘it will either sink or swim’. Yet we are all conscious beings, capable of directing our actions and possibly choosing our outcomes. There is no truly free market. There are always boundaries that mark its edges, governments that make laws that govern it. And, of course, human beings are always acting in their best interests. There should therefore be no problem in being aware and critical of any system that is no longer benefitting us.
For example, certain companies in recent years have marked moments of national celebration by issuing free Union Jacks. This, in itself, wouldn’t be problematic except the flags usually comes with the name of some gossip magazine or a sportswear company emblazoned in the centre. Now, in a free market: consumers will choose the flag that best suits them. Given a choice of a free branded flag or paying for one that’s unbranded, they will most likely choose the free version. Yet there is an obvious point that’s worth making: no other nation in the world would accept, so casually, the degradation of their flag in the name of corporate interests. Try sticking a McDonalds logo on the Stars and Stripes and see what Americans would say. Try doing the same on the flag of Saudi Arabia and fly it in a street in downtown Riyadh. Then, at the end of the day, count to see how many limbs you have left.
In Britain, of course, we don’t feel the same way about our flag and that has much to do with our character. Cynicism and disregard for authority might well be credited as our national sports. Yet there is a danger in treating our flag so casually. Whenever patriotism is undervalued it makes a void for a stronger form of patriotism which slides too easily into nationalism. The moment that reasonable people don’t protect their flag from corporate graffiti, it leaves room for unreasonable people to beat up somebody for accidentally flying the flag upside down. The nascent nationalism that has become evident since the EU referendum is not simply a product of anti-migrant rhetoric as much as it is the fault of a generation of politicians (usually from the Left) unwilling to discuss immigration. British and specifically English patriotism has for a long time been degraded or, at best, treated as a kitsch novelty.
It is wrong to argue that the free market is to blame for any of these problems but it is correct to highlight that the free market interacts with other systems of belief, identity, and politics. And it’s in that sense that I ask this question about the British Open. If we fail to cherish our traditions, then aren’t we in danger of being redefined as a nation? If our flags can be defaced by corporate logos, then are we even a nation? And if the nation loses touch with the oldest tournament of the nation’s fifth favourite sport, then don’t we lose another of the defining associations that we all share?
Tradition does not simply define the past. It helps us to define our present and our future. It is not something that should be cast so easily out into the capricious winds of the market. Surely we are too intelligent and evolved to put so much faith in the beneficial touch of an invisible hand.
In other words: Dear BBC, please bring back the golf.