The promise of “free golf for life” has long been part of the appeal of The Villages.
But exactly what golfers must wear in the world’s largest retirement community is up for — somewhat heated — debate.
A resident is fighting to remove the ban on wearing T-shirts at some golf courses in The Villages, bringing an age-old controversy over dress codes in the sport home to roost in the senior haven.
“It goes back to elitism,” said Brian Lafferty, a 69-year-old resident and lifelong golfer. “We’re fancier, we’re better, we’re more important. And we say you can’t wear a T-shirt.”
“Free golf for life”
Since its early days, The Villages has used the slogan “free golf for life” to attract retirees to its sprawling community 80 miles northeast of Tampa, helping it become the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country.
The Villages’ executive golf courses are key to that promise.
Unlike the Championship Golf courses, which are owned by the developer of The Villages, residents are not required to pay green fees to play at the community’s 40 executive courses.
Executive courses, which are shorter, are designed to allow executives to play a few holes on their lunch break and tend to be more welcoming to newcomers to the sport.
These courses are run by two community development districts inside The Villages and are maintained by amenities fees that all residents pay.
As first reported by The Villages-News last month, resident James Foster launched a campaign to remove the requirement that men wear collared shirts on the executive courses.
“I was told that I would not be allowed use of those courses in the summer because the shirts I wear when the temperatures exceed 90 degrees do not have collars,” he told the paper, adding that, “In general, I do not think it is a proper role of the government to deny taxpayers access to facilities based on such marginal and arbitrary criteria.”
Foster could not be reached for comment. So far, he’s appealed to two committees with his argument, according to The Villages-News. Twice he’s been shot down.
The community districts that own The Villages’ executive courses did not respond to requests for comment.
The greater golf world has long been embroiled in debates over what to wear while hitting the links.
In January, professional golfer J.J. Spaun resurrected these sentiments, causing a mild social media stir when he wore what appeared to be an untucked shirt at a Hawaii tournament. Each perceived breach of etiquette becomes the subject of countless think pieces.
Collared shirts and bans on jeans are often core to dress codes at private golf courses. Public courses tend to be more flexible, said Connor Lewis, founder of the Society of Golf Historians, in part because of the growing recognition of the need for the sport be more inclusive.
“The nicer people dress, the better they behave”
Nick Huff moved to The Villages to help care for his father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a few years ago.
Golfing helps his dad stay mobile, and it’s a source of bonding for the pair.
At 36, Huff knows he’s younger than most of the golfers on the executive courses. But to him, the sport is still “a gentleman’s game.”
“If T-shirts are allowed, there’d be a lot more people who have never played and aren’t as familiar with the etiquette,” Huff said. “It’d probably lead to arguments and disagreements and eventually people going to jail for assault charges.”
Other Villagers on social media agreed. To them, this was about more than golf — it was about what a future with uncollared shirts on the fairway would hold. The Times asked members of The Villages Word of Mouth, a Facebook group that has over 40,000 members, to share their perspectives on the proposed change.
“The nicer people dress, including children, the better they behave,” one resident replied.
“Once you back off of standards the structure falls apart,” another wrote, comparing the situation to workplaces adopting “Casual Fridays.” “Pretty soon casual clothes were acceptable every day which led to jeans then short pants…”
“Remember when you would dress up to take a flight?” another Villages resident agreed. “OMG now they fly in their pajamas.”
“People will start to try (to) slowly degrade what The Villages is,” another agreed.
“Tradition of deformalizing”
Violence, somewhat ironically, deserves partial credit for golf’s traditionally formal style on the fairway, according to Lewis, who is also co-host of the TalkinGolf History podcast.
In the late 16th century, English and Scottish golfers would play in their military coats, Lewis said, using the bright red color to warn passersby of the risk of stray balls.
The formality stuck.
But dress codes while golfing at private courses were not codified in the U.S. until after World War II, as private clubs sought to market to a consumer base with a newfound desire for leisure and a sense of suburban utopia. These clubs were almost exclusively available to white people due to segregation, though Lewis noted that the few Black-owned clubs at the time adopted these dress codes “in unison” with other private clubs.
What’s considered acceptable has changed over time, Lewis added.
“The United States has had a longstanding tradition of deformalizing golf wear,” he said. “I would say there’s no way that, two decades from now, most private golf courses don’t allow you to just go out and wear a T-shirt and shorts.”
“Golf is an excuse”
To Villages resident Lafferty, the debate is about elitism. It’s a world he said he’s familiar with, having spent decades as a member of country clubs up north.
“It’s ludicrous. I don’t play better or worse if the guy playing with me is wearing a T-shirt,” Lafferty said. “It’s not changing the marketability of the golf course because these golf courses are free to begin with.
“Dress codes exist as a method of selection,” he added. “But it’s changing all over America.”
He pointed to Tiger Woods, whose first golf course in the U.S. has no dress code. And shrinking youth participation and membership at traditional golf clubs is juxtaposed with the rising popularity of Top Golf, which offers a more informal model of play.
“Personally, if I was king for the day? Yes, I would like golf to be a special sport where we dress up,” Lafferty said. “But that’s not reality. And golf courses and golf clubs are suffering seriously because of that perception.”
T-shirts are the uniform of men throughout The Villages, Lafferty said — why should they have to go home and change just to golf?
“Everybody’s comfortable with what they grew up with,” he added. “Golf is an excuse.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where The Villages is located in relation to Tampa.