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  • Alistair Tait

Who’ll fight for public golf courses?

Interesting piece in Global Golf Post’s International edition this week on a stushie taking place in Australia over public golf courses. It begs the question: just how public should the land that caters to municipal golf courses be? Who ensures such facilities even exist? More importantly, who's fighting for them?

Australian journalist Charlie Happell outlines a situation that could take place in the British Isles. Happell reveals that, like many countries, golf actually boomed during the pandemic as people found it the perfect tonic to stringent rules on social distancing. He writes:

“Every segment of the Australian market enjoyed a material bounce through 2020, with both male and female demand up 21%.
“Crucially for the industry, rounds played by people in the 20-49 age bracket skyrocketed 44% after the first wave of lockdown restrictions in April.”

As you’ve anticipated, there is a but, a very important but.

Local people in the Northcote area of Melbourne used the 9-hole public course during the lockdown as a means of getting fresh air and exercise.

“Residents cut the wire fence to access the rolling green space, prompting the City of Darebin to throw open the public course’s gates while golf was banned. Picnic rugs were spread on greens, dogs walked down fairways and kids frolicked in sandpits which, pre-Covid, were called bunkers.”

Problems arose in November when lockdown ended and golfers returned to the public course. Those with no passion for the royal & ancient game wanted to continue using the golf course rather than relinquish it to golfers. Local resident Ruth Liston told the Melbourne Age:

"Losing that green space is devastating. It's been an absolute lifesaver for us during lockdown for walks, for picnics, for socially distancing with friends, for seeing people and feeling like part of a community, for connecting with nature.”

Sydney is experiencing the same problem. Moore Park Golf Course near the city centre is also under pressure from locals who feel it would be better used for non-golf lovers. Golfers who play there have perhaps bigger concerns given that Clover Moore, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, said it’s “scandalous” that at least half the golf course wasn't open to the public.

"The Redfern part of Moore Park is absolutely buzzing with people, and you just look across the fence to the golf course and there might be two or three golfers in there," Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald. "There has been tremendous pressure on our parks right across the metropolitan area. It is vital that this land is shared with the broader community."

I have some sympathy for Moore and others who want to use the land the golf course occupies for everyone rather than a niche group of people. A similar scenario played out in England during the first lockdown. The James Braid-designed Reading Golf Club opened its course to the public last year when golf was forbidden. Other private clubs were under pressure to follow likewise, with MPs putting pressure on clubs to open up to the public.

Of course, private clubs are private entities and can do as they chose. However, public courses are under pressure in the Great Britain as councils try to save money, and local people want greater access to green spaces. As I chronicled the other day, municipal golf is under pressure in Scotland with many courses operating under the threat of closure. If such courses are lost, then that cuts off an important avenue into the game for new players.

It’s easy to make a bold jump to ask who’s responsible for making sure we have enough public golf courses to cater to newcomers, especially if cash strapped local councils start closing them down. Is it the R&A, the home golf unions, the Golf Foundation, all of the above?

In my ideal world, there would be a large municipal golf facility in every major town and city to help introduce children and newcomers to the game. Imagine how much better our game might be if there were replicas of the St Andrews or Carnoustie (pictured) models throughout the land, public courses that were part of the fabric of cities and towns the way ice rinks are to Canadian towns. That’s perhaps fanciful, but we need public golf courses if we’re to grow the game. Question is, who’s going to pay for them, or even fight for them should they come under the same pressure as those in Australia?

#JustSaying: “The challenge of tournament golf has been replaced by the challenge of trying to bring pleasurable golf to ‘the masses’ at a price they can afford.” John Jacobs

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