“At least 25 percent of the golf courses need to be converted into mountain bike trails. The rest can be used for walks and picnics, off-leash dog runs, boot camps and community veggie gardens. Maybe keep one for posterity.”
It was my fault for perusing the readers’ comments section, but this was one response – an extreme one to be fair – to Catherine Ford’s column in The Age on September 28.
The author had just discovered the joys of walking the nine-hole Northcote public course left empty of players by Melbourne’s golfless lockdown.
Of course, the “let’s get rid of all but one golf course” response is an extreme position, one rooted in both silliness and a complete lack of understanding that Melbourne is one of the three or four great golf cities in the world.
As Latrobe University professor of sociology John Carroll once wrote of Royal Melbourne: “There are only two public man-made creations in Australia of top world-ranking – the Sydney Opera House and the courses of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club.”
I’ve long thought Royal Melbourne the most under-rated golf course in Australia, simply because those who don’t play golf have no idea of either its architectural significance or the reverence with which it’s held by golfers the world over.
A generous approximation of the percentage of our population who play or at least appreciate golf might be, let’s say, 10 percent. So if only one in 10 Australians knew of and understood the greatness of the Opera House – and the perception was that it was something only enjoyed by a privileged elite – it might be a whole lot easier for the carping critics to suggest it’d be better off as a casino or a McDonald’s so everyone could use it.
“I now enjoy its empty lawns so much I dread them being returned to the exclusive use of golfers, a reality that got me thinking about the ethics and management of urban golf courses,” Ford wrote. “How is it that city golf courses are only for golfers? A golf course – by the nature of the game – is used only intermittently, by small groups of people, many of whom are only free on weekends.”
I’m not sure how many rounds a year they play at Northcote. Apocryphally, it was said the club needed a time sheet for the first time just before the second lockdown because the course – like every other course in the city – was so busy.
But not so far away Yarra Bend, the busiest public course close to the city, hosts 63,000 rounds a year. By any measure, that’s a lot of golf and makes it one of the busiest courses in the country and likely in the world.
But here is where I agree, in part, with Ford’s argument.
“Why,” she asks, “can’t we find a way for it be shared – officially, that is, by clearly demarcating golfing and non-golfing days to ensure people’s safety – to satisfy everyone, both those who golf and those who do not?”
The game’s most famous course – and arguably its best – is the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland.
The course begins in the town, plays out to the far point of the beach, famously loops around at the end and plays back into town. North Berwick, Dornoch, Carnoustie and many others do the same, making golf an integral part of each town.
“You walk into the pub at North Berwick and if the wind is into off the left at the 15th hole, they all know you’ve had a hard time of it,” Melburnian Geoff Ogilvy once said of the spirit that pervades one of the most amazing golf towns in the world.
There are no fences separating the golf from the town at St Andrews. It’s always been closed on Sundays, leaving locals free to kick a football around the huge open space that is the 1st and 18th fairways. Everyone has “the right to roam” Scottish golf courses, meaning everyone is free to walk any of the courses. Just stay out of the road of the golfers. Likely those walking the Old Course are more aware of a golf ball and its origins than the Northcote locals who have only just discovered golf by walking through what is, literally, a hole cut in the fence.
A month before Ford’s column, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on Gil Hanse’s controversial plan, among non-golfers at least, to revitalise Royal Sydney. The course has slipped far behind the two best in the city – New South Wales and The Lakes –and is desperately in need of one of the game’s finest architects giving it his best shot.
The problem is the non-golf locals couldn’t care less about golf in their city which another American architect, Tom Doak, recently described as being “desperately short of compelling golf”.
Unsurprisingly for a column authored by someone other than a specialist golf writer, the SMH article focused on the club’s intention to take out more than 560 trees because that’s what the local non-golfers are concerned about. The irony is the revegetation plan at Royal Sydney calls for more planted flora than what it will remove; not all of it is trees, but rather it includes the beautiful, small heathland plants that give a course so much texture and character.
There was nothing really explaining any architectural nuance or why the work is necessary if Royal Sydney is to rise and be seen among the small group of Australian courses being close to as good as they can possibly be. It’s a good course, no doubt. But as Hanse diplomatically told me at the 2016 Australian Open: “It’s a long way from what it could be.”
What was enlightening, again, were the comments in response to the tree removal article.
“Who owns the land? Kick the club out/buy them out and turn the land over to a beautifully positioned park.”
“Elitist garbage logic, you need a better fairway so knock down a forest worth of trees? Hell no! The government should reclaim the land in the name of the people and make it a park for everyone’s use”.
“The trees are more important than any golf course. This land should be requisitioned and used as public space, with adequate compensation to the golf club or whoever owns the land.”
“Golf. The whitest sport of them all. That says it all really.”
That Royal Sydney, the bluest of Australia’s blue-blood clubs, is on long-held, privately owned land makes “kicking them out” somewhat problematic in a democracy.
Problematic, too, might be finding the billion dollars or so it would take to buy a couple of hundred acres in the middle of one of Sydney’s most expensive suburbs.
"The game, and those who play it, can more easily co-exist with non-golfers than they do now. Perhaps the non-golfers might even be inclined to try the game."
It is, clearly, a chance to land a free hit for those wanting to deride the “privileged”. But it doesn’t advance the question of golf’s place in the suburbs and how the game can best manage its place.
And so back to Ford, who wrote of Northcote: “What if golf courses allocated time for ramblers on its fairways before and after golfers' hours? What if a public golf course set aside one or two days a week for local city ramblers in need of its particular beauty, people who'd like to tread quietly upon their manicured neighbourhood lawns, minus spiked shoes and buggies and sticks?”
I understand it’s not going to work at private clubs, but there seems to be no reason why public courses can’t co-exist with non-golfers. Every course has times when there are empty holes – usually early in the morning and late in the evening – and they should be free for anyone to roam, just as they are in Scotland.
As for private clubs in the big cities, they could do a better job of selling their environmental importance. In Melbourne, they are almost all among the great preservers of locally indigenous vegetation. It’s something Victoria, Kingston Heath, Royal Melbourne and Peninsula Kingswood have spent the best part of three decades promoting. They are the only places of any significant size promoting the tiny, heathland plants decimated decades ago by the endless spread of suburbia.
Peninsula Kingswood’s North Course is the best vegetated suburban layout in any Australian city because almost all the flora is locally indigenous and allows the golf to enjoy an entirely natural feel denied those planted almost a century ago with predominantly a mix of European and “native” trees. What relevance do eucalypts native to Margaret River, Bega or Coffs Harbour have to suburban Melbourne?
If you wanted a golf course to feel “natural”, surely the best way to achieve the lofty and worthwhile goal would be to plant and promote things that belong to the area.
And, yes, the game, and those who play it, can more easily co-exist with non-golfers than they do now. Perhaps the non-golfers might even be inclined to try the game … and we golfers might find sharing space works as well here as it does in Scotland.