Almanac Golf and Community: Stuck in a bunker: how the reaction to the Northcote Golf Course proposal exposes golf’s need to sell itself to the community

Depending on who you ask, the sport of golf in Australia’s cities is under attack.  No, I’m not talking about retired footballers who are making a scene during COVID lockdown, I’m talking about something much more longer-term.  In many of our major cities, there is a push to repurpose public golf courses as parks.

 

In Sydney, the Lord Mayor wants to close half of Moore Park Golf Club. In Brisbane, Victoria Park Golf Course is going to close. In Melbourne, a push to close the Northcote Golf Club to use the space as a park received specific attention on Sunday, thanks to two articles in the Age by Clay Lucas.  There was a feature piece about the locals using the space as a park during the COVID golf shutdown, and a piece by Clay where he charts his former love of the game, but goes on to make a point which is basically summarised as: “When there is so little public green space in the area, it is not an appropriate use of public money to reserve it for golfers”.

 

There’s a contract in place until mid-2022 so the Northcote course will be there for a while.  But, in the meantime, the debate about whether that should continue is certainly in full ‘swing’ (yes, that pun was intended).  Golfers have been a bit defensive to start with.  I’ve seen tweets such as this:

 

 

 

 

saying that critics need to better understand golf.  That’s only true to a limited extent.  Golf needs to do a better job of explaining, in not just Northcote, but in many other places, what it is about, and that the sport can provide lots of benefits for the community.

 

It’s important to declare my bias early – I’m a golfer and have been since I was 13.  You may be thinking I am writing this piece to rebut the articles.  Actually, I think they make a good point.  But I am also interested in the future of the sport and I think this does not have to be the bad news many golfers perceive it to be.  I think this article and, perhaps more importantly, the strong (and supportive) reaction to it, presents a good opportunity for golf to take a good hard look in the mirror.  We can address some of the issues our sport has (and why people might react so negatively to our sport), and show our positive side in a way that might even make communities, including Northcote, embrace the game.

 

We get it, Green is good!

 

Let’s start out by acknowledging that the concerns about lack of publicly accessible parkland are valid.  A combination of factors has led to a lack of green space in many cities.  These factors range from out and out neglect, through to very deliberate decisions by councils to either allow excessive development or, alternatively, not to keep open space, often driven by the dollar.  This issue is not just unique to the cities, as it is noticeable how many newer suburbs have not had allowances made for green space or other environmentally appropriate development such as public transport, in order to maximise the amount of sellable land for housing.  In the article, local Labor MP Kat Theophanous confirms the area’s increasingly dense housing development hasn’t been matched with an increase in green space.  I live in regional Victoria and the course I play most of my golf at started out in the middle of nowhere but is rapidly being encroached upon by residential housing.  The course I played at when I was a teenager is now completely surrounded by housing.  Fortunately, in these areas, they are not the only patches of green showing as you zoom out on Google maps.

 

Some areas of Melbourne are fortunate to have lots more green space and the golf courses do not seem under threat in those areas.  Clay’s article makes the observation in relation to Royal Park that there is no argument to close the golf course there.  “Golfers needed a public inner-city course because golf shouldn’t just be for the rich, and Royal Park had many hectares of green space for passive recreation.”  There’s no doubt golf does lock up significant amounts of valuable space.  Looking at Royal Park, golf isn’t the only sport that is played there, with several ovals available for sporting use.  However, those ovals are available for use when the cricketers and footballers finish up on field, so the impact of a sport being played there isn’t felt in the same way as golf where a player could be coming past and hitting a ball at speed in your direction any time during daylight hours.

 

Northcote has some green space and some ovals, but a series of small parks do not appear to have the same appeal as the wider open spaces of the 9-hole public golf course, especially during a pandemic where the inability ability to move more than 5km from your house has caused people to look locally for recreational space.  People want space to move around in outside but it seems not so many want to participate in one of the world’s oldest sports while doing it.  So why is that the case?

 

Golf is rich… with diversity

 

If you go through the social media reactions to the article, a lot of the reactions aren’t necessarily about public space or use of land, but are just straight out anti-golf!

 

The sentence in Clay’s article quoted above hints at one of the first problems for golf broadly.  The problem is not just in Northcote, although this problem has led to many of the strong reactions to the article.  It’s an image problem about class.   Many people think that the sport is played exclusively by rich people on their private courses, but not every course is a sandbelt private course.  It’s very hard to expect local councils to contribute public money, on public land, if people think that the game is only played by people who could make that investment themselves.

 

But, the fact is that public golf is for everyone.  It is an affordable and accessible way to participate in the game without the significant cost of a private club membership.  One of the Northcote Golf Club members is quoted in the feature piece noting that Northcote is an affordable course and turning it into parkland would force those wanting a round to more expensive venues. “If you look around Melbourne, it’s the lowest cost full-length golf course”.  Rather than a membership of many thousands of dollars, you can pay $20, hire a cheap set of clubs (if you haven’t grabbed a set of your own off eBay for $100-200), and have a game.

 

When I lived in Melbourne, I played pennant golf against Northcote and you can rest assured they are a working class team, with a mix of players working in many professions during the week.  Taking away this opportunity to play may stop these people having their preferred form of exercise and, perhaps more importantly in modern society, having their social interactions (with consequent benefits on mental health).  This is not your silver spoon set, and we golfers need to show the rest of the community that the sport is not just made up of CEOs and white collar professionals.

 

One of the things that contributes to golf’s poor image is the stuffy and traditional dress codes that often apply in private courses.  But Northcote doesn’t check the colour of your socks before you play.  Collared shirts and long slacks aren’t required.  Hoodies and t-shirts are fine, as long as you put sand in your divots!  It’s no longer a requirement to be deathly silent on course either.  The latest golf accessories include GPS distance devices that pump music.  My most recent purchase for my golf bag was not a new hybrid or high-tech ball, but a Bluetooth speaker to play music and podcasts during my social rounds.  Some of the most popular places for people to try golf include driving ranges and ‘Top Golf’ where music is pumping and the food and drinks are freely available.

 

Golf isn’t all about Country Clubs, and the sport as a whole needs to do a better job of pointing this out!

 

A sport for all. 

 

The second problem that the reactions to the article highlight is an image problem about gender and race.  This tweet in response to the article caught my attention:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no doubt that over the course of time, golf’s reputation as pale, male and stale is justified.  This is especially apparent when much of social media thinks Sam Newman is the primary spokesman for the world of golf, and it’s the favourite sport of the President of the USA.

 

However, this is not the case on modern (and especially on modern public) courses, and we need to let the community know about this.

 

Golf needs to be better at promoting that it is a sport for life, being played by people from very young to very old ages.  It is adjustable to be able to be played by people with varying skill levels of different ages.  Golf’s handicapping system means a person with less skill than another can compete on a reasonable level and both enjoy the game in the same or a similar way.  It’s a healthy game, whether being a sport your kid can play with low risk of concussion, or something older people can play to maintain a good level of fitness in later years (as well as social interaction which, sorry to be repetitive, is good for mental health!)

 

Golf has taken big steps to address gender inequality, none quite as important as “Vision 2025”  which is promoting the involvement of women in golf and changing cultures across the sport.  It has been crucial in breaking down barriers to women’s’ participation and will hopefully contribute to the development of our next women’s champions.

 

The growth of all-abilities golf is also an important development for golf to promote.  Golf is a sport that can be played by many, including those with physical disabilities.  The skill of the golfers playing at the Australian All-abilities Open matched some of the play from able bodied professionals.  This is something that can be translated right through all levels of the sport.

 

Removing low cost, accessible options for golf isn’t going to help in overcoming these figures (and the perceptions).  This is absolutely necessary to enable people to come and have a try of our game.  There’s a mutual benefit here. If golf is intending to keep up its progress in each of these areas, fighting to keep access to facilities such as Northcote open for golf will be essential.  The way we can do that is by showing that everyone can participate in this game, regardless of size, shape, colour or gender.  In turn, we can give thousands of residents a sport that all of them can play for life, at low expense, nearby to their residences.

 

So what does this mean for golf in Northcote?

 

Lucas isn’t quite on the money when he says golf’s popularity is declining but, to be fair to him, the most recent figures came out after his article was published!  In all states of Australia (except Victoria for obvious reasons), the demand for golf is increasing, with rounds played year-to-date up by 4%.

 

A case study of the rise is available in Regional Victoria.   While most sports were cancelled during stage 3 lockdown, social golf in groups of 2 was still permitted, and courses were packed.  People who couldn’t play football or netball and who were looking for a sporting fix picked up cheap golf memberships and were able to have their weekend catch ups (at a social distance) on a golf course in their footy team hoodies, rather than at a footy oval.  If these trends are matched when golf returns in Melbourne, then Northcote will be primed to be full of players over Summer.

 

So after considering all of the above, what does this mean for Northcote, and the other public-owned golf facilities under threat of closure?

 

The fight to save the course will not be easy.  Lucas says “Most importantly, this is public land, bordered on some sides by industrial land that will likely one day be residential developments”. He’s right, it seems likely that there is no desire to hold back further development.  As much as the council says it is keen on protecting green space, past experience throughout Australia’s inner cities shows it is unlikely they will resist the temptation to allow development throughout these formerly industrial areas, and the subsequent rate intake.  The population density will only increase.  Lucas then goes on to say “But in a city that, pre-COVID, expanded at the rate inner Melbourne’s population did, there can’t be enough sizeable parklands.” And “…public golf courses bordering areas where housing densities reach a certain level should simply be abandoned and turned to parkland.”  Using this calculation, it seems there’s no way the golf course will survive, as thousands of apartment-dwellers seek a taste of the outdoors, and are unable to travel on clogged streets to get out to other parks.

 

Do any compromise options exist?  Councillor McCarthy, a primary advocate for repurposing the course, advocates a shared option. As the article states: “Golf, he argues, could still occur at certain times of the day or some days of the week. ‘We can share all this space’.”

 

Interestingly, there is a model for this at a reasonably well-known public course that closes on Sundays over in Scotland – that course is the St. Andrews Old Course.  Yes, the home of golf itself.  The 1st and 18th Fairways become the village green where people can wander around, enjoy a picnic, kick a football (the round type, not a Sherrin!) and take the dog for a stroll.  But then, over the rest of the week, the course is actually the centre of the town.  I was fortunate to make a trip to the golfing Mecca as part of my 40th birthday celebrations.  As my sister and I played the 17th and 18th holes, locals had gathered beside the greens as they strolled in the evening, and gave cheers as my sister holed par putts on 17 and 18 (and gave a disappointed ‘OOOOH’ as my par putt on 18 did a full horseshoe and came back towards me).

 

 

St Andrews Golf Course                 Image: Wiki Commons

 

It doesn’t have to be exactly like St. Andrews and will depend on community views.  Determining the times that a shared facility is open or closed will be a difficult task – if you close on Sundays, will that rule out the golfers who can only play on that day?  What about the locals who can only use the park on Saturdays?  They won’t be happy if the entire day is for golf.  There will be a fine line that someone will need to draw, and not everyone will be pleased.

 

This may be a bit optimistic, but there’s an opportunity for golf to become a central part of the community, a smaller scale version of what I saw at St. Andrews.

 

So what does a shared model look like for Northcote (or any other inner city course for that matter)? Maintaining golf for the majority of the week is important, if only for a financial perspective.  “Pristine lawns usually reserved for a driver, seven iron or putter” might not be so pristine when not subsidised by working class folks regularly handing over 20 bucks for a round.  But if there are to be limits on when the course can be used for golf, then golf should try to seek concessions to promote the game to the visitors to the ‘park’ in those times when it is not a course. “Regular” folks (i.e. anyone) could visit the course, and have a go at the game and possibly be enticed to come back and pay to have a go at one of the opening times during the week.

 

When families come to the course on Sunday for a run around and to walk the dog, we can advertise the game to them, perhaps bringing them back for a clinic funded by ‘Vision 2025’, or giving the kids a go on an expanded putting green which would remain open at all times and effectively become a free mini-golf course.

 

Perhaps one hole could remain open (with appropriate safety signage) near the proposed ‘community centre’ giving people an opportunity to ‘come and try’ the game before they go and have a kick of the footy on the 1st fairway.  Have a ‘hole in one’ competition once a month with the opportunity to win a free round (bringing people back to the course during the remainder of the week).

 

These ideas might maintain the opportunity for ‘working class’ folks to play in the inner cities, giving the people a park, while also attracting new participants.  Looking at the demographics of inner Melbourne, this could also bust open the stereotypes I’ve mentioned above and perhaps start a kid of Asian background on the path to being our next Jason Day or Minjee Lee, or maybe even our first Australian Indigenous major winner?  If thousands of people are going to come and live in apartments stuffed into remodelled factories, we have the perfect opportunity to give them a sport they can play now, and well into their later years.

 

Of course, I know we need to be careful that in giving up something, that we don’t end up giving it all up. There is a big risk with compromise.  Anything given up may not be perceived as the final position, but only as the start.  But the reactions to the Age article suggest there’s a big chunk of the community pushing to go all the way with closing the course.  Putting forward reasonable ideas may be able to help keep our sport running in the short term, but also help in the longer term and, hopefully, thrive into the future.  Our overarching bodies should be making this a priority. I’m sure they are, behind closed doors, but we need to know what they are doing so we can support it.

 

Showing to the world the benefits of our game is a good start.  It might not change minds on Twitter straight away but it will be a step in the right direction!

 

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About Joseph Ryan

Lawyer, amateur sportsman, and full-time sports-watcher. Follows Melbourne Demons and Melbourne Storm and is trying to be better at golf.

Comments

  1. Well argued Joseph. As you say this is a world wide issue – not just Melbourne & Northcote. Golf has boomed here in Perth during COVID and in other parts of the world where recreation options have been limited. I am a member at a private 9 hole club that has a long term lease of council land, and affordable public green fee golf is available as soon as competitions are over. That is a public/private shared model that all private clubs should be implementing. Well managed public golf courses with adequate fees should be a cash cow for councils and not a financial burden. Northcote is not the issue – the number of exclusive, expensive private clubs is. Our club is a frequent thoroughfare for swimmers and dog walkers taking the quickest route to the beach. Golfers generally shrug and wait. Its a small inconvenience to share access to such beautiful real estate. I am often bemused at how blissfully unaware walkers are of the direction and dangers of flying golf balls. Wood chipped public access paths and signage would be ideal but unlikely to be much used. Walkers like water find the route of least resistance. Without fences it becomes a risky free for all. We muddle through.

  2. Daryl Schramm says

    A bit of balance is always a fine thing. I don’t know Northcote, nor have I experienced Melbourne golfing wise in any way. I am a member of a 9 hole club at Penfield joining 4 years ago. No hoity toity here. Just mad keen golfers. I did read with interest the age article. Not sure if there are any appropriate comparisons in Adelaide, probably due to the abundance of green space. PB’s comment about well managed public golf courses with adequate fees resonates. A fantastic contribution Joseph.

  3. Sofela Anemone says

    A simple conversation with the course management and a compromise could have been arranged. I live near the Northcote course and heard about the uproar on the Facebook community pages. I was horrified with the community’s reaction towards anyone who golfs. Darebin has more parklands than any other suburb in the area whilst Moreland continues to diminish green space yet people in the area are harassing, bullying, and demanding the golfers vacate “the stolen” land. The behaviour of some of the people living in this area has made me want to move. Who would want to live amongst people pushing others out because they believe their culture is superior? Do Australians learn anything from their history or is land grabbing innate? The most idiotic component of the “turf war” is it’s a community course with affordable prices and anyone can visit, yet nobody noticed it until 2020. I think I prefer being locked up in quarantine, who’d want to enter this community? Thanks for this piece, I was feeling like everyone had lost their mind.

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