It’s time to open up golf courses to all

When the first pandemic lockdown started in Melbourne, I walked in nearby inner-city parkland each day for the psychological relief. When the park got busy with others doing the same, I ventured further into our "zone", to the local public golf course. It was closed to golfers – love him or hate him, that’s how Dan Andrews rolls – but open to anyone else who knew it was there. That, incredibly, didn’t seem to be many people.

Locals using Northcote golf course as a park.Credit:Jason South

It’s not an exaggeration to say that rambling around this empty golf course through rolling lockdowns has prevented my mental state from plummeting these last eight months. Something about its long vistas and emerald fairways comforts me, when little else can. 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.

For instance, how is it that city golf courses are only for golfers? A golf course in a large city is an anomaly, after all, and one whose clubbish exclusivity is – I think – hard to justify.

If you consider that the average nine-hole golf course occupies roughly 30 hectares of coveted empty land and requires considerable resources to function – abundant water and specialist maintenance teams – while pleasing only a few dozen people brandishing sticks outside a weekend, that is quite a proposition.

Thirty tastefully landscaped, publicly owned hectares in an urban area, enjoyed by only a tiny proportion of the population, is an astonishing and significant "private" oasis. In this modern world, and pandemic-informed moment, it seems only sensible and fair to maximise the use of a course by opening it up to any in need of its benefits. By this, I mean long-term shared use for all, beyond lockdowns.

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 know this because I have walked the periphery of this course for decades and have seen how many golfers use it mid-week. We are not talking a continual parade of golfers banked up, waiting to tee off. Not even close. On many days it is completely devoid of people.

Why, I wonder, 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?

And before those good folk wielding 7 irons get crazy angry at such a classist and un-athletic "attack", let me explain. I come from a family of golfers. I admire the game. I understand its enchantments, the passions of its players. But what if, with careful management, the landscapes golfers enjoy in their addiction might also be used by people less interested in cajoling a white ball into a tiny faraway hole, and more interested in merely having wind in their hair and a sweeping lawn underfoot?

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? Or what if golf courses allocated time for ramblers on its fairways before and after golfers' hours?

Arguments that non-golfers wouldn't care for or respect tender fairway lawns are spurious. Follow behind any poor golfer – they are legion – and you’ll be aghast at the wanton damage they do to grass. I have never once seen a rambler chop or hack at any lawn he or she walked over.

No, that argument will not wash. Stipulate sneakers on a golf course, govern rambler numbers, make the putting greens off-limits if you must, but a public golf course is – and should be – a shareable asset. Nature walks for city dwellers improve mental wellbeing. Those links are clear, no pun intended.

Catherine Ford is a Melbourne writer.

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