Who Should Be Guiding Public Golf To Ensure Its Future Is Healthy

Public golf is really how the game began, on common land with facilities provided by local government creating an active and engaged community. When I was a kid, my golf was learned on school ovals and played at public courses and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to join a private club. With so many different local governments and parks departments owning public golf courses, it’s important that someone with golf knowledge helps guide them when it comes to decisions they make around golf. I believe that some responsibility for the management of public golf courses should lie with the local private clubs as their future existence relies on the health of public golf. 

If you’re fortunate enough to have played golf in the UK and Ireland, most of the courses you will play will be public courses built on common land. Whilst they have figured out they can charge tourists more than a local’s weekly wage for just one round, the locals pay about the same for a whole year of golf. St Andrews is the most famous but there would be 100 or more courses where the town is built around the course and the entire community uses the course even if they don’t play golf. It’s normal to co-exist with dog walkers or kids taking a short cut through the course to get somewhere.

This is no problem because the local community ‘gets’ golf and the value it brings. Golf not only brings money into the community, providing employment in many different forms, but also provides the social glue that brings multi-generations of the community together.

Public golf in Australia is just as important, however in recent times it is more and more under threat due to demand for green space. But the real danger comes from a lack of understanding of the benefits of golf and how golf has removed itself from the community.

I got the golfing bug from about the age of 10. I would whack a golf ball wherever I was allowed, or sometimes not, because course access was hard to get. You couldn’t join a private course until you were 14 and public golf was manic.

My local public course was Wattle Park, a nine-hole course in Melbourne suburbia where many golfers started their journey including two-time major winner David Graham. I would ride my bike there with my mates, buggies tied to the pack racks with octopus straps, pay $2 for nine holes and queue up to play. The queue was long, especially on a good day; an hour was nothing and we all dreaded the group that had paid for 18 holes because they got to jump to the front, making the wait even longer.

Then there was the free-for-all nature of playing, a ball sliced onto another fairway was fair game to be picked up and if you fell behind, balls would come whizzing past. You learned quickly that the idea of a tee time or a casual nine holes after a comp field with the course to yourself was the holy grail of golf – and only to be found at a private course.

Having now spent time back at a public course in a management capacity, I have a far greater respect and understanding of the issues faced by these courses but also of the various departments that are responsible for them. Often criticised by golfers and for that matter just about everyone in the community for being over-bureaucratic and having no common sense, they are pulled in multiple directions and have to do their best to cater for the whole community, not just one small part of it. Take for instance a non-native tree that has been planted in a bad place for golf or has just sprouted. At a private course it would just be cut down; at a public course it can’t be touched unless it’s dangerous, as the community lobby group that is pro-tree is much louder and more organized than the golfers.

There are many examples where those responsible for public golf are being pulled in multiple directions when it comes to big decisions and very often those in charge may not be golfers themselves. So I believe what golf needs is an organized focus of groups to help guide government bodies in a direction that makes public golf sustainable. While many people would say that should be the responsibility of the national body Golf Australia, I don’t think that would entirely work. GA has some fine people working specifically to benefit the game at grassroots level but it’s just too big a job, requiring large resources, and Golf Australia has plenty of different projects also pulling for funds. I’d like to see the national body help by developing a collaborative approach – by setting up guidelines and training for local focus groups to push the golf cause. Who are these local focus groups? The answer is: ultimately those with the most to gain and the most ability to assist – the local private clubs.

Back when I was a kid, the reason I couldn’t wait to join a private club was due to the health of the game at the public level. That demand at public golf level ultimately drives many people to seek a more exclusive product, which they find at private golf clubs. But here’s the thing: at the moment, for private clubs to sell memberships there has to be demand and gone are the days where you can just expect it to walk through the door. It’s a buyer’s market. I’d like to see the private clubs recognize that there is a tangible benefit to themselves by supporting and fostering golf at local public courses.

Aside from that benefit to themselves, private golf clubs should be taking on the pastoral attitude of working for the game itself. A club like Royal Melbourne has always seen itself like this. Why can’t others? In the relationship between Huntingdale and Oakleigh, for example, Huntingdale hopes – but does not demand – to get new members from the arrangement. Its GM Alex McGillivray is on record as saying that his club believes it has a responsibility to the game.

So, how can private clubs help public courses and by doing so help the game and create a pathway for golfers to private clubs? Well, private golf clubs ‘get’ golf; they have committees that are responsible for all the issues faced by their clubs. They have a wealth of expertise and a knowledge base at their disposal that public courses don’t. They can loan that to public golf courses. I mean, for goodness sake, if a private club has a wine committee, surely they can put a working group together to help look after the local public course. I am sure there are many occasions where the person at council scratching their head about an issue would love to be able to just pick up the phone and ask an expert for advice.

I am not suggesting private clubs need to be financially responsible for public golf. Knowledge and an attitude of stewardship of the game should be enough. It’s available and it’s needed. At the end of the day, the health and vitality of public golf is a very good indicator of the overall health of the game.