Public Golf's Survival Story

Northcote Golf Course, in Melbourne’s inner-north, was opened up to the public during our extended lockdown in late 2020, providing additional outdoor space for a community restricted to outdoor gatherings.

Photographed and Written by William Watt

It’s 1991. This is going to be my first real experience of golf. I’m on my way to a school holiday clinic at Elsternwick Golf Club, a south-east suburb of my home town Melbourne. I’m eight years old, and a bag of nerves. Walking in, it’s a feast for the senses. The shiny clubs scattered around the clubhouse gleam in the window light. There are golfers wandering around in funny shoes, laughing with each other in small, happy groups. We’re led through to the practice green where our coach is waiting, a friendly looking man with a crisp polo and generous smile. We’re given putters and putt around the green for a while, getting to know some of the basics of golf (get the ball in the hole — seems pretty simple), the terms for the different clubs and so on. We then head for the range to try out a full swing.

About ten minutes in, after a bit of experimentation, a moment of pure contact, just as the coach was walking past. “You’ve got a good swing there young man. Really good!” he said. I’m pretty chuffed. I was decent at sports, but not a stand out in anything in particular (and indeed would prove to not be a stand out at golf either). But something about swinging the club made sense to me — the idea of not ‘hitting’ the ball, but swinging right on through it. That clicked for me almost immediately. That amazing feeling of solid contact, of thrusting a small white orb up, up and up into the rich blue sky. I had just got that feeling within my first hour with a club in my hands, a feeling I would be addicted to for the rest of my life.

I must have shown some enthusiasm when I got home, because Mum mentioned that I could have her set of clubs if I wanted. “You have golf clubs?!” I asked incredulously. I had never heard of mum playing golf, and the thought that someone in my household had access to this amazing game and wasn’t doing it blew my tiny mind. “Yeah, they’re in the garage, I never use them.”

“I can have them?” I confirmed, dumbstruck. I sprang to my feet and ran out to the garage.

Our garage was cavernous — dark, dusty and guaranteed to be housing several deadly Australian spiders, which is why I’d normally avoid it. I scanned the room for the golf clubs. There! Right up the back. A glint of metal. I scrambled over the lawnmower, empty suitcases and boxes, clouds of dust entering the air as I went. Leaning against the wall, a sky blue bag with about ten clubs in it. I did a quick audit. Putter? Check. Irons? Yep, plenty. Woods? Oooh yes indeed. There was a beautiful 4-wood in there, which, as I brushed away the dust with my thumb, revealed a rich deep red wooden grain and the word ‘Taipan’ engraved into its metal soleplate. So cool! I hauled the clubs out of their resting place, through the dust cloud and out into the backyard. I started exploring the pockets on my new prized possession. Golf balls in this one — sweet. A bag of tees too — nice. And … what’s this?A redback spider crawls out and nearly catches my hand! A deep clean is required. Ten minutes later and the whole set looks, to my youthful eyes at least, as good as new.

The next morning I’m on the tram with my clubs gleaming, and the conductor gives me a wink. “Daily concession please,” I ask. “Off for a round of golf are ya matey?” he asks as he punches a hole my ticket. “Yeah,” I say sheepishly, butterflies in my stomach about the prospect of arriving at the course and playing a whole round. I don’t really know what to expect, but I’ve looked up the nearest golf course, Wattle Park, and have $20 in my pocket. That’s enough for an all day tram ticket, 9 holes at Wattle Park, and maybe a Kit Kat for the ride home. Does it get any better than this?

Scenes from Northcote Golf Course which was closed to golfers, and open to picnickers, during one of Melbourne’s extended lockdowns.

Thirty years later, and I can’t imagine life without golf. The joy that this game has given me, in so many different ways, over those years is quite incredible. But Elsternwick golf course, where I had that lightning bolt of love for the game strike me between the eyes, was recently closed down, converted to “passive, open recreation space for the whole community to enjoy” according to the council press release. It’s a reflection of a broader trend: public golf courses all over the world are coming under increasing pressure to do the same, or to be developed for housing or other uses deemed more worthy. During the extended Melbourne lockdown last year, Northcote Golf Course, a public 9-hole facility, was opened to the public, and picnickers enjoyed the beautiful spaces and wondered why they hadn’t been allowed there before. While they may have lacked the appreciation of the history of the site (a former trash dump and over 50 years operating as a golf course) and the fact that green fees had paid for the upkeep and beautification of the land, they had a point. Just because the picnic mafia didn’t play golf, was that a reason to exclude them completely from public land? They pointed to the fences around the property and said “that’s not fair, that’s our land too.”

The argument for this public land to remain the sole domain of golf is a difficult one to prosecute — as great as we all know golf is, it’s only a small percentage of any given community who actually play. My initial reaction was to say, well, why don’t you take up golf if you’re enjoying the golf course so much? But justifying the amount of land needed, especially in these inner city areas, for just a portion of the local population (golfers) to enjoy, is just never going to add up. Even one of Australia’s busiest public golf courses, Moore Park, can only lay claim to 50,000 rounds per year — that’s rounds, not people, so the population enjoying that site is likely less than half that. At best it’s 10% of the local population, figures Golf Australia would be thrilled with. But that still means 90% of locals are excluded from the site unless they are inclined to play golf.

Yet public golf truly is the heart of the game. It’s how I, and millions of other passionate golfers, found the game. Without accessible, affordable public golf, the tap of new golfers coming to the game won’t be turned off completely, but it would be reduced to a trickle.

The consequences of this dramatic shift in newcomers to the game probably wouldn’t be felt for decades. But eventually, even the famous private clubs will see their new memberships dry up and fall into distress. The destination golf course industry, currently in a Golden Era of development as baby boomers continue to golf in big numbers, and a new generation inspired by Tiger Woods start to devote chunks of their growing disposal income towards it, would find less and less visitors coming each year. With a diminishing pool of golfers, the financial models just won’t add up, and we’ll have to start reporting on great courses closing, not new ones opening. Big Equipment, currently focussed on fighting the inevitable, logical and much-needed distance rollback, will have no one to sell their high tech clubs and balls to. Magazines like this one in your hands, will have no readers, and so will simply not exist. Every golfer, and every golf industry job, would be affected eventually. If all that sounds a bit dramatic, ask a few friends where they learned to play golf. I’ll wager a good portion of them learned the game, and grew their love of golf, at a public golf course. If we lose these precious Petri dishes of golf culture, to become parklands or to development, the game is cooked. Even more critically — there’s no getting these spaces back once they’re gone from our cities, as the pressure for space will only continue to grow. If we don’t save these courses now, they are gone forever.

So what can we do about it? Well, what if we could share the public golf space with a broader audience? Are there opportunities for getting more people in the community involved in these spaces, without negatively affecting the golf experience, or taking away that critical pathway into the game? The concept of ‘mixed use’ sends shudders through some in the golf community, but with innovative ideas and considered design, perhaps it doesn’t have to be the slippery slope that many fear. We put it out to you, our readers, to see what thoughts you have for increasing the versatility and use of this land. As a hypothetical exercise, nothing is off limits. Next edition, we’ll publish any ideas that embrace the community and solidify the future for public golf.
Our hope is that by opening up our minds to the future usage of these public golf courses, and encouraging operators to think outside the fences, we can help save them from closure and bring public golf courses back into the heart of the communities they reside in.