The R&A’s pledge to grow golf moved beyond mere lip service last week.
The game’s governing body worldwide — excluding the United States and Mexico, which fall under United States Golf Association jurisdiction — has submitted a plan to convert Lethamhill Golf Course, a beleaguered Glasgow, Scotland municipal layout, into a golf-centric, family targeted, community facility.
The cost is expected to run in the neighbourhood of 10 million pounds, or about $17.5 million.
“We want to make golf more welcoming and inclusive for people of all ages and backgrounds,” Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, said in a release, “and so we need to appeal to them by offering a variety of fun and affordable activities that entice more families and young people into the sport.”
The R&A blueprint includes provisions for nine holes, a par-3 course, a short-game area, putting greens, a 25-bay floodlit driving range and adventure golf. Additional plans call for a cafe, fitness studio, indoor simulator, movie theatre, conference room and retail area.
By the time its community golf investment is completed next summer, the R&A will have a grassroots consumer test facility from which it can extrapolate reams of useful data on golfer engagement. Namely, how shorter, quicker forms of the game correlate to the golf experience.
More important, it will rehabilitate public golf in Glasgow with an affordable, accessible hub.
That’s at the heart of this project. Enticing new consumers to try the game requires an environment where pressure is non-existent and where golf can be consumed in a fast, fun and friendly atmosphere. This kind of facility should also appeal to longtime golfers seeking something less time-consuming.
If the project is successful, participation at other public courses in Glasgow is likely to rise. That could lead to the R&A trying more such models elsewhere.
“The prospect of establishing a facility in the very heart of the local community in northeast Glasgow provides an accessible pathway into golf and inspires people to get out, have fun and experience the many health benefits that playing golf with family and friends can provide,” Slumbers added.
For a willing municipality here in Canada, either in whole or scaled to suit, the model can foster community golf outreach and engagement.
That is timely. Across the country tenuous situations facing municipal golf simmer. Politicians in Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and other cities have suggested selling off courses. The City of Brantford sold off one last year. This despite public players accounting for approximately 84 per cent of all golfers in Canada and daily fee courses comprising 2,068 of Canada’s 2,298 golf facilities, according to the 2017 Golf Facilities in Canada study, the most recent report commissioned by Golf Canada and the PGA of Canada. And as we all know, golf’s popularity skyrocketed last summer.
Thunder Bay, Ont.’s situation exemplifies how battle scarred public golf has become. Having shuttered one public course, The Municipal in 2012, city council in the Northern Ontario community has put its remaining pair of courses, Strathcona and the Stanley Thompson-designed Chapples, on the clock with development a distinct possibility.
Staples of the city since 1925 and 1949 respectively, the closure of both would leave Thunder Bay, a city of 100,000 citizens, with two private clubs but no affordable public course option within city limits. That would devastate golf in that area.
Another contentious scenario is playing out in London, Ont.
There, with a vote of nine to five in favour, city council this past week formalized a recommendation to permanently close River Road, one of three courses the city owns, along with Fanshawe and Thames Valley. Its intention is to sell the River Road property and use the money “for the future health of London’s municipal golf system,” according to Scott Stafford, London’s head of parks and recreation, in a London Free Press story. City council is expected to make its decision final sometime next week. A separate Free Press story cited the city as saying the trio of facilities needs approximately $6 million in repairs to clubhouses and infrastructure but has only $160,000 in its reserve fund to conduct such updates. The courses were described in a 2019 London city corporate asset report as being “in poor to very poor condition.”
Could the R&A template in Glasgow or even a scaled-down version have been a viable alternative?
In Toronto, Revelhouse, an architecture firm, has suggested remodelling the city’s five courses in similar fashion. A story on blogto.com detailed a vision for Scarlett Woods in the city’s west end that included a reduction of golf holes but the addition of a gamified driving range, practice area, indoor mini-golf and golf simulators. There would also be land returned to the city. It should be noted Revelhouse said it had not formally discussed the vision with the city.
Could such a plan come to fruition? It would face major hurdles.
Not enough appointed officials take the time to find out what golf can be in their community. Too few are unwilling to reach out to qualified organizations such as Golf Canada, the PGA of Canada, the National Golf Course Owners Association or a provincial golf association for information. There are city officials across this country who believe public courses never require capital expenditure updates, infrastructure repairs, updated programming or any meaningful marketing and promotion. Many adhere to the “rich-man’s game” stereotype and, by extension, “golf pays for golf.”
I have nothing against baseball diamonds, soccer pitches, walking trails, public parks, arenas or other recreational offerings. I use those where I live. But all of them come with a cost to taxpayers and none have the potential to generate the kind of returns green fees, power cart rentals, corporate events, food and beverage services and merchandise can while being a significant platform for philanthropic causes.
More than ever municipal golf needs protection. It needs to be a priority and not an afterthought. Promoting it with accessible, affordable courses can make a difference to the game and its future.