The pandemic’s transformation of a Melbourne golf course into a public oasis has become part of a broader movement to open up these spaces for community use. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The case for handing golf courses back to the public
A few weeks into Melbourne’s four-month lockdown of 2020, messages began appearing on local Facebook groups: a hole had been cut in the cyclone fence of Northcote Golf Club, in the city’s inner north. Golf, like all community sports, was now outlawed and locals were increasingly entering the lush, 24-hectare expanse for their state-prescribed hour or two of exercise.
For a while, these perimeter breaches existed in a grey legal light between trespass and informal acceptance. But after the crowds grew, the local council eventually gave its blessing for continued public use of the course, at least for as long as golf was prohibited.
Locals developed a taste for the land, which was conspicuously larger and more beautiful than most nearby parkland, and petitions quickly circulated for the public land to be permanently “unlocked”. Darebin Council leases the land to the nine-hole course, and in Victoria’s 2020 local government elections it became a central issue in the campaigns of most candidates.
Meanwhile, other Melbourne courses were being similarly used by the public during lockdown – Burnley, Yarra Bend and Malvern Valley courses filled with picnickers and dog-walkers. And there were different precedents: in 2018, after lengthy debate, Melbourne’s Bayside council agreed to transform the unpopular and unprofitable Elsternwick Park Golf Course into public wetlands. Work began two years ago.
And while the local desire to “unlock” the Northcote Golf Course emerged from the strange circumstances of lockdown, public objection to golf’s unusual monopoly of land is neither unique to Melbourne nor to Covid-19 restrictions. For years, the lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, has argued for the 18-hole Moore Park course to be halved, with the excised land transformed into wetlands. In 2019, Brisbane City Council shared the results of its public survey on the use of the 45-hectare Victoria Park Golf Course: of 16,000 respondents, 86 per cent supported its transformation into parkland. The final round of golf was played on June 30 last year, and the course was replaced with the largest park opened in the city in half a century. It retained its driving range and minigolf course.
And so, in 2020, Darebin Council announced a period of community consultation before it would announce its decision on the future of the course. Various community groups emerged and prosecuted the basic spectrum of arguments: to exclusively retain golf, to wholly reject it, or to share the space.
But interest wasn’t just local. The chief of Golf Australia, James Sutherland, saw his game threatened. He sent a letter to members, encouraging them to contribute to the Darebin survey. “At Golf Australia we don’t have a problem with people enjoying their green space,” he wrote. “Who would have an issue with that? But we take exception to the notion that golf courses, pristinely presented and maintained with the help of golfers’ money, should give up their space permanently.”
Last week, Darebin Council finally announced their solution. The course would be retained but shared, with a 3pm curfew placed upon golfers. And a portion would be redeveloped for public use. “We’ve worked hard to balance our passionate community’s wide range of views with this decision,” Darebin Mayor Lina Messina said. “Despite some people wanting to see this important space used purely for golf or as a park, tonight’s outcome meets everyone in the middle.”
James Sutherland wasn’t happy. “The suggestion that the course should shut at 3pm is ludicrous,” he said. “We will not stand for it. The idea of the last tee off at 1pm would exclude so much of the community that use this facility. What about the tradies just finishing work? What about the kids after school? What would happen if we stopped footy, cricket and soccer clubs from using facilities post 3pm? They would be extinct, and golf is no different.”
But golf is different. Uniquely so. And before I explain why, I should make a personal disclosure.
It was like a portal. And like the wardrobe to Narnia, it appeared in modest form: the slyly cut hole in the ring fence of the local golf course. Suddenly, surprisingly, our community – in the midst of Melbourne’s long lockdowns – had its very own Central Park. I’ve lived within walking distance of the course for a decade and had never before experienced this expansive “oasis” – in the promotional words of the golf course itself.
The temporary opening of this “oasis” allowed for its contrast with adjacent public spaces: the congestion of the Merri Creek trail, say, or the relative modesty and dullness of the adjacent oval. It’s an issue of both size and quality, and the comparison between the beautiful, thoughtfully designed course and what’s typically available to the public was stark.
This temporary opening of the golf course awoke locals to what’s possible, and it became a key issue in the Darebin Council elections of 2020. “The golf course is nestled amongst the highest number of parks in Darebin,” argued local group Save Northcote Golf Course. “In fact, it is the only place in Darebin where literally every single home has access to a park.”
But this ignored the type and quality of those parks. There was another view, offered by experts in landscape architecture from the University of Melbourne, Wendy Walls and Jillian Walliss, in a 2020 piece for The Conversation: “Function has long dominated quality when defining urban open space … All parks have not been created equally.”
I suppose it depends on where you live, but suburban parkland is typically functional and brutally unimaginative: there’s an oval and some cricket nets. And what’s more, we all share it. Sutherland’s hypothetical – that we consider a curfew on the grounds that host footy, cricket or soccer clubs – is absurd. They’re always open. And they always have been.
To believe that 24 public hectares in the inner suburb of a large city should be exclusively reserved for a niche recreation of declining popularity did not seem to me a strong argument. That argument often went something like this: the golf course has long existed, and so it must long continue. But the fact that it has existed doesn’t, ipso facto, grant an inviolable right that exists in perpetuity. Especially not when the course is so frequently empty.
The development of cities, and the use of public space, evolves. Populations grow; priorities change. Northcote Golf Course was opened in 1962, on sparse land given to dairy farming and a rubbish tip, when Melbourne’s population was a little under two million. Today, it’s five million – and the surrounding land is no longer sparse. What’s more, while the population has substantially increased, the use of the course has decreased. Since 2011/12, the number of rounds played at the course has reduced by 24 per cent – a decline that’s mirrored nationally. It’s the same in the United States. Between 2003 and 2018, there were 6.8 million fewer recreational golfers – and at least 1200 fewer courses.
The salient point in the debate over the Northcote course is that the contested space is public land. The golf club leases it from the council, and for the past five years has also been subsidised to the tune of $140,000 a year. This in itself shouldn’t preclude its existence. Society contains multitudes and governments subsidise unpopular things all the time – as they should.
What’s more, the Northcote course is both public and cheap – for some, it may be the only affordable course in reasonable proximity. “This course is a big part of my life and my whole family too,” Faye Edwardson, an elderly player who’d enjoyed the course for two decades, told A Current Affair. “Please let us be. For women of our age, golf is a social outing. We just enjoy the exercise and spending time with each other.”
The golf course, like all other public sporting places, is a site of social connection – however decreasingly – and it’s why my own contribution to the community survey preferred shared use and not the extinction of golf. During these debates, one local advocate, Brian Jennings, made the good point that not all golfers are Donald Trump – that there are poor enthusiasts and they rely on cheap courses like Northcote to play.
But Jennings couldn’t admit that his sport is also uniquely, almost ostentatiously, demanding of resources. An 18-hole course is typically 45 hectares – or 450,000 square metres. Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens are smaller. While Northcote is a nine-hole course, it is still larger than the three nearest parks combined. Compare this with skateboarding, basketball or tennis. Or consider that the majority of organised footy and cricket games are played on shared public spaces. Golf’s footprint is dramatically immodest and exclusive.
I don’t want golf to die, any more than I want obscure Brechtian theatre to die. I enjoy neither, but like that they exist, and I’ve never forgotten that my grandfather’s ashes are spread over the course on which he once scored a hole in one. And it’s not golf’s fault that suburban park design is offensively functional, or that cities are growing unboundedly, or that so many suburbs are aesthetically impoverished. But they are, and the future of golf in our cities may increasingly look like Northcote’s.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "A say on the green".
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