COVID-19 has been a double-edged sword for Australian golfers: It’s proved a boon for some, a nightmare for others.
Participation numbers shot up through the worst of the pandemic as people realised golf offered the ideal pandemic-busting recipe of exercise, fresh air and a chance to socialise with friends. Every segment of the Australian market enjoyed a material bounce through 2020, with both male and female demand up 21 percent. Metropolitan markets were up 27 percent, while regional numbers increased by 17 percent on 2019.
Crucially for the industry, rounds played by people in the 20-49 age bracket skyrocketed 44 percent after the first wave of lockdown restrictions in April. This increase came despite Melbourne, the country’s second most populous city, being in lockdown from April to November when no golf was allowed anywhere.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is malign forces were at work trying to undermine the grand old game and those who enjoy it.
In the hipster Melbourne suburb of Northcote – a place rich with baristas and beards – locals used the nine-hole public golf course as a picnic ground during lockdown. Residents cut a wire fence to access the rolling green space, prompting the city of Darebin to throw open the public course’s gates while golf was banned. Picnic rugs were spread on greens, dogs walked down fairways and kids frolicked in sandpits which, pre-Covid, were called bunkers.
When the worst of the pandemic passed in November and golfers were allowed to resume playing, some of the Northcote locals were reluctant to relinquish their newly acquired green space.
A Facebook page titled Community to Unlock Northcote Golf Course was set up to “reclaim” the land and quickly amassed 2,800 followers. Local resident Ruth Liston, who used the park three times a week during lockdown, told Melbourne’s The Age newspaper she was gutted golf was resuming:
“Losing that green space is devastating,” said Liston, whose vision for the area does not include golf. “It's been an absolute lifesaver for us during lockdown for walks, for picnics, for socially distancing with friends, for seeing people and feeling like part of a community, for connecting with nature.”
Australian golf is generally an egalitarian pastime. Drive through country towns of any size and you’ll invariably see tennis courts, a golf course, a football oval and netball courts. These are the staple sports for regional Australians.
As if COVID-19 has not done enough damage around the world already, devastating communities and ruining economies, now the quaint and popular pastime of community golf is in its sights – and Australian golfers are braced for their share of pain.
In the drier parts of the country, golf course greens do not actually consist of green grass – which is too difficult to keep alive – but oiled sand or “sandscrapes” as they are known.
Sure, clubs like Royal Melbourne and Royal Sydney exist, but these top-end establishments are in the minority. Public-access golf is the norm and players don’t have to travel far to find good-quality public courses.
For regular Northcote golfers – a knockabout bunch who are no-one’s idea of an elite, white-collar set – the fact their beloved 24-hectare plot is under threat has caused much heartache.
Bill Jennings, who launched the We Play Golf at Northcote website, believes sharing the course is a slippery slope towards having it closed totally to golfers.
He told The Age that the public course was one of the few affordable ways for new and diverse players to discover golf.
“I understand the stereotypes about elite, entitled, privileged white people characterised by people like (US President) Donald Trump and (Australian TV personality) Sam Newman,” Jennings said. “That is not us. You know, people who play down there are not those people.”
Mark Cooley, who uses the course at least once a week, created a new Facebook group to save the course. “It really is an asset to the community as a golf course," he said.
Sydney has similar problems. The coronavirus pandemic has reignited a squabble about golf courses in densely populated parts of Australia’s largest city.
At the heart of the debate is picturesque Moore Park Golf located on prime land, a kilometre or two from Sydney’s central business district. It, too, is under pressure from people who want to use that green space for recreation other than golf.
Unfortunately for regular Moore Park golfers, the group supporting that idea includes Clover Moore, Sydney’s Lord Mayor. She wants to halve the size of the course to free up more parkland for public use.
Moore said it was “scandalous” a large part of the golf course across the road from apartment towers in inner Sydney remained off-limits during the pandemic, despite the land on which it sits bequeathed for public use.
“The Redfern part of Moore Park is absolutely buzzing with people, and you just look across the fence to the golf course and there might be two or three golfers in there,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald. “There has been tremendous pressure on our parks right across the metropolitan area. It is vital that this land is shared with the broader community.”
Club director John Janik said he does not see “any justification” for the new plans, arguing the course had always been meant for the public's enjoyment.
“Golf is perceived to be elitist, but that’s not the case. It’s a public course. It’s meant for the people of Sydney,” he said.
The 18-hole layout, built in 1913, covers 45 hectares of inner-city land. Janik said the number of people playing Moore Park has surged during the pandemic, with rounds played in 2020 up by about 20,000 on the previous year.