Ken Brown is vexed. So is Ian Poulter, a fellow Ryder Cup star. And so are 10,000 signatories to a petition signed by Brown and Poulter aimed at preventing Stockwood Park Golf Centre, a municipal golf course in Luton, 30 miles north of London, being closed by Luton Council because it is uneconomic. The battle of Stockwood Park is well and truly joined and victory by one side or the other probably will come within a few months.
Will the council close the course because it is loss-making or will a band of golf enthusiasts, who have raised more than £300,000 already for their cause, be able to step in and run it? Or will the council sell it to a private developer and realise a considerable sum that could be used to provide housing or for some other non-golf use?
Feelings are running high. Portray it as a fight between the goodies who want to save the course and the baddies who can’t afford it any longer and you get some idea of the feelings. Luton Council outsources its leisure facilities to a body called Active Luton. “Active Luton?” Declan Duggan, the articulate and energetic leader of a popular campaign to save the club, said. “Inactive Luton more like. They are looking the other way. They have been running it down deliberately. My grandchildren could run it better. Its green acres are the last lungs left in Luton. It is a great asset, landscaped and beautiful. And it is safe.”
Brown lives five miles away and has known it since he was a child. “It’s a fabulous facility,” he said. “For it to be shut is ridiculous. In its pomp it had 50,000 rounds a year. If Stockwood Park closes, no public course has a hope anywhere.”
Municipal courses in the UK have years of history introducing players to golf at a time when newcomers had very few routes into the game. But not any more. As other types of golf clubs have opened up, so municipal courses have become rarer. In its heyday the (British) National Association of Public Golf Courses had 200 courses as members. Now it is fewer than 100. Councils under considerable financial pressures to run libraries, schools, roads, swimming pools and provide housing etc, are not receiving the returns they once were. As the income from municipal courses declines, so the course maintenance decreases.
"Councils are sitting on valuable land of say 150 acres which they could sell for millions and reduce the drain on their resources. It is sad but I think we could see the end of municipal courses within 20 years.”
Rob Maxfield, PGA chief executive
“The day the bin men don’t turn up, what happens?” Rob Maxfield, chief executive of the PGA, said. “Some of the greenkeepers from the local municipal course are switched to emptying bins, which means courses are not being kept as well as they should be.
“Golfers are more nomadic these days. They have a lot more opportunities to play and often where they go to play is better than their municipal course. Also, councils are sitting on valuable land of say 150 acres which they could sell for millions and reduce the drain on their resources. It is sad but I think we could see the end of municipal courses within 20 years.”
Jeremy Tomlinson, chief executive officer of Golf England, understands what is going on. “I was a member of one (a municipal course) once,” he said. “It was wonderful, a spit and sawdust sort of place. The players there were totally driven. They often played 54 holes a day and they couldn’t care less about the bar. I went there to compete.”
Soon though, Tomlinson moved to a private club as so many others have down the years. Private clubs are where the growth is. The result is that municipal courses have had declining numbers of rounds played, a falling income and perhaps an annual loss.
“The problem is the history of these courses,” Tomlinson said. “No one doubts the heritage of many of these public courses but many have not moved with the times. History has to be relevant in this day and age.”
As discussions are going on about closing down Stockwood Park, Allestree Park Golf Club in Derby, Whitewebbs Park Golf Course in north London and several municipal courses in Scotland, so golf is booming. The pandemic has been good for the game, creating a surge in interest from those who have been unable to play the games they once favoured. In Scotland, golf has continued in one form or another this year but courses in Wales only reopened recently. In England this morning, the sound you are hearing is that of frustrated golfers rushing to their clubs to play for the first time for months.
In November 1980 I wrote an article in The Sunday Times about Thorpe Wood, a municipal golf club in Peterborough, a city 100 miles north of London, which had a golf course built by the council. The running of this course was subcontracted to Dennis and Roger Fitton, father and son golf professionals, who had complete control of their domain. They ran it at a profit for themselves and the council. The headline on the story told it all: “Catering for the masses – to everybody’s taste.”
Last week I telephoned that same golf club and found Simon Fitton, a fourth generation of the golfing Fittons, to be in charge. He had just returned to his office from doing some mowing. Nothing like a hands-on boss, I thought. I asked him how Thorpe Wood continued to do well when many other municipal courses are or have not?
“We are lucky here in that our location is crucial,” Fitton replied. “We are right in the city centre. We keep it simple. We have no concerns about catering and we have incentives to encourage people to play on one of our two courses. We built a driving range in 2012. I lease two public golf courses from a Trust but don’t think that body is any less commercial than a council would be. The commercial requirements are exactly the same. At our peak in the ’80s and ’90s we had 75,000 rounds. Our low point at Thorpe Wood was 36,000 in 2015 but this summer I expect us to be up to 45,000 or even 50,000.”
Perhaps the ideal outcome of the battle of Stockwood Park is for the council and Active Luton to let its municipal golf centre be taken over by Stockwood Park Golf Academy Committee Interest Company (perhaps if successful they could consider a shorter name), who have promised to “ … focus on reducing the cost and improving the quality, range and value of products and services offered.” SPGACIC have said: “The golf centre pavilion will be upgraded to accommodate a ‘Community Hub’ that will serve local residents and all park users to make the park a safe space for everyone.”
That would relieve the council of a project for which it appears to have little affection, ensure that a much-loved golf centre remains available to members of the public and please Messrs Brown and Poulter and the thousands of signatories to the petition. That might satisfy all parties.
Top: Stockwood Park Golf Centre