Golf is surging. Tee sheets are full. Memberships are sold out. And still, Canadian municipal golf courses are under scrutiny. All things considered, it doesn’t make much sense.
The latest Canadian city to take a cold, hard look at their municipally run golf courses is Toronto. The largest city in the country has five courses under its ownership. Five for a population of nearly 5 million. There are 1,500 parks, but the five green spaces that have tees and greens are the ones with futures in question.
Could Toronto close them or turn them into public agricultural areas, as some have suggested? Sure. It wouldn’t be the first city to shutter a muni in the country. Last year, Brantford, Ontario, closed Arrowdale, a modest muni, selling the land for affordable housing. This spring, London, Ontario, permanently closed River Road after not opening the course in 2020 due to continued financial losses. Neither course was memorable or even very good; but that’s not the point. Both presented an affordable opportunity for the average player to connect with the sport.
At the same time, golf’s popularity is soaring, and munis, as well as practically all other Canadian courses, are packed. That’s why Laurence Applebaum, chief executive of Golf Canada, said the timing makes little sense.
“This is a bit of a holdover from before the pandemic, when there were some question marks around golf participation,” he said.
Golf Canada and Applebaum are taking a specific interest in the plight of Toronto’s city courses. “We’re leaning in on this one,” he says. “We want to be engaged and be part of the process. After all, there are 1,500 parks in Toronto and they are reviewing five of them. This is about golf.”
Toronto hired Ernst and Young to review its parks, and the accounting firm outsourced much of the research on municipal golf to a progressive urban planning firm called, strangely, Process. The marching order for the consultancies is to “assess opportunities for alternate recreational and community uses at city-operated golf courses in the context of demand for public recreational golf facilities.” In other words, has demand for golf diminished so significantly that the five city-run courses should be turned into something else?
“We’re leaning in on this one. We want to be engaged and be part of the process. After all, there are 1,500 parks in Toronto and they are reviewing five of them. This is about golf.”
Applebaum points out that isn’t the case. Even before the pandemic, golf’s popularity was rebounding. It was flat in 2017, but already on the rise heading into the pandemic. Now getting a tee time at one of Toronto’s courses – modest facilities like Scarlett Woods or the more highly regarded Don Valley, located just off Yonge Street – is a challenge.
The problems facing Canadian municipal courses are multifaceted. Once exceedingly popular, the courses, which offer reasonable membership and green fee rates, also became cash cows for their cities. Instead of putting money back into the courses, the cities used proceeds to fund other operations. That meant many courses had few regular updates of facilities. Bunkers went untouched, trees were allowed to overgrow, and the experience was diminished. Then golf slowed, and the courses no longer were city piggy banks. Instead, with challenges including higher labour costs and often lacking experienced professional management, the courses started hemorrhaging money. That led cities like London, Toronto, Thunder Bay, Calgary and others to start considering whether they should be in the golf business.
Other than funding issues, the courses also face a popular perception problem. Many see golf – even rustic facilities like Toronto’s Humber Valley – as some bastion of the entitled upper class, even though a junior golfer can play it for $32. Applebaum points out the city-run courses are a great starting point for new golfers, providing value for money. In a city like Toronto, those courses are also accessible, located on public transit lines. If you want to play other public courses in many Canadian cities, Toronto included, you have to have a car and be prepared to hit the highway.
That’s not to say everything is ideal with Canadian municipal courses. Many haven’t seen the financial support needed to create a positive experience for golfers. But the best – places like Lakeview in Mississauga, Ontario, or Vancouver’s Fraserview – offer quality golf for casual and serious players alike.
Applebaum is of the opinion a change in the narrative around municipal courses is needed. Like most, he’s in favour of alternative uses of courses in the offseason or finding ways to maximize their benefits during the warmer months. He points to the Canadian All Abilities Championship at Humber Valley as an example of making golf connect with everyone in a city, not just hardcore golfers.
The question really is what kind of cities do we want to live in? Recreational options, from arenas to soccer pitches, baseball diamonds to golf courses, make cities liveable. And no one ever raises the question of whether a soccer pitch or hockey arena generates a profit. They are simply an important part of vibrant urban life, as are municipal golf courses.
With any luck, the city of Toronto will reach the same conclusion.
Top: Don Valley Golf Course