With some of the world's best players assembling in St Andrews to take the stiffest examination in tournament golf, the town is sadly distracted.
The Dunhill Links Trophy is the biggest, richest and most demanding event in the European Tour season but this year it is a secondary topic in golf club bars. Contrasting and comparing the scores anticipated on the Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns would normally be preoccupying the betting men in the saloon but this year they are distracted by the tedious topic of local golf politics.
Empty barrels, it is said, make the most noise when thumped and it is also said that politics attracts the empty barrels of intellect. It should be added that golf, and particularly St Andrews golf politics, tends to attract the biggest and emptiest barrels of all.
It is a long held belief in the town that experts all come from somewhere beyond Guardbridge [a small town about four miles away]. It is also long since understood that the town's golf ailments are the special provenance of 'experts' and the more recently arrived, the more authoritative they are.
Expert opinion is currently in accord, St Andrews does not need a seventh golf course. Expert opinion would also appear to be clear on a whole raft of issues concerning the St Andrews Links, its management and administration - as it always has been. Indeed, knocking the Links Trust and the management committee has been a principal pastime of the retired grandees to the town since it was established by Act of Parliament in 1974. There are more experts on the exact wording of the Act than there are golfers in the town - and I use the term with the broadest possible meaning - and all are agreed that the Trust is going beyond itself with a course too far.
The new course is to be sited on the south side of the town on a seaside location commanding great views over the town and across the bay. Few would argue that it is not an excellent setting and many would be happy to see the neighbouring caravan site, long a blight on the southern prospect of the town, demolished in the process of the courses construction.
The objectors to the proposed new course are as diverse as their arguments. It is hardly surprising that the owners of the pay and play courses in the vicinity are to the fore.
The Old Course Hotel which owns and runs the Dukes Course as well as the St Andrews Bay Hotel, which runs a further two courses, are understandably miffed. The Dukes and the St Andrews Bay courses are under-utilised by locals so the logic flows that local demand is saturated. However, another explanation for why locals are not falling over themselves to pay and play these courses is that they are simply too expensive. Golf in St Andrews has always been a way of life and not, as it would appear to be in other parts of the world, a social accoutrement.
Businessmen who have invested in shops, bars and restaurants in the town are also opposed to the new development. They may well have a valid gripe with the Trust but they are using the issue of the seventh course to air their disquiet and are merely clouding the issue. The Trust issues vouchers to golfers who have paid a premium for booked tee times on the Old Course through the Old Course Experience - a long nurtured controversial deal between the Trust and the Keith Prowse Organisation. These vouchers can only be redeemed in the bars, restaurants and merchandise outlets in the Trust clubhouses and shop. Clearly, local businesses are disadvantaged by this but it is hard to see how a seventh course would affect this issue, no matter how concerning it is. Local businesses also argue that the costs of access to golf in St Andrews have become too high through the Keith Prowse deal and that it is deterring rather than attracting visitors. This may be true but again it is hard to see the logic in its relevance to another course that would increase choice, make the game more accessible, spread prices and hopefully attract a broader spectrum of visitors.
Predictably there is a vociferous opposition from a motley crew of conservationists and other sundry dissident Luddites. There always is and, healthily, there always will be. Over the issue of the seventh course their stance is hard to understand. St Andrews is sprawling to the south and west with some of the most unimaginative housing that architects have hitherto conceived, condoned by a planning authority in sore need of remedial education. It should be clear that the only way that this sprawl will be arrested and the pressure on the infrastructure of the town relieved is when St Andrews is ringed with golf courses to create a natural green belt. Further, if this can be achieved by the people and for the people - in other words through the aegis of the St Andrews Links Trust, then I for one am all for it. That such a development might reduce the rate of expert ingress is secondary but not unimportant.
The need for another course is clear enough. It was clear in 1998 when the Trust responded to local clubs' pressure to start investigating the possibility of another 18-hole course. There has been a 25% increase in play since 1995 and even although recent world events have slowed the increase in demand for play, it is still there and not likely to go away.
Thankfully the annual Dunhill jamboree has come round to distract us all from continuing to pick the golfing fluff out of our civic navel. Let us hope that the respite brings with it a reassessment of our collective lot in St Andrews and we together give thanks.
|| 22 - SEPTEMBER 2003