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Funny money
The age-old adage that the richer you get the more you get given certainly applies in golf. When you become obscenely rich you are given obscene amounts of money for no reason other than for turning up to play. You don't have to win, you don't even have to play particularly well, you yourself are the exhibition and your golf is secondary.

Tiger Woods was paid $2.5 million to appear in Dubai last week. With only $2.2 million in prize money available to the rest of the field, not only did the sponsors make clear that Tiger was worth more than the rest of the field put together, but also that his actual attendance was more important than the event itself.

Many will find it surprising that the professional golfers associations of the world have allowed this situation to develop for if the rest of the field failed to turn up there would be no tournament, and therefore no venue for the Tiger to demonstrate his pulling power. Somebody should also point out that unless the growth of the game is supported at the grass roots level, interest in it and thus the size of its market place will diminish. Tiger's pulling power will become increasingly unrewarding.

Golf has become the most widely played of all sports and, angling apart, enjoys more participants than any other game. It is, with the possible exception of polo, the most expensive game to play and therefore the most discriminating in its recruitment and the most vulnerable to downturns in the economy. Most sports can be taken up and put down without much thought to expense; golf requires not only the support of a bank manager but also the advice of an investment analyst. Hardly surprising, then, that golf has become synonymous with affluence and the main means of demonstrating status. The game has become a style accessory in itself. The club you belong to, the gear you wear and the equipment you play with are statements of social significance. Your handicap and whether or not you actually play the game are secondary, if not irrelevant.

Given that the game has become a social accoutrement, it is hardly surprising that the standards of clubhouse facilities and the presentation of the golf course have become more important than access to the game. It would appear to matter little if only the well heeled can access the game so long as what they are accessing is of the very highest standard. In even the oldest established Scottish clubs, subscriptions have increased leaps and bounds in recent years as the members clamour for four star services in the clubhouse and the course presented to Augusta pristine standards.

Why? There is no reason why a golf club need be any more than simply that for which it was founded - a place to play the game with the necessary facilities for changing and refreshing.

There is no doubt that there is an increasing demand for golf in Scotland and in the world at large. Surveys have shown it and market research have prompted banks to invest in it. The waiting lists for club membership are such that some 60 courses would be needed to satisfy the demand. These courses are not being built and the few that have been made are clearly not for public consumption and are virtually all in financial straits - as are many of the old established Scottish club courses that have over-stretched their resources to provide more sumptuous facilities. The investment that has been made in golf in recent years has been for improved standards of services and not for more extensive provision to the game.

It is not necessary to build multimillion-pound courses. Perfectly adequate tracks could be built for less than a tenth of current construction costs. Less than 100 years ago, golf courses were put together by a few enthusiasts with little more than a shoestring at their disposal. The better off might have Tom Morris look at a site in the morning and, after he had directed where the greens should be, he would have a light lunch and play it in the afternoon. It was hardly brain surgery and it was a long way from civil engineering.

Today, many of these courses are considered masterpieces, thanks to the generations of men who devoted themselves to improvement while balancing the books and keeping costs to a minimum.

To the best of my knowledge no equity holding traditional Scots club has been founded in the last 50 years. This clearly reflects the attitude of local planning authorities and the perceived capital required for construction. With the government spending huge sums to persuade people to adopt more active and healthy life styles, one would have thought that special support for local authorities to construct municipal courses would be high on the agenda. It appears, however, that golf is not on the agenda at all - despite the fact that through one tax or another, the government take from golf has been estimated in excess of over £200 million a year. If it returned only 10% of that sum, the demand for golf could be satisfied at a stroke and everyone from the home secretary to the Department of Health, not to mention the departments for sport and employment, would benefit.

A few dyed-in-the-wool conservationists, who have yet to notice that you cannot get anything greener than a golf course, might complain but they would complain no matter what.

Another route to raising the ready cash for the construction of courses could come from those most benefiting from the game. If 10% was levied on all tournament monies and set aside for building low cost, unrestricted access courses, the demand would be satisfied in quick time. The cut from Tiger's appearance money alone in Dubai could produce two nice little nine-hole courses. He himself should think on this for any investment in the game would raise the demand for sporting goods and there would be even more sad, desperate people determined to tell the Tiger that he's the man!

So, the money is there and all that we have to do is lobby government and the Tour to distribute it. The mechanism for distribution exists in the national golf unions, the administrators of which are apolitical and democratically elected. These are the people at the grass roots of the game who have the knowledge and expertise to make it happen - given the money. Tiger and Tony (Blair), please note.

©    8 - MARCH 2004

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