There was a time when golf was truly our national game in Scotland. Some would argue that it still is but that claim would fall on unreceptive ears, particularly for those waiting patiently in line for club membership, and on even duller ears for those who have to scrimp and save to meet the outrageous prices asked of the pay-and-play private investment courses.
There was a time when the game was accessible to every man. That day has long gone. The disease of social prestige associated with golf club membership that formed like a sore in 19th century England and grew into a cancer as golf evolved in the US has spread down into the roots of the game in Scotland. We have always had our socially prestigious golf clubs but they were few in number from the outset and the Scots working man had little difficulty finding a suitable bit of land, writing a constitution and, with a sympathetic and far sighted town council, putting together a golf club. It was cheap and cheery golf for every man and it brought about some great golf courses and some very great golfers.
There was a time when it was hard to find a Scottish man who did not play golf - or at least have given it a damn good try before taking up gardening, keeping pigeons or racing dogs; things much less testing. The fall-out rate may have been high but it was never due to the cost or lack of access to the game.
A Scottish Sport's Council Report published in 1991 concluded that 60% of all golf clubs have waiting lists. Some 16,000 men, 7,000 women and 7,000 juniors were awaiting access to golf back then. Thirteen years on you can bet that these figures have increased by at least 50% and little, if anything, has been done or is being done about it.
So what went wrong with our people playing our national game? The jury is still out on this question but it would be interesting to know how many municipal courses, or even the number of local club courses that have been built since prime minister Edward Heath's regionalisation programme was implemented in the 1970s.
At a stroke, local town councils were abandoned and replaced by large scale regional councils, burdened by bureaucrats, laden with layers of administration, designed to create chaos and limit progress to within the bounds set by social science graduates. Like politicians, such people found refuge in a newly created profession that did not expose their intellectual limitations. Particularly adept at producing reports, they have become even more adept at failing to produce the goods.
In short, the Scots heritage went down the tubes with the completion of regional council headquarters and the appointment of the suits that inhabit them.
We are led to understand that enough is enough. We are told that, with 1.3 holes of golf per 1,000 people, we have more holes of golf per head of population than anywhere else. Some 15% of adult Scots play the game (that's 500,000 people) and that two milion rounds are played each year. Yet it remains the case that from the waiting lists figures given, between 60 and 100 golf courses would have to be built to satisfy national demand. Golf is part of our national heritage and the fact that such numbers of Scots folk have to wait in line for a wee bit of their heritage is shameful.
We need more golf courses and we should be investing in our golfing heritage. We have no need for multi-million pound 'signature' courses or plush American style 'venue' courses. We simply need courses set on land that lends itself to golf. Land that drains freely, that has no agricultural value: land that has some form to it and requires little more than a JCB and a driver with some imagination.
There is no need for mower-patterned fairways or bunkers filled with sand from Bermuda. We have no need of greens built to USGA specifications and the most rudimentary of irrigation systems would suffice. Nine holes would do for a start, like those created for less than £100,000 at Dalmally or Durness. The 18 holes at Newmacher were made for less than $1 million and they are already contemplating another 18 holes.
The Scottish banks that suffered stupidly and appallingly in the grandiose schemes at Loch Lomond and Letham Grange were not investing in our golfing heritage for such places were never conceived as part of it from the outset. It is strange but true that with regard to investment in golf, fantasy reigns.
Even the most hard-headed businessmen lose their sense of reality when some gold developer nut with an architect in tow presents them with a pretty brochure. Such concepts of so-called 'championship' courses pay little heed to market research and the simple fact that pros appear to build courses for pros to play. The average club player plays off 18 and such places not only fleece him but also do little for his ego and even less for his sense of wellbeing.
Of course we need developers for it is clear that regional councillors and their administrators, being themselves members of old established clubs, see no need to continue the tradition of municipal courses and appear loathe to encourage developers. Significantly, 130 proposals for golf course construction were placed before regional planning authorities last year and one struggles to think of a course currently under construction.
Such has been the response of local authorities to the Sports Council report on local demand for play as well as their finding that 20% of all rounds played are played by tourists. Given the contribution of tourism to the Scottish economy, if the Tourist Board [Visitscotland] cannot influence local planning authorities there is little chance of local golfing pressure groups achieving anything.
Clearly we have to encourage developers and there are already good models to go on. In Fife, the Americans who built the great links course at Kingsbarns made special arrangements for local players and also for subscribers to the Scottish Golf Union to sample this magnificent layout. The two excellent courses at the St Andrews Bay Resort are also available to local club members at a special rate. This has not only integrated them into the local golfing ethos but has also increased local use of the hotel facilities. Everyone benefits, which is how it should be.
It is sad that the myopia of local authorities inhibits investment in our golfing heritage. What we need is a modern day Tom Morris regional councillor with a vision for the future of the game, whose wife is on the regional tourist board, with one sibling in the Health Department and another in the Education Department with a special remit to combat teenage flab.
It would be especially constructive if all of them were on a waiting list for golf club membership.
|| 9 - FEBRUARY 2004