Golf Boom Should Not Overshadow Course Closures
THERE has been an unprecedented boom in golf participation numbers in 2020 despite the devastating impact of Covid-19 upon the health and wellbeing of the nation. Estimates vary on the number of new golfers in the UK, but it is thought that as many as 100,000 men, women and children have either taken up or returned to the game since the first lockdown came to an end in May. It is, of course, wonderful news, all the more so when you learn that we are finally seeing the average age of club golfers coming down.
It has been a source of concern to everybody involved in the game that it has been so difficult to attract younger players and we finally seem to have turned the corner, with golf clubs the length and breadth of the UK reporting that they are bursting at the seams. Some clubs have even had to put up the “course full” notices.
So all is well in the world of club golf, right? Hardly.
For far too many clubs, the boom came too late. In recent weeks we have seen the closure of Letham Grange in Scotland, Carswell GC in Oxfordshire, Moore Place GC in Surrey and uncertainty surrounds the Harry Colt-designed Allestree Park in Derbyshire. And that is without taking into account the closure of the council run courses in Glasgow and Ayrshire. Scotland, remember, is regarded as the home of golf, and these closures simply prove that nowhere is immune. And when the doors close, they will not reopen. Ever.
Allestree Park has been told it must close at the end of December. Its local council had wanted to sell the municipal venue because ‘the course operated significantly below capacity and at a deficit on a consistent basis, which was unsustainable.’
A public consultation found three quarters of consultees saying they believed the course was important and should be retained, but the council stated: “Following due consideration of the outcomes of both the consultation and expressions of interest exercises, that no viable business proposals to operate the golf course were submitted and that golf provision at Allestree Park would cease on 31 December.”
Golfshake Ambassador Andrew Picken has been completing his own investigation behind the rich origins of the golf course, which was founded 1930 as Derbyshire Golf Club. It closed during the war and re-opened as Allestree Park GC in 1948.
The council says that the golf course will be returned to parkland, but the window for potential bids will stretch into the New Year, following news that the course is set to be placed in a mothballed status for a period after the closure.
Letham Grange Golf Club in Angus has already closed.
“It is quite sad it has come to this,” said former club secretary Bruce Currie in Bunkered. “The owner isn’t doing anything at all and the situation has only got worse. I believe he has turned down an offer of £6m for the estate as well, which is really surprising. We dealt with him for two years, never heard from him and never understood what he was up to, and that remains to be the case.”
All of the club’s remaining funds, have been donated to causes deemed worthy by the committee, as agreed at the club’s final general meeting.
The principal recipient is the newly-formed ‘Letham Grange Junior Golf Development Fund’ run by the Angus County Golf Association, which has received £8,300.
Currie added: “Obviously it’s disappointing that we have had to shut such a brilliant club but I think this is a nice way to go out. Letham Grange Golf Club can live on, supporting junior golf in the community and, to me, that’s a nice thought.
“Everyone at the club has joined other golf clubs now but this course will always be remembered by everyone who had the opportunity to be a member here.”
Cash donations were also made to two local foodbanks and two cancer research organisations. Food Parcel Old and Abbey Parish Church received £1,380, while Angus Foodbank Arbroath benefited to the tune of £1,382. The remaining money was sent to Prostate Cancer UK (£691) and Breast Cancer Care Scotland (£691).
(Letham Grange Was Known as Scotland's Augusta)
There is a some optimism. Hilltop Golf Club in Birmingham closed in January at the start of a three-year redevelopment programme, with Mytime Active partnering with Birmingham City Council to invest £1.2m. It is claimed that there will be a refurbished clubhouse, a new nine-hole golf course, driving range and dedicated 18-hole Footgolf course.
Chris Deadman, Midlands Regional Manager of Mytime Active says: “Our vision for Hilltop focuses on the long-term sustainability of the site, going beyond traditional 18-hole golf to serve as a welcoming community space to improve wellbeing in our neighbourhood for generations to come. With the support of the council we are now in a position to develop the facilities and services we offer and we are excited to get started.”
During the 1980s and 1990s many farmers decided to turn their land over to golf and, for a time, there was a boom. But the vast majority of these courses have now closed.
In 1980 there were roughly 1,200 courses in the UK and Ireland and by 2000 this figure had increased to around 1,800. But then things began to change. As the economy suffered, many people decided to walk away from the game and 12 months ago around 160 courses had shut for good. And this number has continued to rise.
The biggest surprise is that we haven’t seen more permanent closures in 2020. We saw a 12-week lockdown in March. When courses were allowed to reopen it was almost impossible to find a tee-time anywhere, so casual golfers took the decision to join clubs for the first time or to return to a sport they had left. Slowly, clubs began to recover - only to face another four-week lockdown across England in November. The clubs and courses that have survived and thrived are to be congratulated - they suspended, deferred and delayed subscription fees, they opened their arms to new members, they adapted their courses to the new Covid restrictions and they ensured that clubhouses became a safe environment.
As somebody who has played the game for longer than I care to remember, I feel mixed emotions. It is wonderful to see people flocking back to the game, but when courses designed by legendary architects such as Harry Colt and James Braid are forced to close it brings a lump to my throat. Yes, we should rejoice in this boom and hope that it lasts. But please spare a thought for the courses that will never host golfers again.
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