Walk in the park: Golf courses around the world are under pressure to open up as parks for the general public

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May 3, 2020 3:40 AM

Nearly 7,000 people have signed a change.org petition to open up courses in the UK as parks during the pandemic.

People riding their horses at the Old Course at St Andrews, which is currently not open for playPeople riding their horses at the Old Course at St Andrews, which is currently not open for play

Every Sunday, and I’m not just referring to the Covid-19 lockdown period, the hallowed grounds of the Old Course at St Andrews—the home of golf—open up to the general non-golfing public. And no, it’s not a tradition: land-use laws in Europe include the ‘right to roam’. Which means that ‘links’—tracts of land stretching along the coast where the first golf courses were made, and which continue to house thousands of courses across the British isles—are required to give access, even if limited, to all and sundry.

It’s not such a big deal in Scotland, where golf is easily accessible to everyone: the country’s five million residents have around 600 courses at their disposal and most people can swing a club. The Scots are proud of their golfing heritage and aware of the game’s significant financial contribution to the economy; suffice to say that non-playing day trippers at the Old Course can be expected to treat the layout with as much veneration as golfers. Not surprisingly, there have been no reported incidents of vandalism or damage at St Andrews.

Now people want other courses to follow that precedent. Ever since social distancing became the norm on account of the corona outbreak, people in the UK have been scouring the landscape for open spaces to get some air and exercise. Nearly 7,000 people have signed a change.org petition to open up courses in the UK as parks during the pandemic.

Things have already moved further in the US. In San Francisco, people are already moseying around the rolling hills that made the Presidio Golf Course. Converted into a public park during the pandemic the course has reignited a debate about access to open spaces in America’s most densely populated city. With a surfeit of municipal golf courses, including numerous ones like Presidio GC that lie in crowded urban areas, people are asking why state-owned land is being used to serve the recreational needs of a few. You can’t blame them. A non-golfer walking the fairways for the first time in the middle of the city is likely to have an unprecedented communion with mother nature. And the obvious question he or she is likely to ask is why taxpayer-funded public property isn’t open to everyone.

As a golfer, there’s no question of which side of that debate my vote would go, but the for argument is not without merit. Perhaps the precedence set by St Andrews might provide a middle ground that works for everyone? On a tangent, it could certainly raise interest in a sport that desperately needs youngsters to gravitate to its ranks.

Hypothetically, in the unlikely event that your local course does or is forced to open its doors then would you join the masses? I’m quite certain the club committee would like me to do that along with everyone who plays there—not to have a picnic by the ninth, but to play marshal and keep an eye out for people who may unintentionally, or worse maliciously, decide to wreak havoc on the course. Given our penchant for that other game—the one played with a bat and ball—I wouldn’t put it past people trying to impale a large green with wickets. The soul shudders.

Someone once sent me a joke about hell being tantamount to being thrown on to a gorgeous golf course without clubs. Hopefully, God isn’t that sadistic. But in this dystopian time, wandering about on a course, brimming over with longing, a few golfers are experiencing hell on earth. Or perhaps they’ve snuck in a foldable putter and a ball in the picnic hamper. Who can blame them?

Some of us just can’t handle this estrangement. I mean golf is supposed to be our succour in bad times. It’s a double whammy to have to deal with the pandemic with all its emotional, social and financial implications, and not be able to flee to the golf course. I read about these gents in Newcastle, South Africa, who just snapped, snuck into their course and teed it up. Unfortunately, the two threeballs were seen by someone who promptly reported their infringement to the police. After being released on bail, one of the golfers gave an interview to a local daily in which he confessed that the group was desperately seeking to relieve the anxiety caused by the pandemic. “As business people, we are really taking strain,” continued the businessman. “Even though there is no cash flow, we are still paying staff their salaries even though they are at home and our overheads like rent or rates remain the same,” he said.

The unnamed businessman hastened to add that as responsible golfers he and his colleagues had taken strict measures to avoid contact. Each golfer was alone in his own golf cart. There was no sharing of equipment. They remained at least a couple of metres apart from each other, wore face masks and regularly applied hand sanitiser. I take his word for it; we golfers play by the rules.

At the risk of sounding selfish and reckless, I proffer that in the post-lockdown period, the golf industry might—at least in countries like Scotland and the US where it generates considerable revenue for the state—be one of the few economic sectors that can help weather the financial crisis. The Royal and Ancient released an amendment to the Rules a few weeks back with a slew of recommended measures aimed at negating a risk of infection from surfaces and other players. In any case, social distancing is almost natural in golf. The game is played in the outdoors, far from people and common surfaces. It’s also possible to limit, if not completely do away with interaction with fellow players. Goes without saying that taking a caddy shouldn’t be allowed.

At this point, there’s a great deal of anxiety about how we’ll get back to our ‘regular’ lives once the outbreak has been contained. A winding down of unnecessary and leisure social interactions is already being seen in Wuhan, which recently emerged from its long period under lockdown. I, for one, look forward to meeting my mates and teeing it up. I think that meeting a few people and playing a sport I love with them may well be the first step back into life as I knew it.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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