A Fair Compromise?

An architect asks golfers to consider the big picture
TGJ No. 22 Lipping Out Tara Iti

Golf is a great sport—if you are a golfer.

I am a 20-plus handicap, but I still love the game. There is nothing like adventuring out and playing courses like Barnbougle and 13th Beach, or heading for what we here in Melbourne call a “dawny”: teeing off at 6 a.m. to squeeze in nine holes before the workday begins. I’ve spent many afternoons dreaming of Tara Iti.

But if you’re not a golfer, it can seem a boring and exclusive sport.

When many non-golfers see a course, all they see is prime land for a picnic—and rightly so. As the demand for public open space increases, the local public tracks, such as Northcote Public Golf Course here, are targets for being repurposed. I’m not saying golf courses are golf courses and that’s how they should stay; that’s a dying argument, one created by the wannabe “exclusive country club” members. I’m here as a landscape architect asking why can’t they be both? On Sundays, the Old Course in Scotland is open to everyone but golfers. So why is it that someone can’t enjoy a picnic on the third hole at Northcote?

To set the scene, Northcote is a nine-hole course covering 24 hectares (nearly 60 acres), home to a humble membership of around 200 people.

It is situated alongside the popular Merri Creek Trail, and, from a non-golfer’s point of view, despite being public, it is a hidden gem locked away behind chain-link fences.

During the COVID-19-induced lockdowns of 2020-21, Melburnians were confined to within 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) of their homes, meaning that for some there was not much parkland to enjoy. This led to frustrated people cutting holes in the golf course fence and using it as the park they wanted it to be. Eventually the course was opened to the public, much to the chagrin of the membership. Their point of view seemed to be that if they couldn’t use it, no one could. Doesn’t seem fair.

Malcolm Gladwell touched on this topic in an episode of his podcast titled “A Good Walk Spoiled,” in which he investigated Brentwood Country Club in LA. Despite there being acres of green space there, local runners are kept to a small dirt track in between a barbed-wire fence and a road. Doesn’t seem fair either.

Golf courses are known for their high levels of maintenance, their natural beauty and their ability to provide the sense that you are walking through wilderness. No wonder non-golfers are excited by the idea of using these spaces as parks.

If golf’s governing bodies actually want to “grow the game,” it may have to shrink first. Why not reroute nine holes into a six-hole loop? It would be shorter—you could play a round after work no matter the time of year—and create more space for everyone to enjoy.

I get that it’s not a quick fix where the club stops maintaining three holes, hands it over to some public organization and says good luck. But we all need to zoom out and get smarter with the space we have. Rather than disagreeing and saying no, maybe we should start by asking, “Why not?”