Golf Boom: How Scotland's municipal courses are thriving

Municipal1

The release of a KPMG report into golf participation last year painted a bleak picture of Scottish golf with a loss of more than 6,000 members. However, in issue 155 of bunkered, we investigated a sector of the Scottish golfing landscape that is thriving...

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As membership numbers continue to decline and governing bodies acknowledge the many challenges they’re facing in the times ahead, the mainstream media would have you believe that the future is bleak for golf, with headlines painting the game we love as ‘in crisis’ or, worse yet, ‘dying’.

But a visit to your local municipal course will tell you a completely different story. Golf on these courses is thriving - and few places are enjoying the benefits more than Scotland’s two main cities.

In 2015, Edinburgh’s six municipal courses averaged 27,014 rounds played - 26% higher than the UK-wide figure - while last year, Glasgow saw an average of 30,088 rounds played across its six courses, an increase of 21% on the national average.

Always open to public scrutiny, municipal courses tend to get a bad rap, highlighted recently in South Lanarkshire when there was uproar on social media at the council’s 7% rise in annual fees for residents and 20% for non-residents.

But over the period of a few weeks, we investigated just how important they are to their local communities and to Scottish golf.

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As the population ages, loneliness among the elderly is fast becoming an epidemic.

According to recent research, the UK is a country where two-fifths of older people say that their main source of company is their television and more than half of those aged over 75 live alone.

At Edinburgh Leisure, through various membership schemes and discount cards, they’re doing their utmost to ensure that, through golf and other sports, the elderly are remaining healthy both physically and socially.

“We consider our golf courses as a pillar of local communities,” Mathew Harper, golf operations supervisor at Edinburgh Leisure, told bunkered. “They’re hugely important, especially for the elderly, and it’s clear that they see the benefits of being able to play regularly at affordable prices because, well, you just have to look at how healthy most of them are. I often get a surprise when I’m renewing a membership and take somebody’s date of birth down.

“Although some may have their usual group they go out in, it’s great to see friendships being formed even at such a late age.

“We had a guy at Silverknowes who was still playing nine holes at 95 and even now, despite not being able to manage that anymore, he still comes down to the course to hit a few balls and meet his mate for a coffee. That just typifies how important they are.”

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One of the regulars at Carrick Knowe is Thomas Waldall (above), 82, who plays five times a week and pays an annual fee of £340. What’s more, this membership gives him access to all six Edinburgh Leisure courses - Carrick Knowe, Braid Hills, Wee Braids, Portobello, Silverknowes and Craigentinny - while he pays an extra £60 subsidy to be a member of the affiliated Carrick Knowe Golf Club, giving him clubhouse access and the ability to play in weekly medals and get a handicap.

“I would die without playing golf,” he says matter-of-factly. “I give myself just Sundays and Tuesdays off. It’s what keeps me going - I’ve got my golf and my garden.

“I’ve been playing here for nearly 50 years now as I took up golf here when I was 34. I’d never even thought about taking it up before then. My brother-in-law took me out one day and it was incredible. I’ve never had a lesson but I could do with one now!”

It’s 10.30am on a Thursday morning and the small reception area is bustling with golfers meeting up for a coffee ahead of their rounds, before laughter breaks out and Thomas is being grappled jokingly by starter Alan Pettigrew, himself just in from a quick few holes before starting work at 11am.

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What is evident in a short time observing is the bond Alan and his colleague Caroline Black (above) have built up with their regular customers, and he explains that he sees the building of those relationships as a key part of his job.

“It makes it much easier for the golfers to come in if you’ve got a good rapport with them,” he said.

“Some of the guys, when they first came in here, were really quite timid and didn’t say much but once you get to know them, you see a completely different and good side.

“And you don’t half hear some stories. The stories they have, you’re just sitting there giggling and most of the time you go home with sore ribs because you’ve giggled that much.

“But you can tell golf is hugely important for them. Obviously if you just sit in your house, your body shuts down.

“I’ve seen it many times in my working life with guys that retire and then, six months later, they’re sadly no longer with us.”

With both Edinburgh Leisure and Glasgow Life keen to stress the importance of living an active and healthy lifestyle, other affordable golf membership options have been created that includes links with other council-owned facilities.

“Because we’re tied in with leisure centres, we can offer a huge range of products from free memberships for U12s, cheaper rates for young adults, significant discounts for seniors and discount cards that allow people to use our gyms, swimming pools and golf courses for a reduced fee,” adds Mathew Harper.

“For example, a great product we have is an over-75s discount card, which allows people to play golf at effectively half price and also free swimming.

“We have a lot of tie-ins and although we want as many people playing golf, it’s important that we’re helping the people of Edinburgh stay as active as possible.”

Similar schemes are in place in Glasgow. With a Glasgow Club card, which is available at no monthly cost, users can get 10% off green fees and season ticket costs, while those over the age of 60 can get almost 50% off an annual subscription, which covers its six courses of Littlehill, Lethamhill, Linn Park, Alexandra Park, Knightswood and Ruchill.

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Edinburgh Leisure even recently set-up its own golf club due to demand from users who didn’t want to join an affiliated club but wanted an official handicap.

For an extra £25, golfers can join the Edinburgh Leisure Golf Club and play in bi-monthly medals at any of the six affiliated courses and get just that.

And that’s something which was of great interest to recently retired couple Paul and Fiona Barber (above), who were so satisfied with what Edinburgh Leisure had to offer that they didn’t hesitate to make both of their temporary winter memberships permanent.

“We joined the Edinburgh Leisure Golf Club over the winter because it gave us the chance to get a handicap and also the ability to play all six Edinburgh courses, which really impressed me,” explained Fiona, 59. “We initially expected to be members just over winter but the people have made us feel so welcome that we’ve decided to keep going.

“We’re effectively getting six memberships for the price of one and we’ve played so much golf over the winter compared to normal that we’re feeling fitter than ever for this time of year.”

A generalisation often made about publically-owned courses is that they lack the same quality of a private course and are frequently targets of anti-social behaviour.

And while councils will be the first to admit they must work around constant cost-cutting and to stringent budgets, the view from workers and users alike are that this stereotype is misconceived.

Carrick Knowe Graffiti

“I would dispute that completely,” adds Fiona, who was keen to stress her pleasant surprise at the condition of the courses. “We’ve played a couple of courses recently – one in West Lothian and one in Fife – and I’d say these match up to them.”

Move west to Glasgow and the opinion remains the same.

“I wouldn’t say it’s snobbery but people tend to have a negative view of what a municipal course is like,” said Gerard McGovern (above), starter at Knightswood Golf Course. “But I’ve had guys come here who are members of private clubs and they say that the condition at Knightswood can be better than what it’s like at their club.

“It’s pretty flat here but at the 18-hole courses like Littlehill and Lethamhill, where I’ve also worked, I think people are surprised by how tricky they are.”

For 48-year-old Bobby Martin, who works on a cruise ship off Australia for eight months of the year, Lethamhill is the perfect retreat and where he spends a large chunk of his time when he’s home and while his wife is at work.

“I’ve got absolutely no interest in paying for membership at a private club because it costs far too much money and I can’t justify it when I’m only here for a limited time,” he said. “So that means I play here at Lethamhill and I’ve got to say, it’s fantastic.

“To me, it has everything you could ask for. It’s got its challenges, its long holes and it’s in a nice environment. It’s not noisy, not overcrowded and it’s well maintained.

“Improvements are always being made, too, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”

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That’s a view shared at Lethamhill by friends Liam Doherty, Ryan Houston and Grant Wilson (above), all of whom are 17. Currently, thanks to owning a Glasgow Young Scot Card (eligible for 12-18-year-olds), they can all play golf for free at any of the city’s six municipal courses.

The card encouraged both Ryan and Grant to take up the game just a few months ago and, without it, they doubt they would have been keen to play in the first place.

“At a lot of clubs, you’re looking at annual fees of around £500 when you turn 18 and you just can’t afford it,” says Grant. “Unless you can play every Saturday, I’d say it’s not worth it.

“That’s why you might as well play here, while it’s free, get better and maybe at some point in the future we’ll enjoy golf enough and be able to afford to join a private club where it’s going to be worth the money.”

Knightswood Gerard

But with less than two years until they turn 19, when they will no longer be eligible for free golf, are they concerned that they could be lost to the game so soon after taking it up?

“I wouldn’t say we’ll be lost to golf but the reality is we probably won’t end up playing as much,” adds Ryan. “I’d probably just pay for single rounds rather than a membership so I’d imagine it’ll be around once a month.

“But until then, we’re quite happy playing here because, with the Young Scot Card, it’s free and the course tends to always be in good condition.”

The notion that municipal courses are ideal facilities for those new to golf was further epitomised down the ninth fairway at Knightswood, where ten-year-old Ruairidh Coltart – dressed casually in trainers, jeans and a hoodie – was enjoying a round with his dad, Bill, 59 (below).

It was Ruairidh’s first trip to the golf course having pestered his dad for a while to take him along and, bounding excitedly up and down the fairway hitting shots with his orange ball, it was clear to see that he was enjoying himself.

“I started here when I was ten-years-old as well,” recalls Bill, who himself was enjoying his first round in years. In what has become an all too familiar scenario, he had been forced to end his £800 annual membership at one club in the Glasgow area after only managing two rounds in his final year due to work and family commitments.

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“Here is fantastic because it’s right on our doorstep and, to be honest, it’s perfect in terms of value for money – it’s ridiculous relative to what you pay at some places.

“He’s [Ruairidh] just been getting lessons from me at the moment but the next stage is for him to get some proper lessons. But he’s got good natural ability and this is a great course for him to get started and enjoy the game.

“Hopefully, in a few years’ time, he’ll still be interested and be able to come along here with his friends and play.”

For those getting into golf like Ruairidh and teenagers Ryan and Grant, to members of almost 50 years like Thomas and his friends, it’s evident that municipal courses are providing an important service to golfers of all ages and abilities across Scotland.

And, with the various discounts and card schemes offered by Edinburgh Leisure and Glasgow Life that include links with other sports facilities making golf more affordable and accessible, it’s arguably never been easier to pick up the clubs.

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