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Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged that more needs to be done to preserve council-run golf courses in Scotland – but has told the country’s golfers that they have a part to play in that, too.
The First Minister spoke to bunkered.co.uk during a visit to The 150th Open at St Andrews, where 20,000 children will be attending the championship for free.
The decision to allow free entry for under-16s is a continuation of the R&A’s successful and long-running ‘Kids go Free’ programme, which is designed to ensure that the game continues to thrive and that young people are inspired to take up the sport.
That, at least, is the hope. The concern is that many won’t be able to because of the closure of many council-owned golf courses.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Glasgow. The city council gave up all but one of its six municipal courses in 2020 due to financial pressures on the local authority – this, despite the city profiting to the tune of £390million from staging the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Only the nine-hole Knightswood golf course continues to be run by the local authority. The land previously occupied by Lethamhill was bought by the R&A, with the governing body currently transforming the site into a brand new, community golf facility.
However, the other four courses operated by Glasgow city council – Littlehill, Linn Park, Alexandra Park and Ruchill – have been effectively abandoned, much to dismay of many local golfers who cannot afford the membership costs associated with joining private clubs.
It’s a similar story in other parts of the country and whilst the First Minister agrees that’s a bad look for the ‘Home of Golf’, she insists it cannot just be the responsibility of the authorities to ensure the layouts remain viable.
“I agree we need to turn that around and it’s really important that we make sure the benefits of big, global events like this one trickle down – but it’s not enough just to point the finger at councils,” she told us.
“We’ve all, including the government, got a part to play here, including the people playing these golf courses.”
Using the situation in Scotland’s biggest city to illustrate her point, the First Minister described that matter as “a little bit chicken and egg”.
“I know in relation to Glasgow with the golf courses there, the patronage hasn’t been as high as it has been in years gone by, so the council struggles financially,” she added. “So how do we get more people playing on these courses to make them much more sustainable.”
The First Minister is correct to point out that the usage of the Glasgow courses has dwindled. Indeed, a bunkered.co.uk investigation in 2020 found that between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, there were 28,893 rounds played across the six courses.
Over the following 12 months, that number fell to 23,207, a reduction of 5,778 rounds and a year-on-year drop of 19.9%.
However, those figures align closely with a decrease in investment by Glasgow City Council in the facilities.
Again, between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, the total expenditure by the local authority on the six courses came to £1,545,636. Within 12 months, that had fallen by over £200,000 to £1,336,514 – a decrease of 13.5% year on year.
Clearly, therefore, there is a correlation between investment and participation, which is why the R&A must be commended for its work it is doing to transform and revitalise Lethamhill.
“The Lethamhill Initiative is outstandingly good and I’ve been chatting to them about that today,” added the First Minister. That is one way in which we can perhaps look to work with organisations that they either need to turn some of this around.
“One of the reasons Scotland is the home of golf is that it’s always been a community-based sport or traditionally was a community-based sport, very inclusive sport, and we’ve got to work to make sure that continues in the future.”
In other news, the First Minister pledged that the Scottish Government will continue to do all to ensure The Open keeps coming back to Scotland on a regular basis.
This week marks the championship’s first visit since Francesco Molinari’s victory at Carnoustie in 2018. It will next return in 2024 when Royal Troon plays host for the tenth time.
“I’ve been talking to Martin Slumbers and the team here today,” said Sturgeon. “There is an absolute commitment to make sure that that Scotland is seen as the home of The Open and that we keep The Open coming here as regularly – at least – as it has done. But more than that, that we continue to support their efforts to build The Open into the world-class event that it always has been and will continue to be.”
She added: “The Open is enormously important and significant. First of all, in golfing terms, Scotland and St Andrews are the home of golf, so to have The Open here at any time is very special and important, but to have the 150th championship here, the biggest ever, is monumental.
“I think that is really special for Scotland reputation, Scotland’s association with golf, and for the game of golf itself.
“The benefits of The Open to the Scottish economy are massive. We’re talking in the region of £200million of economic benefit just from having it here this week. So, it’s incredible and such a special occasion.”
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