Shut down the golf courses? Not so fast

For years I've driven past Northcote Golf Club on Normanby Road, if not every day then more than a few times a week.

Only rarely have I thought of going in and renting a set of clubs for a hack. I haven't played golf since 1979, and then it was only to tick a box on school sports day.

The fence at Northcote golf course that locals kept cutting a hole in – until Darebin Council opened it, until the coronavirus golf ban is over.

But I have always been glad that there is a public course in the neighbourhood. I assume it's open to anyone who wants to join and pay the green fees, and I imagine they are not too high. (It's actually one of the cheapest clubs in Melbourne.)

On Sunday I went in, for the first time ever. With golf banned under Melbourne's COVID restrictions, Darebin Council has ceded to locals who were cutting through the fence and opened the course to walkers.

And not just walkers: people were throwing frisbees, kicking footballs, riding bikes, exercising dogs and picnicking in the shade of some lovely old golf-course trees.

One little girl was even teeing off on the first with a putter. She must have missed premier Daniel Andrews' Sunday press conference, when he announced the (slight) easing of restrictions as we move through our COVID escape plan. Golf is still not allowed.

This must irk golfers: going a round with a couple of friends is not COVID-OK, but swarming the course in great Sunday crowds and picnicking unmasked is?

Those of us who don't play are surprised at how big a golf course is: it's like Central Park in there, a great expanse of green dotted with trees, unlike anything else on this side of town.

Locals using Northcote golf course as a park.Credit:Jason South

Which has got some locals thinking: why is so much space given to a single activity that maybe not everybody is into? (According to a 2017 State Government discussion paper, Planning for Golf in Victoria, about 300,000 people play golf in this state.)

Residents have formed a Community to Unlock Northcote Golf Course Facebook group, which has more than 1000 members. They want the course to become a shared space when the golf club's lease ends. Darebin Greens councillor Trent McCarthy agrees.

Some may even want to take over the course completely. With crowds packing the narrow parkland on the other side of Merri Creek, you can see their point. Melburnians have come to appreciate having open space close to our homes during the lockdowns.

Golf is an easy target. Donald Trump plays golf. In many parts of the world, it's a pastime for the elite. But not in Northcote.

So while turning courses into public parks sounds attractive in a big, growing city, we shouldn't be so hasty. COVID-19 can't become an excuse to upend everything.

I'm happy we can use the golf course during the current restrictions.

And I'm happy that the club will be there after, and to think about having a hit when I drive past. I like living in a neighbourhood that caters to golfers, too, even if they aren't in the majority.

And who knows – one day I might even want to join.

Matt Holden is a Melbourne writer.

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