The first time I set foot on a golf course this season was in Howth, Ireland, a stunning example of seaside “suburbia” in County Dublin.
With a volcano view in the distance beyond miles of blue sky and water, it was the hilltop setting that first blew me away. But it didn’t take long for my focus to turn to the rapidly filling parking lot, as group after group of teens and twenty-somethings spilled out of their cars and into the golf shop.
My own concerns about the future of golf are similar to Golfgal’s. As an avid twenty-something player, I often worry about how I’ll maintain my game now that free golf access—thanks to a summer job in the industry and four years on a collegiate team—is behind me. (Gallagher’s Canyon and Shaughnessy Golf & Country Club are sadly far from free these days with public green fees hovering between $79 through the off-season to $100 in the peak of summer.)
To join my parents with a membership at the Kelowna Golf & Country Club where I was once a junior member would require a mere $9,000 initiation fee compared to my preferred choice, intermediate-friendly Marine Drive Golf Club in Vancouver, where initiation would start at $21,000—but only as a female and only if I commit before turning thirty. Otherwise I’m looking at a steep $42,000. The resulting toss up (real estate or golf membership?) is a decision that has consumed a lot of thought over the past few years.
But my thoughts on the putting green at Deer Park Golf Club in Howth were consumed by a phenomenon far more interesting than the outlandish micro-market we’ve come to (almost) accept in the Lower Mainland. A few yards from the putting green these young people weren’t teeing off, but kicking off, on a 9-hole footgolf track.
The course featured the same elevation changes, general design, front nine par and stunning vistas as its traditional 18-hole counterpart. In fact, besides the significantly larger holes—the 21” cups are designed to fit a soccer ball—the only real difference between the two was the amount of traffic. To me this modern take on the ancient game was bizarre, but as the only young person teeing off with a driver on the other side it turned out that I was the weird one.
It struck me that whether or not you consider footgolf a part of the golf family—us golfers do have a history of elitism, of course—this updated adaptation was bringing young people to the course in hoards.
I put the thought out of mind throughout the rest of my stay in Ireland, where my main focus was discovering the country’s best stout, not solving golf’s seemingly dismal future.
My Scottish golf experience began at The Open Championship, where I was keenly searching for gender role examples at St. Andrews. After all, that was the angle several editors had requested, coming from the rare perspective of a 24-year-old female.
But besides finding the women’s toilet queue shorter than the men’s—an alien concept, I’m sure we can all agree—I couldn’t find instances of significant gender disparity at the home of golf. Rules officials, caddies and even intoxicated fans all included their fair share of women. Perhaps it wasn’t perfect equality but for a game rooted in the old boys’ club (the infamous “Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden” acronym barely cracks history’s surface) Britain’s governing golf body, the Royal & Ancient, seems to be doing everything in its power to dissolve these traditional barriers.
It is widely known that Muirfield and Royal Troon, two mainstay Open host venues, are currently reviewing their membership restrictions, while Royal St George’s, another on the Royal & Ancient’s list of favourites, has recently revamped its own policy to welcome female members. Though the R&A won’t comment on their official Open host criteria, it would appear these three courses have found sudden inspiration to modernize. Sure, Muirfield’s first female member may be a Condolezza Rice-esque selection à la Augusta, but the R&A’s apparent pressure on these renowned facilities should still be appreciated as anything but antiquated.
I skipped Saturday’s weather-delayed round at The Open for a match of my own at the Murrayfield Golf Club in Edinburgh. A 3.5-star parkland design just five minutes from the city center, Murrayfield is a popular option for all those local intermediates wanting a convenient, affordable membership.
The mid-level track was a great indicator of the accessibility of golf in Scotland. Only one of our group was a member, but that knocked our guest fees down to £12. Walking up the third fairway to Murrayfield’s signature view of the Edinburgh Castle, our host shared that his initial buy-in was incorporated into his monthly dues, which still add up to less than £50 and mean his membership is easily justified by playing just four rounds per month; a striking contrast to my Marine Drive example, which would require approximately 480 rounds to justify joining fees and annual dues in a single season. “It’s just not an elitist sport over here,” our Murrayfield host explained.
This has no doubt changed over the past decade or so as the global economy shifted and coming-of-age Generation X-ers and Millennials decided to invest their dispensable income differently than their Baby Boomer parents, but regardless it shows Scotland’s willingness to adapt and evolve with the times.
The list of clues that “royal” and “ancient” don’t equate to “exclusive” or “outdated” continued to grow throughout my time in Scotland. Time-honored 9-hole layouts proved that the North American courses priding themselves on so-called “progressive” shorter options are still a few hundred years late to the game, £10 admission to Monday’s make-up round at The Open invited a keen young crowd to watch the exciting four-hole playoff,
and the public status of the hallowed Links at St Andrews meant anyone off the street could enter a ballot—or just post for a picture on the famous Swilcan Bridge.
Six weeks after my first swings of the season, I left the British Isles feeling confident about the future of the game on this side of the pond. Though facing a comparable economic climate to golf courses back home, a basic strategy founded on poignant British rationalism will keep the industry afloat: update what needs updating and leave the rest alone.