The question of how to attract more youngsters into golf is frequently discussed. Ideas range from relaxing dress codes, reducing cost barriers to entry, giving dedicated time on the course, playing a shortened course, making golf fun. It may then come as a surprise that a children’s golf course, one of Glasgow’s oldest, was designed specifically for this purpose and yet in the midst of the 2014 Ryder Cup legacy and investment in growing the game, it’s been left to die a slow lingering death.
Bellahouston Park was laid out in 1895 by Glasgow Corporation as industrialised Victorian Glasgow, the second city of the British Empire, was booming. The burgeoning population needed recreation space and the lands were set aside as the city expanded around it’s fences. Like many Victorian-era parks it contained the necessary devices to aid the leisure hungry population, open spaces, flower gardens, a band stand, bowling greens and a pitch and putt golf course. Indeed, there are three parks in Glasgow alone with these mini golf courses, the other two being Knightswood and Queen’s Park.
Bellahouston Pitch & Putt as seen from the site of the Papal alter
The 18 holes measured between 60-100 yards each, with tiny greens and rudimentary equipment available to hire, it was an excellent place to take youngsters to learn the game fundamentals. Bellahouston Park held the 1938 Empire Exhibition (a kind of British Worlds Fair) however it was all put back together afterwards.
The park in 1938 (Wikimedia)
It survived again in 1982 when trees were removed to improve sight lines for the 250,000 attending mass with his Holiness Pope John Paul II, again it was all put in order for the next generation.
1982 Papal visit. The pitch and putt is middle-left, alter towards the top (Wikimedia)
It was the 2010 visit of Pope Benedict XVI that marked the beginning of the downfall for the course. The stage was built in a different position (to save the regrown trees) so the course was literally turned into a huge toilet and power generation site, with portable cabins and heavy lifting equipment churning up the grass to serve the masses. This arrangement has been repeated each summer since with the park hired out as a summer concert venue, making valuable income for Glasgow City Council. There was no attempt to repair the course after the September visit of Benedict XVI, the ground was left fallow until the following year when, the week after the Masters Tournament and with people are starting to take in interest in golf, the bulldozers moved in completely unannounced.
Eight of the holes in the middle of the course were destroyed, the trees defining the fairways chain-sawed and pulped, the area was converted into a cricket pitch with the remaining holes forming a chain around the outside of the boundary. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an anti-cricket blog. Cricket is a growing sport in Scotland and there is a lack of facilities and golf in a public park has to share real estate with other park users. However, with other vacant areas in the park more suitable (and flatter), it was a strange choice of location. Marginalising golf to the outside almost a metaphor.
Aerial view of the course today (Google Maps)
Eventually, Glasgow City Council updated their website to explain what they were doing to the pitch and putt, yes some holes have been removed but this was to ensure the long term viability of an underused course. However, this promise has not been delivered.
Fit for purpose?
Since play was able to resume a year later in 2012, there has been a laissez-faire approach to maintaining what has remained. Grass is unevenly cut by tractor, there are no fairways just rough or greens. The thick grass immediately before the green makes chipping impossible for children. The greens themselves no longer have flags and are gradually getting smaller. What used to be the 4th had a decent double sized two-tier green where I taught my boys the principals of putting with a break, that green is now barely 3 metres diameter. The Huxley mats previously used as tees have been reclaimed by the earth, what remains still point towards greens that no longer exist. It’s just an ill-defined mess. The impression given is the council are trying to run down the course to such a state that nobody plays it, then they can justify its formal closure and designation as general grounds.
The first tee 2010 and 2017
Golf in a public park also has to be shared with other park users. During my last visit there was a football team running around the cricket pitch and a lovely Alsatian called Skye who loved chasing after my golf balls. If there is a cricket game on I think it’s best for the safety of both parties that golf isn’t played. I had no problem with this, this is the price of free to access golf.
Warning sign on the now-cricket pitch
I’m not asking for a great deal. The grass in the park has to be cut anyway, I’m just asking for the grass to be cut a little more often, and more consistently. 9 greens should be cut closely, hollow cored and sanded once per year. Put flags in the greens, even if they’re iron poles cast in place. Defined teeing areas should be laid out with Huxley mats. Give the kids a chance to know where the hole starts, and finishes.
I suspect, but cannot prove, this all comes down to funding. Glasgow City Council have spent considerable sums in the park on drainage to make the flatter areas suitable for revenue making concerts. This if anything has had a negative effect on the drainage of the golf course. I suspect Glasgow City Council would only be all too willing to improve the golf course if a sports body were to assist with funding.
While there is an element of ‘build it and they will come’, kids also have to be taken to the golf course and shown where it is. Parents and grandparents are quite often the drivers of this but schools can also play their part. ClubGolf attended my son’s school as part of the 2014 Ryder Cup legacy to introduce every child to golf before age 11. This consisted of a half day indoors in the gym hall. This is by no means a criticism of ClubGolf, I like what they do and given the Scottish weather and their limited timetable, the golf introduction will have to take place as timetabled and that means indoors. However, there is a disconnect after the introduction, nothing to drive kids to seek out their nearest golf club. Imagine holding a ClubGolf event on a rejuvenated pitch and putt at Bellahouston Park. Imagine bussing in several schools and holding a fun golf event in the park one afternoon.
Imagine cementing the association between spending time at a golf course and fun.
Two-year olds can have fun too