While in the swing of things

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    Auckland Council has been engaged in a long debate about the future of golf courses on public land.

    That debate includes Waiheke Golf Club’s land which, although seemingly secure for the moment, may well become a target for some future cash-strapped council.

    It’s ironic that while the council has considered “opening up” the 12 golf courses on public land, Kiwi golfers have never been in a stronger position internationally.

    While the sports press’s recent focus has been on the Black Ferns and the All Blacks, an achievement of similar, if not greater, magnitude quietly played out at the Phoenix Country Club in Arizona, US, on 15 November, when New Zealander Steven Alker won the Charles Schwab Cup, the trophy for the top player on the Champions Tour. His year’s tally of four wins and consistent top-10 placings, along with the prize money for his third place at the final event, was worth more than $7 million. He won a further $1.6 million for topping the year-long race.

    Going into the final event Alker had accumulated enough points to win if he finished fifth or better. In the end he came third after a near-flawless display from tee to green and an equally tidy short game.

    That meticulous play has become the norm for Alker this year but it hasn’t always been that way. A plodder and grinder for most of his 27-year-long pro career, Alker was still playing on the secondary Korn Ferry Tour last year when he turned 50 and, with no standing on the Champions Tour, had to make it through a qualifying tournament to get his first start. He finished in the top 10, went on to win in his first year, earned more money in one season than he had in the previous 26, then followed with a stellar 2022.

    It’s a staggering tale of persistence paying off, and an underdog triumphing against the odds. To put his feat in perspective, his chief rival, Padraig Harrington, is a future Hall of Fame member, having won three majors on the regular tour – two British Opens and a US PGA title.

    Meanwhile, on Europe’s premier DP World tour, Ryan Fox finished second, just behind current Hall of Famer and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy in the season-long Race to Dubai.

    Lydia Ko is hardly an underdog, so it’s less of a surprise to see one of the world’s top women winning the season-long Race to the CME Globe and the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, the richest tournament in women’s golf. But Ko, a two-time major winner, has battled too, recovering from a long slump to reclaim the top ranking this year.

    It is a phenomenal year for New Zealand golf. You have to go back to Bob Charles for another player who has dominated seniors golf like Alker, Ko is the only New Zealander to win on the US women’s tour and I can’t remember a Kiwi ever contending for the European title like Fox. That includes ‘handy’ golfers such as Greg Turner, Simon Owen and Michael Campbell. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more local media reaction.

    But while Kiwis are big names in overseas news, regionally the game has never faced a bigger threat.

    Pre-election, the Auckland Council seemed to be eyeing golf courses on publicly owned land for sale and development under the guise of “opening them up” to the wider public and “inclusivity”. Those 12 courses included Waiheke’s. 

    I can’t see how you could host other sports at the same time as golf, which was one of the suggestions for “opening up” golf courses. Has there ever been a suggestion to “open up” North Harbour Stadium or Eden Park to sports other than rugby? “Walkers” are usually tackled by security guards at big rugby matches. 

    You’d also think health and safety might be a concern. Have the councillors ever been hit by a golf ball or seen someone hit by one? And have they ever tried hitting a ball while a cyclist rode across the fairway in front of them without losing concentration?

    As far as inclusivity goes, more people have played a round of golf than ever pulled on a rugby jersey. Akarana Golf Club – situated in Mount Roskill – welcomed state house kids Bruce Rafferty and Paul Fisher. The former played for New Zealand as an amateur, the latter became a professional nicknamed “Atom Ant” for his short stature and long driving. Roger Hunter, who honed his skills from an early age on the old Remuera public course, went on to represent Auckland. 

    Public and country courses have always been a source of golfing talent. Phil Tataurangi, who won on the PGA tour, got his start at Waitomo, while US Open winner Campbell got his at Titahi Bay. These are hardly exclusive clubs. Both Tataurangi and Campbell are Māori, while Ko is an Asian woman. 

    Auckland Council also commissioned a cost/benefit analysis of the 2 courses on publicly owned land in Auckland. Naturally they all showed a loss. 

    So would any sports park, irrespective of the type of game played on its grounds. Yet we haven’t seen a cost/benefit analysis applied to parks in general. And cost/benefit analyses can prove wildly inaccurate in the face of real-world surprises such as Covid 19. 

    Genuinely exclusive America’s Cup yacht racing provided Auckland Council with little financial benefit from the last event, after it had thrown $113 million at one regatta. 

    That was despite a favourable cost/benefit analysis.

    The council’s real agenda may be the sale of at least some of the courses to offset its debts and avoid unpopular rates hikes. If you doubt that, consider that earlier this year the council’s Parks, Arts, Community and Events Committee voted to sell off the small park at Fortyfoot Lane, Sunnyhills, east Auckland, despite the objections of many residents.

    The sale process was described as “asset recycling”. 

    “Auckland Council has an obligation to provide value for money for Aucklanders and is committed to delivering the services that Aucklanders need in the most efficient and effective way,” said Auckland Council general manager value for money Ross Chirnside at the time.

    That sale was put on hold shortly after the election of the new Auckland mayor, Wayne Brown.

    Let’s hope he also puts the sale or “sharing” of golf courses on hold until a more thorough study is undertaken. Golf is, after all, an Olympic sport. And golfers have to make their start somewhere. It would be a pity to see potential future champions from the Auckland area disadvantaged. • Jim Mahoney

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