Canberra International's Saviour - David Wright
APPA Secretary David Wright offered us a searingly honest assessment of Australian Pitch and Putt and the future of the sport Down Under in the following interview.
- What’s your assessment of the state of Pitch and Putt in Australia as we anticipate the imminent staging of the 2022 Australian Open at Neangar Park?
Pitch and Putt in Australia faces a real challenge. If the sport is to progress we need more facilities. We need to look beyond our club or course boundaries, beyond our county and even national borders at the big picture. We need to have a clear picture of where we want to be in 10 or 15 years and we need to combine our efforts and unite in our approaches to Government, industry and others who might share our vision. Thanks to the initial enthusiasm of Eero Tarik and the administrative brilliance of the late Tim Terrell, AM, the foundations of the sport were well established culminating in an international event – The Triple Crown – being held in Australia in 2007. Others like Phil Shaw-Dennis and the Hutchisons – Charlie, but in particular, Marie Hutchison – ensured the consolidation of the sport in ensuing years. In the following five years Australia participated in international competition and James Rogerson finished runner -up in the World Strokeplay Championship.
Australia is still torn between those who wish to engage positively with ‘regulation golf’ and those who wish to maintain a clear and separate identity for Pitch and Putt. Phil Shaw-Dennis, in his time as APPA President, set the course for the sport by negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding with Golf Australia. The MoU recognised Pitch and Putt as a legitimate sport in its own right, complementary albeit different to regulation golf. It also recognised that Golf Australia and APPA were the parent bodies responsible for their respective sports in Australia. However, it did not require either organisation to do anything so there was no basis for judging its value – its success or failure.
In 2020 a recruitment campaign was conducted. During the survey it became apparent that some P&P courses did not comply with FIPPA regulations. It also became clear that there were Par 3 courses operating but which had no formal organisation at State or National level. The objective was not to take over existing Par 3 Golf but to engage with a substantial group of golfers already playing a short form of golf and to ensure that no group or course that did not quite meet the course requirements set down by FIPPA would be excluded from membership of the national organisation. The result of the recruitment campaign was that a total of 30 courses were identified. However, those 30 courses were scattered over a country that covers 150 million sq.km . Airlie Beach in Queensland is 4,750 km from Grove Park in Albany, Western Australia. Almost all 30 member clubs or courses fall south and east of a line between Adelaide and Brisbane, with the greatest concentration of courses being in Victoria. In 2019 a National Development Plan was developed which offered a direction in the form of an Action Plan for each State and Territory. Our immediate task is to find the means to implement the Strategy. APPA +3 has suffered from a lack of resources to pursue the strategy. As an organization it needs to move from the kitchen table to the boardroom. It needs to move from an amateur to a professional administration. Negotiations are underway with Golf Australia to effect such changes. A series of more than 30 ‘Possible Initiatives’ have been put to Golf Australia as a means of starting the conversation positively and in earnest. Covid obviously had a dramatic impact in Australia as it did throughout the world.. Not only did travel restrictions mean the Calendar of Championship Events – such as it was and had become – had to be suspended for two years but Membership of Clubs and actual participation rates in organized competitions declined to alarmingly low levels. While Covid could be blamed for much of this, there was clear evidence of a decline well before that. Covid accelerated the decline -possibly because the social life of clubs had been highly constrained by the necessary health protocols. The decline in membership at the Canberra International P&P Club, as an example, has stabilized but at about 80 members i.e. at almost half of its membership five years ago.
- An iconic Australian Pitch and Putt course was recently saved from extinction. Tell us a little about that welcome news?
The Canberra experience is salient. Canberra, together with Queanbeyan have a population of about 500,000. At the turn of the century the area boasted three courses at Queanbeyan, Narrabundah and in Woden. Queanbeyan closed as the land was sold, rezoned and developed for housing. The Woden course, developed by a major Licensed Club closed and has been partly redeveloped for health-related facilities including a fitness centre. Half the site remains undeveloped and a recent aerial photograph clearly shows the features of half the course’s 18 holes which is very frustrating.
The Narrabundah course is adjacent to the Capital Golf Club and is owned by the same lessee. Last month the owner announced that the course would close at the end of the month. Land had already been excised for the Pitch and Putt course for a substantial motel and Pitch and Putt Australian Capital Territory (PPACT) were concerned that should the site for the golf course be re-zoned to allow, for example, residential development, then it would only be a matter of time before the Pitch and Putt course suffered a similar fate. Fortunately, the course, due to close on the Friday, opened again on the Saturday under new management as a public (green fee only) course.
- Tell us a little about Neangar Park?
Neangar Park Golf Club is a 9-hole course in Bendigo, Victoria which the club developed on spare land it had on the course. The new course at Neangar might provide a model to excite other golf courses to embrace Pitch and Putt as an important part of their golf offer
- Neangar Park has provided the APPA with a new administrator?
The new President is Phil Dearaugo. Phil is the immediate past President of the Neangar Park Golf Club in Bendigo (Victoria) which, under his leadership, has added a driving range and the 9 hole Pitch and Putt course to their (regulation) golf course. Unfortunately, Phil has advised that he will be stepping down as President to concentrate on among other things his other great sporting interest – croquet.
- What can the APPA learn from the Canberra International experience?
It is our view that, with only one course, privately owned and operated on land immediately adjacent to the urban area, the sport is extremely vulnerable in Canberra. Should the course close, there is no back up plan. When Queanbeyan and Woden closed there was always Narrabundah. But should Narrabundah close for whatever reason, not only will there be no Pitch and Putt courses closer than Wagga Wagga (250km) or Terrey Hills (320km) in Sydney, there is not even a Par 3 course available as a possible short form alternative. The lesson is to regard this initial success as but a reprieve. We, at both State (Territory) level and the Club based at Narrabundah, need to be vigilant and resist as strongly as possible any attempt to rezone and redevelop the Pitch and Putt course.
- Pitch and Putt courses around the world have been threatened by planning and rezoning changes. What can courses, clubs, domestic associations and course owners do to protect themselves?
We all need to be on our guard against predatory land uses that threaten our existing courses. We need to be vigilant. We need to undertake a risk assessment and have our forces harnessed to a united resistance campaign. In addition to securing what we have, we need to have a Plan for where we want the sport to be in 10 or 15 years on our jurisdiction and we need to have an implementation strategy which engages significant others such as Government, the community, the private sector and the media in giving effect to that vision. At PPACT we have assembled a Board largely composed of retired town planners with an intimate knowledge of Canberra planning and the operation of the leasehold system. We are convinced that Canberra, despite the current downturn in club membership, needs more courses not less for the sport to flourish. PPACT share the view of Merv Britten, developer of the Queanbeyan course, who said that Canberra could easily support three or four courses provide they were properly distributed. The three courses were located within a 10 minute drive of each other and were all competing for business from the same small proportion of the metropolitan area.
- It's heartening that Wagga Wagga is reopening?
The Wiradjuri course at Wagga has been closed for several months while the Wagga Wagga City Council undertook remedial works and called for Expressions of interest to manage the course and associated Driving Range. It has re-opened under new management who are interested in maintain the course and upgrading it within the FIPPA Guidelines.
- There are some other grounds for optimism?
At least we can point to some positives such as the dialogue with Golf Australia, the availability of a strategic plan, the revival of the National Championships and the development of Neangar Park.
We have a National Development Plan. We will have a Strategic Plan for the ACT within a few months. We have established a possible relationship with Golf Australia which could lead to the professionalization of the organization and its administration. Contact has been made with both Queensland and South Australian interests in the hope that their respective Open Championships can be re-established after an absence of several years.
It is to be hoped that a full APPA+3 Calendar of Events can be established for the various State and Territory Open Championships to be held in 2023.
PPACT has set itself one simple goal for the next twelve months: We are preparing a submission to the ACT Government on the Future of Pitch and Putt Golf in the ACT. We will be seeking to enlist the support of the ACT Government by persuading them to release a site for at least one and possibly more pitch and putt courses
The tyranny of distance will aways be a challenge in Australia. Links with Golf Australia offers us the opportunity to operate on a genuinely national basis in harness with their federal administrative structure. The use of the electronic media to conduct ranking and handicapping systems and even virtual national events are all possibilities that need to be explored in the coming years. Internationally we need to maintain our international affiliations and find the means to select representative teams and individual players to participate in international events including the World Cup.
We also need to develop closer relationships with our neighbours such as New Zealand and the countries in our region including India and China and especially around the Pacific. In partnership with Golf Australia the future looks bright. We have an opportunity to work together to provide an integrated Pitch and Putt pathway for the entire community throughout Australia.