Golf courses

Paul Hickey: Golf courses for the common good

The most striking part of golf here in the Scottish Highlands is its integration into everyday life in the towns that surround these courses.

I have seen firsthand the central role that some of these clubs play in their communities. The top clubs we’ve visited in the past 10 days are doing a great job fulfilling both a public and a private mandate.

My first golf trip to Scotland, the so-called home of golf, raised questions in me about how we live life on our side of the Atlantic, and from a sporting and community perspective, I wonder if we have it all wrong.

I greatly admire European society, because I think their long history gives them a wisdom that we have not yet gained. My trip here crystallized that for me, and how golf clubs and the courses they sit on can have a greater societal impact than just serving their members.

We spent six days in the town of Dornoch, home to the famous Dornoch Championship Links.

Golf and everyday life come together in Dornoch. And I can’t think of a better illustration of this than two signs attached to the exterior of the centuries-old stone pavilion at Dornoch. These signs said a lot about how the locals see things.

A sign read: ‘History has given the people of the Royal Burgh of Dornoch a valuable asset in some 200 hectares of common good land. Dornoch has the finest and largest links in all parts of Scotland, suitable for archery, golf, horse riding and all other exercise.

And less than 10 paces from that sign, just around the corner to the left of the main doors, are those familiar words, again prominently displayed on the clubhouse’s age-old stone facade: “The Rotary Club of Dornoch meets here on the first and third Wednesday of each month.

But there is more. There is a public road that winds past the first tee of this famous course. This is the only way for locals to walk or ride to the beach which occupies the space between the links and the sea. There is a walking path which completely surrounds the championship course, and any who can set foot there.

You are playing on one of the most respected courses in the world and the townspeople, tourists and their pets are there with you, part of the mystique of your course. It’s not you, your goof and your dash, but rather you, your friends and the community all enjoying this wonderful piece of land together. This is recreation in its highest form.

Most golf clubs in North America are cut off from the rest of their community. They are hidden behind hedges, majestic trees and long paths. Whether they say it with signs, words or fences, the message is clearly stay out, don’t come in, members only.

What if we think of these spectacular properties not as golf courses, but as common property best shared with all, not a chosen few.

Golf is indeed played on this land, but also many other things. Perhaps what’s missing in our quest to “grow the game” is an invitation to our neighbors and the community at large to come and share in the beauty and views of the property we’ve fallen in love with all by hitting a small white ball.

My Dornoch experience has made me believe that golfers and non-golfers can co-exist respectfully and happily, and anything can be the best for doing so.

Paul Hickey is a golf enthusiast who can be followed on Twitter at @outpostprez.