COMMON SENSE PREVAILS
PLUS ça change, plus c’est la même chose at Albert Park
French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808–1890) wasn’t thinking of the proposal to cut Melbourne’s Albert Park public course in half when he lamented that nothing ever really changes, but he could have been.
And just when you think that semigovernment initiatives can’t get any dumber, they do.
Parks Victoria, the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation responsible for the course, late last year floated a plan to reduce the iconic layout on the city’s edge from 18 holes to nine.
Imagine what would happen if such an organisation proposed cutting the Melbourne Cricket Ground, or the SCG, in half. Or told us the Melbourne Cup would be run over four laps of a course reduced to 400 metres? The notion is ludicrous and after the public outcry, those behind this quango tomfoolery would be quietly told to seek employment elsewhere.
This is not the first attempt to shaft golfers at Albert Park. The course was built at the beginning of last century by keen players including J.M. Bruce, the club’s first president and father of a future Prime Minister. The land at the time was a rubbish dump, which Royal Melbourne had considered and rejected for its first course, and the grandly named “lake” was what was left when they drained the swamp. In reality, it is now an over-sized puddle of less than half a square kilometre but a number of people get a good deal of enjoyment from sailing and rowing on it in view of the CBD.
As well as building the course, the members found the money to erect a clubhouse designed by Arthur Purnell, who also did the Northern Stand at the MCG. This clubhouse was later used as a press centre during the 1956 Olympic Games.
In 1947 the state Labor government revoked the club’s lease with little notice or ceremony because it wanted Albert Park to become a public course. The minister in charge was Pat Kennelly who stuttered and was universally referred to by my parents’ generation as P-ppat K-k-kennelly. Although stopping short of calling the move an act of bastardry, golf writer Jack Dillon summed up the injustice of evicting without a penny’s compensation to the people who had beautified an eyesore and had been playing there for nearly half a century.
“If there is not a right to legal compensation ... the letter of the law can kill and the moral justification of such a killing could hardly leave an easy conscience,” he predicted in the Sporting Globe on May 3, 1947. In November he reported that the club had been kicked out and the government’s official notice to this effect was delivered by the postman the same day.
The members, to their credit, rolled with this kick in the guts, found and bought some land further out and started all over again as the Keysborough Golf Club. The man put in charge of the Albert Park Trust was Bill Cox, a jockey-sized public servant who fought in World War I and also rode racehorses while stationed in France.
I got to know him in retirement because he lived nearby and I used to visit him to be regaled by his marvellous stories. He campaigned unsuccessfully to have the course redesigned so that the holes did not run parallel to Queen’s Road which was hard against the east boundary and, naturally, out of bounds. If you broke your car windscreen anywhere in Melbourne, he said, you drove straight to Albert Park to claim compensation. When the Grand Prix was run around the lake in the 1950s there was a royal commission into public safety and Cox was called to give evidence. Visiting Melbourne at the time was English actress-model Sabrina, who boasted the vital statistics of 41-18-36. Spike Milligan said memorably of the 41: “Wonderful things in themselves but no earthly good in a fight.” Under examination Cox was unable to give his view on the safety of the race, prompting the exasperated judge to ask him if he’d actually attended. “I did, your honour,” he replied, “but I was sitting next to Sabrina.”
The Parks Victoria proposal came in the form of a slick internet presentation, which claimed to be “seeking public help in shaping the future”. Such weasel wording is regrettably common these days. It reminds me of the time in 1984 when the children of Victoria, my daughter included, were given the chance to name the new baby gorilla at the zoo. The kids were allowed to call it anything they liked, as long as the name appeared on a short list of five foisted upon them. “Mzuri” got the nod and he died in distant France last year, far from the town of his birth and the affection of a generation who had taken him into their hearts.
The apparatchiks dishonestly created an illusion that that cutting a golf course in half is a desirable thing. In return for the nine holes they offered walking and riding tracks, a putt-putt course for children, shaded picnic and barbecue areas and boardwalks over the
IT IS AN INCREDIBLE ASSET IN A CITY FAMED FOR WORLD CLASS COURSES.
wetlands (here read, weeds growing at the edges of the puddle). These “wetlands” in turn would be designed to “reduce wave refraction”. It is hard to image much of a wave getting up on less than half a square kilometre of shallow water unless there was an earthquake.
The implication of the preposterous proposal was that tying up land for golf so close to the city centre – two kilometres away as the crow flies – was a bad thing. Most comparable cities around the world would give their eye teeth for this. It is an incredible asset in a city famed for world class courses. Over the years Walter Hagen, Joe Kirkwood and movie star Bob
Hope played there. These days the Australian Open tennis players unwind on the course and this year Roger Federer’s kids took lessons and had a hit.
The great irony of it all is that a Labour government pushed the private club off the land in 1947 and another Labour government was now trying to take back half the course – from the public golfers. What happened to those who call Albert Park home? At best, their opportunities would be halved although many doubted the viability of nine holes as it was reported that the course length would be reduced from 6,000 to 2,000 metres. As well as the casual players, six clubs – Lakeside, Lakeside Ladies, City View, Kiwi, Aboriginal Social and the Dukes of Manchester Social – are based there and affiliated with the Victorian Golf League.
Professional David Diaz, who first played the course 40 years ago while growing up in St Kilda and now teaches there, felt all along that the proposal would fail. The only player of Chilean descent to hold an Australasian PGA Tour card has a round of 59 to his credit at Albert Park as an amateur and went on to win the 1993 Coolum Classic.
“I don’t think it will happen,” he said before the Parks Brains Trust bowed to the great and righteous indignation of golfers and other users in mid-February. “If it did, it would ruin it. What they want to change it to is a joke. They want a floodlit driving range. I don’t think they thought that one through. The residents they are trying to win over aren’t going to be very happy with that 100 metres from their homes.”
Albert Park was not broken. In fact, it is running very well with more than 100,000 rounds played a year and a pennant team unbeaten for more than a decade. Why did they want to fix it? Common sense, that increasingly rare commodity, prevailed.
The picturesque Albert Park course will remain as 18 holes ... that is for now.