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


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.

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