Sport needs to be more embracing

Jurong Country Club is slated to hand over its land to the Government on Feb 1, 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

"It may be pointed out that such a game as Golf was much needed in Singapore."

These were the assertive words of The Straits Times on June 18, 1891, a day after the formation of the Singapore Golf Club on the premises of the racecourse. Of course, it has been a struggle ever since.

A few years later, in 1895, golfers feuded with polo club members, infidels who wanted to - god forbid - gallop across the greens. Now, 121 years on, golfers have been left steaming after being informed that an iron horse, headed for Kuala Lumpur, will ride roughshod over their grounds. Bill Shankly may have insisted that football was more serious than life or death, but a rail line is certainly more vital than golf.

Raffles Country Club has been acquired by the Government, so has Jurong Country Club, and Keppel Club will not have its lease renewed. The game, unlike in 1891, must not feel like it is "much needed". Golfers are wearing metaphorical black armbands for there is always something mournful in the death of any sporting arena.

In Jurong Country Club, Taps was played over the sound system at dusk as the club flag was lowered among teary members. The golfer's second home, and bar, was being forever closed. Like Martina Navratilova did as she left Wimbledon after her last singles match, perhaps they should keep a few blades of grass as memory.

In a concrete world, any closure of a green, open space which promotes even the most basic exercise - the 20-yard walk between duffed shots - gives pause. Golf courses here are not quite crucibles of talent - Singapore's four best players are ranked No. 59, 103, 119, 169 in the Asian Tour order of merit - but places for mostly middle-aged legs to be stretched, old jokes told, deals done and shots bragged about. For this sub-standard player, golf's five hours of meditation, interrupted by instalments of cursing, has been my armour against stress.

In a concrete world, any closure of a green, open space which promotes even the most basic exercise - the 20-yard walk between duffed shots - gives pause.

In a small city, with a 5.6 million population, Singapore still has 18 (18-hole) courses left and it's sufficient, though for golfers there is no such thing as enough. Compared to Delhi, which has about 12 (18-hole) courses for a population of 25 million, we are rich; of course, in contrast to Skane, a province in Sweden, which has nearly 80 courses, we are needy.

Yet few people will offer golfers a shoulder in sympathy, nor will folk from other sports shed a tear. A single par three has the land for three 50m pools, and in one par-five hole you could lay four football fields. In so many ways, golf and its clubs are locations of privilege.

Back in 1891, this paper's correspondent wrote: "There is required in tennis a lightness of body and manner which is scarcely in accord with the grave demeanour that befits the elders of the Colony. Of golf, on the other hand, it may be fairly said it is a game which might be joined in without loss of dignity even by the Governor of the Straits Settlements."

This elitism still haunts golf, a highly skilful game with a pretentious Achilles heel. In tennis, women have equal prize money at the Grand Slams but Muirfield, which has hosted 16 Open Championships, is still debating whether to allow women members. A grand sport should turn down its starchy collar. Or allow people to play without one.

There are 27,000 golfers registered in Singapore with the Central Handicap System and some estimate there is roughly the same number who play but aren't registered with this system. Still, weekdays at members-only golf clubs are not quite a traffic jam of buggies and it's a perfect time to allow outsiders to pay-and-play and use the course at a discounted fee. On its website, the splendid Tanah Merah Country Club notes an unaccompanied guest will be charged $240 on weekdays; in Morack Public Golf Course in Melbourne, where I played for years, the weekday fee is A$27 (S$28).

If clubs were generous, it would grow popularity which creates influence. The more people at play is the best argument to leave a sport undisturbed. Rail lines might be a non-negotiable subject but in future arguments, golf - which is struggling worldwide - needs as many voices of support as it can muster.

It has not helped that golf has met change with the same speed at which it is played. Too slowly. One round is equivalent to five episodes of Stranger Things and for the young that is heresy. We wish young folk would give up gadgets for a while each day, exit the indoors, meet the sun and try a sport. But golf, too expensive and too uptight, is a poor salesman. No sport should entirely abandon its essential culture - golf's self-policing, for instance, is to be applauded - but kids hear "dress code" and roll their eyes.

In the US, noted The Washington Post in August, "an NGF (National Golf Foundation) survey found that 57 per cent of American kids and teens thought negatively of the game; the top response was that it was 'boring'." You can see it here, too. Sentosa Golf Club president Low Teo Ping admits that "new entrants into golf, the younger ones, has definitely slowed down". Ross Tan, president of the Singapore Golf Association, notes he "hardly sees young people at golf ranges". Sometimes to get 12-year-olds interested, you have to first seduce their 40-year-old parents to the sport.

Golf is scarcely the only sport to suffer worldwide, but the game has to sell itself instead of being smug. Cricket's Twenty20 has seduced new crowds and Rugby Sevens is an electric activity with a fast turnover of matches. Test-match traditionalists like me prefer these sports in their original form, but we're no longer the target audience.

Tan says Singapore golf has to look at affordability and also at the idea of six-hole rounds which can be played before breakfast or during lunch. Last year Keith Pelley, the CEO of the European Tour, recommended six-hole events and told BBC Radio 5: "Yes there would be a shot clock, yes there would be music being played, and PA announcements, and players would be dressed a little differently, and maybe they would only play with five or seven clubs".

Purists will flinch but change must be met with agility, not hostility. Those who play golf love its contemplation and precision, its unique challenge of sending a still ball on a measured flight, yet love also means doing anything to save a game. The closing of Raffles Country Club is just unfortunate circumstance, but it offers all of us in this sport the chance to introspect. Sport's most appealing virtue is its inclusivity and golf has to be more embracing. Else exclusive clubs and sports sometimes become extinct ones.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'Sport needs to be more embracing'. Subscribe