First Torphin Hill then Lothianburn and now Carrick Knowe. Three golf clubs in an around Edinburgh to cease operation in less than five years, four if you add in Whitekirk in East Lothian. Even in these difficult times, a headline that screams ‘golf club closes’ still stirs interest and rightly so, probably, in the sport’s cradle, where the majority of clubs have been healthy for most of their existence.
Scotland, however, is not immune to the modern-day challenges in golf when it comes to membership and the sad demise of Carrick Knowe Golf Club should serve as a warning to any committee with its head stuck in the sand.
A municipal club that started out as Sighthill Golf Club in 1905 before changing its name in 1929, it was once one of the most vibrant clubs in Edinburgh, producing the likes of Scott Knowles, who cut his golfing teeth at Carrick Knowe before moving on to Kingsknowe and becoming a Scotland international.
At one point, in fact, the Carrick Knowe membership boasted three players in the Scotland set up at that time as both Bryan Shields and Simon Mackenzie were encouraged by the likes of Knowles and Stuart Johnston to make it their second club after Bathgate and West Linton respectively.
Three former club presidents served as Edinburgh Lord Provost, namely Sir Alex Grant, Sir T B Whitson and, most recently, the charismatic Eric Milligan. The Dispatch Trophy, Edinburgh’s top team tournament, fell to Carrick Knowe in both 1999 and 2004.
Happy times but now replaced by sadness. The club ceased operation on Sunday. As the clubhouse door swung shut for the last time, the membership was down to just 20. The committee has been fighting a losing battle as that figure slowly dwindled in recent years.
It had been the same story at both Torphin Hill and Lothianburn, where the hilly nature of the two courses was believed to have been partly responsible for their fate. The same was probably the case at Whitekirk, though the doors shut there after planning permission had been granted for a hotel and a second 18-hole course.
Flat as a pancake in comparison, the Carrick Knowe course becoming a slog for older members can’t have been a factor. Indeed, the course itself, which is managed by Edinburgh Leisure, is still open, something that seemed to have been lost in the reporting of the story over the weekend.
It remains the home of Carrickvale Golf Club, which has already picked up a number of those that were the last men standing at their neighbouring club and hope that, plus the addition of a few more new members, will help ensure that the Royal & Ancient game continues to be played on the Carrick Knowe course for a long time to come.
In comparison to England, Scotland hasn’t been hit too badly by either club or course closures. However, the loss of a municipal club in Edinburgh as opposed to those private ones at Torphin Hill, Lothianburn and Whitekirk is clearly a sign that the affordable gateway for kids to get into the game and for older people, too, might not be as appealling as it once was. “When I started playing, Carrickvale was the cheap, reasonable option at a time when there were waiting lists at a lot of clubs,” said secretary John Pow. “It’s not that option now, though, as you can get a full membership elsewhere for the cost of a permit (required to play the Edinburgh Leisure courses) and our membership fee.”
According to Edinburgh Leisure, which is currently reviewing reaction to controversial plans to redevelop Portobello, 65 per cent of the people currently using its season-ticket choose not to join traditional clubs, instead preferring to be “casual or nomadic golfers”. It says golf clubs and courses “must change the offer to attract new users, particularly women, young people and families”.
That may well be the case. At the same time, though, it really is sad that a club like Carrick Knowe, once the pride and joy of the likes of Jimmy Wilkinson, a lifelong member, has been lost from the golfing landscape. “On the Saturday before last, we had our last get together,” said Norman Burns, one of those last men standing. “It was well supported and everyone had a good time. It was a happy but sad occasion.”