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The Battle of London’s River Road: One-year Truce

River Road Golf Club

London's River Road -- and yes it looks pretty, but it isn't much fun to play.

The battle of River Road, London’s beleagured muni, heated up this week with the city’s councillors meeting the public to discuss a recommendation to close the course. Two industry experts had said the course was troubled as both a business and a design, and parks officials suggested given falling demand it was better to close the course. River Road lost $620,000 in the last three years — resulting in a loss for the municipal golf system in the South-Western Ontario city.

I played the golf course numerous times while growing up in London — but I don’t recall it fondly. Overly tight, and badly designed, it is the kind of place that drives golfers away from the game. Not surprisingly rounds at the facility have been declining – fewer and fewer golfers are willing to risk hospitalization to play an overly-narrow shooting gallery apparently.

One of the local politicians had warned that city council would be at the receiving end of 500 angry golfers at the meeting, but media reports talk about is around 30 people speaking to the committee responsible for golf in London, and a handful of letters. Some of the letters are thoughtful, but they also read to me like the blue-haired set was really looking for a cheap golf option. One commentator said closing River Road would be a “tragedy,” while another said it would be “criminal” to close the facility.

One of the letters, from Henry and Loretta Mariendfeldt, caught my attention:

Over the years we have occasionally played Thames or Fanshawe but would not play them on a regular basis if River Road is closed and would be forced to drive substantial distance to a private course, most likely outside the City.

Sure they would. Right now Henry and Loretta are likely paying $2000 a year to play River Road. A private course would require a significant initiation and individual dues that would be more than their current total for both of them. The other letters are basically painful — badly considered explanations for keeping open a money-losing operation. Of course those directly involved with the public courses — the superintendents and the public employees’ union — were both against closing it, not that it comes as a surprise.

London’s mayor, who ran on a platform of a balanced budget, gave the course a reprieve, saying its numbers have to be better in a year’s time or it should be closed. So the guillotine hangs over River Road for another 12 months.

The real question in London is whether municipalities should be subsidizing golf. I suppose I don’t have much of an issue with a nominal loss, and one of London’s munis — Fanshawe — is slightly in the red. However, the issue with London’s municipal courses is a bigger one — is River Road’s expanding loss hurting the other courses? If River Road hadn’t lost $620,000, that money could have been put into improvements at both Thames Valley and Fanshawe. Those courses could be better golf experiences.

Certainly the cities shouldn’t simply use their golf courses as cash cows. If River Road was closed, capital improvements could be made at both of the other courses. The golf would get better — and that’s what the game needs to grow a new generation of players.

However, River Road has proven over time that it won’t do that. The city is responsible for that — it allowed the course to be built (along with another nine holes at Fanshawe) by amateurs who made big mistakes. Those mistakes have resulted in fewer people playing the courses and now thousands in losses.

Proof, I suppose, that paying a little bit more up front — for land in the case of River Road and a professional architect in the case of both River Road and Fanshawe — would have yielded benefits in the long run.

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Jeff Lancaster

Jeff Lancaster is the Publisher of CanadianGolfer.com.

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