A bike ride, with some clubs in a bag slung across my back, to one of the golf courses along the Georges River was part and parcel of school holidays for me and my older brothers.
Years later we drove along the Great Western Highway for dawn hit-offs with social clubs, to Fox Hills and Dunheved, up into the Blue Mountains, and to courses along the Windsor Road.
It was all good fun, except I wanted for company, my walkabouts rarely intersecting with my brothers’ relaxed stroll down mown fairways lined with exotic trees.
I guess that was their reward for hitting a golf ball straight rather than on a low-flying pin-balled trajectory into the back country.
My brothers returned to the club house sprinkled with grass seed and pollen. I arrived scratched, covered in burrs – and cursing.
I now know, years after retiring from the ‘sport’, that my brothers’ skills denied them rich environmental experiences.
A colleague from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University, Dr Sally Power, has completed a study of native life on Sydney golf courses.
The report comes at a time when open space in Western Sydney is threatened by the rollout of new suburbs and by the in-fill of existing suburbs with high rise development.
A delightful surprise is how many of the courses from my younger years survive. Sally’s report tells me there are over 100 golf courses in greater Sydney, providing over 4,000 hectares of local green space. This makes golf courses an important environmental asset.
Sally’s team examined 15 courses in minute detail, finding 97 separate species of birds, 438 species of trees, shrubs and grass, and 21 species of ants – these being, apparently, a good indicator of the presence of the bugs and critters that underpin food chains and nutrient cycling in the natural world.
The report exposes my brothers’ narrow experience of a golf course. On the mown fairway there are, obviously, fewer trees and shrubs, and they are more likely to be imported species.
In the back country are the giant Sydney blue gums, grey boxes, spotted gums and (way, way back) the stands of pink-flowering iron barks I became familiar with.
Except for the odd skirmish with plovers (apparently now re-named the Masked Lapwing), my straight-driving brothers would have missed most of the bird life including the squawking Cockatoos, swooping Magpies and feisty Willy Wagtails.
What the report calls the remnant bushland areas of the golf courses, my brothers, unkindly, called the scrub or the never-never, as they pointed to where my ball was last seen.
These remnants are important parts of the Cumberland woodland, the original vegetation formation of the Sydney basin, now threatened by Sydney’s exploding growth.
Golf courses in Sydney have been under attack – more than a little childishly in my view – for their privileged use of large tracts of land in prime locations. Sure, most clubs have membership fees.
But there are cheaper ones, and none would survive without generous volunteering by members.
Moreover, most Western Sydney courses occupy land donated or purchased back in the day when a local community got together and constructed a rudimentary course for some weekend fun.
To be sure, golf courses need to be more inclusive of their neighbours as Sydney’s population densities rise and access to open space diminishes.
Responsible walkers, for example, should be made welcome. Then they too might volunteer as custodians of these havens for plants, animals and golfers, good and bad, in a city of the plains looking desperately short of the open spaces needed for a rising population.
Professor Phillip O’Neill, director
Centre for Western Sydney
Western Sydney University