Andy Waple’s Golf Column: Future is bright at Waterfront GC under PGA pro Frank Houlgate

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It takes a brave soul to take on the ownership of a golf course these days, particularly one in the heart of South Yorkshire’s former coalfields.

Yet PGA pro Frank Houlgate is a man with a mission, and he sees his base at Waterfront Golf Club - on the site of the former Manvers Main pit at Wath-upon-Dearne - as the place where he can see his dreams become reality.

Former head professional at Sand Moor and Normanton golf clubs, Frank was looking for a golf centre he could call his own and when Waterfront came on the market last year, it was a no brainer.

Waterfront, as its name suggests, lies on the edge of the new Manvers Lake and the Old Moor Nature Reserve, a fantastic stretch of land that belies its grimy industrial past.

It is the former site of one of Europe’s biggest coal mining operations combining pits, coking plants and ancillary industries.

It closed like many others in 1988, leaving a big hole in the region’s economy and taking with it the livelihood of thousands of families.

Today, there are a few relics which nod to its past, and in its place is Waterfront Golf Club, and the lake and surroundings all buzzing with recreational activities.

Frank took over Waterfront 11 months ago and his gamble is paying off. The place is thriving at a time when interest in golf is declining - and this is more unusual because Waterfront is a nine-hole course.

Nine holes? That’s sacrilege, many would say. But others reckon it’s the future.

Folklore has it that golf is a game of 18 holes because that’s the number of drams there are in a fifth bottle of whisky, allowing a players a tot on every tee.

As romantic as that might sound, the fact that it takes an average of four hours to play 18 holes, plus traveling and social time in the 19th, is now seen within the industry to be a turn off for younger people and families.

Last year, the USGA introduced the PLAY9 initiative to encourage golfers of all abilities to find the time to play nine holes. And it’s a move that is gaining momentum over here.

With the latest moves to encourage more women and juniors to take up the game and play together with their menfolk as families, the nine-hole concept is gaining credence.

Nine hole golf is nothing new. The First US Open, played in 1895, was contested over nine-hole holes and great icons of the game, including Arnold Palmer, learned their skills on such courses.

It’s popular to confine to just nine on an 18-holer to enable play when time rules out the full round. “Nine before nine” is a great way to start the day and still get to work on time and it allows for a few holes after work before it goes dark.

Purpose-built nine hole courses are not new either and the Sheffield area has a handful – including the scenic Chatsworth and Bakewell clubs in the Peak District, as well as Owston Park and Serlby Park in South Yorkshire.

But Waterfront is the most noteworthy because it combines a fantastic golf experience with an equally enjoyable social scene.

The result has seen an increase in membership to just under 200, with an average age of just 36.

Opened in 2008, the course - designed by Simon Gidman, who has worked on the Birhill and Frillford Heath courses - is set in 170 acres. It is a joy on the eye with well-kept fairways, USGA specification greens and terrific views of the nature reserve and the lake.

It is certainly no pushover, either; as many visiting teams contesting Sheffield Union league matches have discovered to their peril.

To cater for serious players who need their full fix of golf there are 18 tees producing a full course measuring over 6,500 yards, one of the longest of its kind in the UK.

The modern facility also includes a 32 bay floodlit golf driving range, practice areas, club fitting studio, clubhouse, restaurant and pro shop.

Frank has made improvements in new paths and invested heavily in course machinery. The introduction of a teaching studio and fitting bay, overseen by pros Ben Mason and Iain Pyman, has acted like a magnet for golfers from a wide area. More improvements are on the way, including a new nine-hole, par-three course to attract beginners.

Frank’s ambition is to introduce free golf for youngsters backed by an increasing welcoming family atmosphere.

“We are very much a family club and it’s the friendliest of places,” he said.

“But kids playing for free is the key for the future of the game.”