The intent was never to cause a nuisance.
Rather, when The Bridges at Tillsonburg golf course opted to stay open, defying a provincial order in doing so, it was to protest rules that didn’t make sense to the club’s ownership group – or many other golf enthusiasts throughout the province.
That defiant Ontario golf course waved its white flag on May 5, announcing it was closing to the public effective immediately over concerns that customers faced possible fines from police.
Still, many believe the government missed the proverbial fairway on this one, in what has been largely viewed by many as an unpopular latest round of politicking.
The Ford government’s latest stay-at-home order arrived mid-April amid spiking COVID-19 numbers and a health system under duress. With that order came a set of ramped-up restrictions designed to slow the curve, including prohibiting outdoor social gatherings except those with members of the same household, closing all non-essential workplaces, reducing capacities in retail settings and closing all outdoor recreation amenities, including basketball courts, soccer fields, playgrounds and golf courses.
The government faced immediate public backlash over playground closures and quickly backtracked on that rule, yet golf courses, some argue inexplicably, remained closed.
Enter The Bridges at Tillsonburg, an 18-hole public golf course in Tillsonburg.
As protests and petitions quickly began circulating – calls for the government to reverse its golf-closure rule continue to swell – The Bridges went for a trick shot of sorts.
The owners simply kept their course open.
“We just didn’t think it was right to have us close. We still don’t believe it’s right,” said course co-owner Murray McLaughlin. “We wanted to take a stand saying this isn’t right. But nobody stands up to the powerful government.”
On Wednesday, after being hit with three separate charges by the OPP – one on April 29 and two on May 4 – it was announced the course was shutting down, likely until it’s legal to re-open.
It faces up to $10 million in fines.
“The threats and fines have adversely affected our ability to continue playing golf safely,” stated the ownership group, “despite strong local support and support throughout the province, the enforcement by the provincial government has been overbearing.”
In addition to fining club officials, provincial police charged golfers, including 19 people who played the course on May 1 and 2. Five people were also charged April 30.
“The government has overstepped with its arbitrary and illogical closing of golf courses,” the ownership group added.
According to the statement, the “opening protest” was not about making money, but was a protest of “unreasonable measures.
“From the start, we weren’t making statements (to the media). We were just open,” said McLaughlin. “We had security there, so only the golfers got in. It was about the golf. It was about getting outside.”
McLaughlin, who has been part of the ownership group for nearly a decade, said you’d be hard-pressed to find a safer activity, pandemic or otherwise.
“It’s just a natural spot to be. You’re automatically distancing yourself. You’re not going to be standing that close to somebody swinging,” he said.
The government measures are expected to remain in place until at least May 20.
“(Golf courses are) still closed because we still need to see the rate of cases go down even further,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said on May 4.
The Bridges disagrees.
“Golf is safe,” its statement said. “There is overwhelming evidence from the medical community that outdoor activities including golf when conducted with proper protocols are safe, but also essential for physical and mental well-being.”
McLaughlin said it’s important the public understands his motives to keep the course open had nothing to do with money.
“To demonstrate this, we are donating all the profits from the course opening to organizations who represent those who have been adversely affected by the lockdowns,” the club’s statement read, adding any profit will go to the Helping Hand Food Bank in Tillsonburg, Domestic Abuse Services Oxford (DASO), and Wellkin (Child & Youth Mental Wellness).
– with Postmedia files