Teed-off villagers leave golfers alone, but no resolution in sight

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am

Golfers enjoyed a peaceful round at the Hong Kong Golf Club yesterday after noisy villagers' protests held on two consecutive Sundays last month against the club's refusal to grant 'playing rights'.

A meeting is expected on Friday but the likelihood of a resolution is slim, with both parties pointing the finger at each other.

The club yesterday said it believed the villagers were trying to press it into granting special 'playing rights' at the club, where a full membership costs about $300,000 with a monthly subscription of $2,100.

But villagers accused the club of discrimination. On February 26, a row erupted between members and villagers who were in the club area for the traditional Chinese grave-sweeping ritual.

Dozens of graves of indigenous New Territories residents are on club property, which was built in 1911 on rural land in central Fanling. For decades, villagers have been allowed to enter the property during the Ching Ming and Chung Yeung grave-sweeping festivals. And as a friendly gesture, villagers living nearby were allowed to use one of the older courses to play golf, said the club.

But since January relations had soured after the club shut the old course for an eight-month renovation and the villagers could no longer play there.

Club general manager Howard Palmes yesterday said the villagers had staged 'mass grave-sweeping gatherings' to press for playing rights on its two other courses. On February 26, 120 villagers wandered around the courses, beating drums, during a 'grave-sweeping' ritual. On February 19, 80 villagers conducted a similar protest.

Mr Palmes said the club had learned from their day-to-day contact with the villagers that they wanted access to other courses during the renovation. 'But they are not members. They have no rights to use them,' he said.

Hau Fook-tat, a Sheung Shui rural leader who led the protests, said the club had tried to shift its stance. 'The dispute was about a club member trying to hit villagers with a golf ball during our ritual. At one point, some members also threatened to hit us with golf clubs,' said Mr Hau, adding the club had discriminated against the villagers and refused to hold the golfers responsible.

Formed in 1889, the club has hosted the Hong Kong Open since its inception. The club has three 18-hole courses at Fanling.