In our second report into the War On Golf, we found that more courses on Australia’s east coast are in a battle for survival from government, developers and rival sporting codes. 

By Rohan Clarke

Playing golf in Tropical North Queensland is a delightful experience in the middle of the year. When winter arrives and daylight hours decrease, fair-weather golfers can always depend upon the sun-baked courses above latitude 23.5 degrees south.

Or maybe not. In just a few months Tropical North Queensland will lose an iconic golf course with the closure of Paradise Palms. The Graham Marsh/Ross Watson layout at Kewarra Beach, 10 kilometres north of Cairns, will host its final rounds in June after a decision to turn its 18 holes into a housing estate.

Ranked No.100 on Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 Golf Courses, Paradise Palms has about 150 members and relied upon visitor patronage for a large slice of revenue. Despite a green fee of $135 (rack rate), that income stream hasn’t been enough for the course to be financially viable.

The existing owner, PPNQ Developments, has grand plans for the 113-hectare property that opened in 1990 during the Japanese investment boom in Australia. Apart from housing, the site may include a school, retirement village and a tourist park as well as green open spaces. And the imposing clubhouse would be repurposed, according to The Cairns Post.

Paradise Palms is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to course closures in Australia. Many other golf facilities across the country are under attack from various fronts. And in all likelihood, we’ll lose more than a few more iconic courses. Sadly, the golden age of golf that spawned more than 100 new courses since the early 1980s is over.

Golf courses on Australia’s east coast are increasingly under threat from state governments, local councils, developers and rival sporting codes (poorly run golf clubs add to the problem). With a population boom that has underscored this country’s extraordinary run of economic growth, the land used by golfers is being targeted for alternative usage – from retirement villages to sporting fields and motorways.

In the August 2017 edition of Australian Golf Digest, we published our first report on what we refer to as ‘The War On Golf’. Just longer than 18 months later, the futures of even more courses remain clouded. However on the positive front, some encouraging news has emerged that a few clubs have received a lifeline.

Firstly, the bad news. Melbourne’s Elsternwick Golf Course has been “returned to public parkland” after an expiration of the lease and it officially closed on June 30, 2018. To rub salt into the wound, Bayside City Council held a sausage sizzle the very next day to celebrate the nine-hole course being transformed into “environmentally focused parkland for the whole community to enjoy”.

Kingston Links is another Melbourne course to fold, also shutting its doors on June 30. Brisbane-based developer Pask Group was reported to have paid more than $60 million for the 65-hectare property at Rowville in 2016. It has been seeking to rezone the flood-prone site for a residential development for up to 800 homes.

South-east Melbourne is a battleground for golf courses, with developers eyeing off opportunities at several cash-strapped clubs. Kingswood Golf Club secured its future via a merger with Peninsula Country Club at Frankston. (ISPT purchased Kingswood’s former 53-hectare site for $125 million in 2014. Subsequently, the property fund giant has faced a public backlash over its proposal to build a minimum of 760 dwellings.)

A Battle For Golf Survival

Kingswood merged with Peninsula in 2013, with the Kingswood course closing last spring.

Rossdale Golf Club in Aspendale will close shortly after its members recently voted to relocate to Capital Golf Club, the once ultra-exclusive Lloyd Williams course that is owned by Crown Casino. In exchange for its parcel of land, Rossdale members will have access to a superb golf facility along with sufficient funds to sustain the club’s future.

Amstel Golf Club’s Park course at Cranbourne closed in 2016 to be developed into a housing subdivision. However that loss was offset by the club’s transition to Ranfurlie Golf Club, previously its sister course across the road.

In Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Strathallan Golf Club has won a stay of execution with La Trobe University extending its lease on 18 hectares at Bundoora for a further five years. The university, which purchased the golf course for $580,000 in 1996, had plans to redevelop it into a $150 million sports precinct. But the uni has since offered to sell it to Darebin Council for more than $25 million.

In Sydney, a number of clubs are hoping to avoid the fate of Parramatta Golf Club. The nine-hole public layout shut down in 2015 due to declining patronage and the site is being redeveloped into a new aquatic centre.

Gordon Golf Club on Sydney’s upper-north shore is in the spotlight given that it’s believed to cost Ku-ring-gai Council ratepayers $500,000 a year. The 18 holes are likely to be converted into public parkland once its lease option expires in 2023.

In Sydney’s northern suburbs, the future of Balgowlah Golf Club and Cammeray Golf Club are in doubt due to two proposed motorways. The fate of the nine-hole layouts depended upon the New South Wales election earlier this month. If Labor won power both courses looked to be safe. Now that the Liberal/Coalition government has retained office, it’s likely to push ahead with the building of the Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link motorway.

Balgowlah appears doomed if the roads go ahead, however Golf NSW chief executive Stuart Fraser is optimistic about a favourable outcome for Cammeray. “As it stands at the moment the intention is that [Balgowlah] won’t be there. But in saying that, we’ve had talks and continue to with local and state government on a solution that would maintain Balgowlah Golf Club being there.

“[Cammeray] would be affected temporarily. For all intents and purposes, [the aim is] to restore the golf course back to its original state once the tunnel’s been done.”

However, with an alleged shortage of sporting fields on the Northern Beaches, it may be wiser to sacrifice Cammeray as well as Balgowlah and lobby for extraordinary funding to secure the long-term sustainability of other public-access courses on the peninsula: Bayview, Mona Vale, Palm Beach, Wakehurst and Warringah.

In greater western Sydney, Wallacia Golf Club (otherwise known as Panthers Wallacia) is fighting to prevent its course being turned into a cemetery. Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust reportedly purchased the 42.5-hectare site for between $13 and $14 million from property developer Lou Zivanovic. The former Panthers footballer had bought the course from Penrith Rugby League Club for $2.7 million in 2014, netting him a profit of more than $10 million.

Despite opposition from Penrith City Council and the community, the proposal for a 60,000-plot cemetery has been given the green light by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. Tanya Davies, the Liberal state member for Mulgoa, has identified three alternate sites for the cemetery and has called on the NSW Premier to guarantee the club’s future.

In a statement, Davies says: “A cemetery that will decimate the only public recreational space in Wallacia is not in the public interest. This cemetery will kill the village of Wallacia. The Wallacia Golf Club was gifted to the people of Wallacia by the Fowler family for the recreational use of the community. It must remain, in its entirety, in the hands of the Wallacia community.”

Private Owners Can Do As They Please

The situation playing out at North Lakes Resort Golf Club should be a wake-up call for all board/committee members across the country. The former Top 100 layout – built for the residential golf community in Brisbane’s north with more than 6,500 homes – has been flagged to close in late 2019. The plan is to turn it into a retirement village and aged-care facility with about 85 percent of the course to be publicly accessible open space.

Adam Simpson, the club’s owner since 2006, has been trying to sell the course for more than two years, citing a drop in revenue from golfers. The club also requires major capital expenditure on its infrastructure.

A legal stoush has precipitated with pushback from residents who purchased land around the Graham Marsh layout on the understanding it was to be maintained as a golf course. But golf industry adviser Jeff Blunden explains there’s not much they can do.

“He owns the joint. He can do with it whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to open the doors each day,” Blunden says. “There’s going to be political pressure for council to knock back the development application. Sadly, in real-estate orientated developments I guess the assumption is that the golf course will always be there. But when golf courses are privately owned they’re just another business… And from time to time the owner could choose to try to do something different with it (subject to rezoning laws being approved).”

That’s worth bearing in mind, especially given the predicament of Palmer Coolum Resort on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, which is in horrible condition as witnessed during a recent course inspection by Australian Golf Digest. 

Having lost a place in Australia’s Top 100 Courses, one can only speculate as to Coolum’s future and the long-term intentions of its owner, businessman and former politician Clive Palmer.

Shortland Waters Golf Club in Newcastle is a cautionary tale for every private golf facility. Retirement village developer Aveo recently bought the club’s 50-hectare property for a song – $1.25 million after Shortland Waters went into voluntary administration.

The financially embattled club had sought help several years ago when it was in dire straits. In stepped Aveo with a proposal to build a retirement village in the middle of the course and bail out the club. The cash injection was a blessing in the short term. However, a caveat taken out by Aveo meant the club couldn’t borrow money to trade its way out of trouble.

So when Shortland Waters again fell into hardship, the club was then forced to sell. This time Aveo took the opportunity to buy the whole property. Under an arrangement with the administrator, Aveo paid $1.25 million for the club and lease it back to members for 20 years.

“There was nothing we could do about it. We are disappointed with the offer, because anybody with any common sense would know that’s a cheap buy, but we had no alternative,” Shortland Waters club president Ron Freeman told The Newcastle Herald.

In reality, members of Shortland Waters are the architects of their own downfall. The club’s facilitators believed they could manage their own negotiations and produce a satisfactory outcome. Unexpectedly, the club became unsustainable during the construction of the new holes to replace those lost for Aveo’s retirement village development. And so Aveo, being the only practical bidder, picked up the land cheaply, guaranteeing the golf course operation. 

“The club is desperate and needed to survive, so they’re not in a position of strength,” says Blunden. “The last thing you want to do is start talking specifically with one potential provider of development services. You want to keep market tension, don’t give exclusivity [and] you need to get good advice.

“This is going to sound harsh, but sometimes [golf clubs] get what they deserve – because they haven’t done their due diligence and they’ve overestimated their own ability to negotiate what they define is a good deal.”

“Sometimes [golf clubs] get what they deserve – because they haven’t done their due diligence and they’ve overestimated their own ability to negotiate what they define is a good deal.”

Jeff Blunden, Golf Industry Adviser

A Rallying Cry From The Masses

Despite uncertainty surrounding a number of courses, the golf industry has won some key battles. The most highly publicised was that of Albert Park Golf Course in the heart of Melbourne where the Victorian Government had considered reducing it to nine holes with a driving range.

That proposal was knocked on the head after a concerted pushback from members. Former Golf Victoria chief executive Simon Brookhouse played a pivotal role, initiating quite a lot of meetings with influential people, most notably the golf-loving Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. A strong social-media campaign proved very effective in galvanising support for Albert Park. And the timing – leading into an election year – proved beneficial.

Warringah Golf Club on Sydney’s northern beaches has also been given a reprieve since we reported on its plight. Warringah was threatened with losing nine of its 18 holes due to a shortage of sporting fields in the local area. It had just a five-year lease on its northern nine from Northern Beaches Council.

A Battle For Golf Survival

Warringah literally has a new lease of life.

In response, the club collected a 10,000-strong petition as well as arguing that many under-utilised school ovals – that close at 3pm on Fridays – could meet the required number of sporting fields. Warringah is now on the cusp of being granted a 30-year lease.

“What happened with Warringah was that the 10,000-name petition automatically elevates that out of council’s hands into state government,” says Golf NSW’s Fraser. “So they were very clever in rallying the community. And like all these things, the community is incredibly powerful when it comes to councils.

“It’s a very brave council that will simply get rid of the green open space golf course without a huge amount of backlash and repercussions through their local community – not just the members.”

In Queensland, Nudgee Golf Club, next to Brisbane Airport, is recovering from the seizure of more than 10 per cent of its course in 2014. The privately owned club lost four of its 36 holes when the Federal Government expropriated 8.84 hectares of land to upgrade/widen the Gateway Motorway, which traverses the western side of the property.

The closure of holes has caused significant grief to the 89-year-old club. However, it’s believed Nudgee reached an agreement with the Department of Transport and Main Roads for compensation to the tune of $16 million. It’s using this money to redevelop the whole facility and restore 36 holes, engaging James Wilcher (Golf By Design) to produce a course masterplan.

Construction work has commenced and the inconvenience to members is offset by the prospect the new holes should be much better given Wilcher’s track record as a course architect. The compensation is a major victory for the club because, in reality, Nudgee was a $30 (green-fee) venue and its model relied upon a lot of public golf to prop up its membership.

Why Public Courses Are In Grave Danger

Government acquisition of golf courses is nothing new. And even if land is privately owned, there’s not much a golf club can do if the specific asset is requisitioned for public use or benefit.

The real concern for the golf industry should be the protection of our public courses. After all, they are the lifeblood of the sport because they are the starting point for most newcomers to the game.

Unfortunately, the whole public-course sector is a mess because of a public-course mentality of needing to offer affordable golf. Being cheap impacts the ability to make a reasonable profit. And without any reasonable profit there’s no reinvestment back into facilities and they just become more tired and dilapidated (irrigation, safety fences, etc.). In most cases, any profit that a public course makes has to go back into consolidated revenue. And then whoever is in charge of the golf asset has to bid for capital works each year.

The whole public-course sector is a mess because of a public-course mentality of needing to offer affordable golf.

Says Blunden: “In some cases, [councils] have raped and pillaged the public assets and then diverted the profit elsewhere. And therefore the required capital investment hasn’t been undertaken.”

If you take your golf hat off for a moment, is it any wonder which decision a council will make when choosing between spending $1 million to upgrade facilities on a golf asset used by six percent of the population versus $1 million on a leisure asset (like a swimming pool) that appeals to everyone in the community?

It’s hard to sell big spends on niche sports, particularly if there is little support within council or a government authority. That’s why, in terms of public golf courses, the strong will survive and the weak will disappear.

The elite private courses will always be there. But if golf doesn’t heed the warning signs at grassroots level then it’s destined to follow the same downward spiral as tennis. Forty years ago tennis courts were everywhere. But they started to disappear at a rapid rate, and people stopped playing tennis, and our capacity to produce champions has withered.

That’s why golf must fight to preserve every course across this great country.