Course tweaks and lofty ambitions have one of Melbourne’s most revered Sandbelt layouts craving the spotlight again.
Commonwealth Golf Club is celebrating her centenary this year. The milestone has provided the catalyst for the grand old duchess of Melbourne’s Sandbelt to emerge from the long shadows cast over her by more high-profile neighbours.
She has always been a damn fine golf course, complemented by a magnificently elegant, 100-year-old clubhouse with its famous, century-old, stained-glass windows. But now Commonwealth Golf Club is in the throes of having a makeover. It will only be a tweak or two – more a renovation and restoration than a complete overhaul.
No longer is she happy to be regarded as merely one of the best golf courses in the country, known for producing the legendary amateur Bill Edgar and, in recent times, young tyros Marc Leishman, Lucas Herbert and Zach Murray, all of whom played senior pennant for the club. Murray and Herbert came back for a mighty pro-am to kick off the old girl’s birthday celebrations in February before the pandemic stopped the party. The festivities will continue apace when the COVID-19 cloud lifts fully.
For far too long Commonwealth has hidden her light under a bushel. The great Peter Thomson won the only Australian Open Commonwealth hosted, in 1967, when he beat Col Johnston by seven shots, shooting 11-under for four days in the wind. The club has hosted a few Women’s Australian Opens, too. But big events have been sparse for such a good course. Now she is setting about claiming her rightful spot at the national golf table, then eventually, among golf royalty on the international stage.
Paul Grainger, Commonwealth’s general manager for 18 short months, is driving the change, tweaking the course and clubhouse so they ‘interface’ with one another better and taking the hospitality and service to the best in the world. Course and clubhouse masterplans are in place. Enhanced car parking and practice facilities are on the drawing board.
Originally from Nottingham, where he coached and played football at a high level, Grainger came to Commonwealth after 35 years in the golf and leisure industry around the world. This includes stints in Hong Kong, where he ran the superb Clearwater Golf and Country Club, and in Brisbane, where he oversaw major works at Sanctuary Cove and the opening of Brookwater.
Grainger has never worked anywhere in the world where he has experienced membership camaraderie the equal of Commonwealth. “You could almost taste it and feel it from day one,” he says.
So far his tweaks at Commonwealth have been subtle. Grainger says Commonwealth has always been a very good golf club with an excellent golf course. Change will take time. He says the greatest asset at Commonwealth is her 1,200-strong membership – almost a third of them women. It is his job to make sure his staff capture the vibe and enhance the experience of anyone who comes through the gate at Commonwealth.
The course superintendent and the manager of golf operations are integral to the club’s transformation. The course ‘super’ of just 18 months is John Mann, who cut his teeth at Royal Melbourne under the doyen of course ‘supers’, Richard Forsyth. The golf operations manager is Ben Davey, a former touring pro and PGA member, now turning his hand more to management. He’s been at Commonwealth for three years. Mann says Commonwealth reminds him of Royal Melbourne in 2009 when the club returfed all 36 holes prior to staging the Presidents Cup in 2011.
“The club is looking at a long-term masterplan which involves a lot of restoration,” he says. “A few holes have changed in the past 30 years, which has moved the course away from its origins. We want to return it as close to the original as possible but with a modern twist, because the game has changed a lot over 100 years.”
A lot of the renovation will involve native revegetation, in the short term, then later perhaps the returfing of fairways and greens. The aim, where possible, is to return the course to the way it was originally carved out by hard-working captain, Charles Lane. After travelling overseas to spend time with the venerable course designer, Harry Colt, Lane returned to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on Commonwealth. He was often seen shirtless on the pick and shovel carving out improvements to the course.
“For me, in the short term, it’s trying to stay true to [Lane’s] original philosophies,” Mann says.
Much of the beauty of Commonwealth lies in its greenside strategy. But every shot on the course has to be strategically executed. The green sites are tilted and they are positioned to receive a ball from one spot and one side of the fairway. The greens are smaller than those at Metropolitan, Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne. They tend to slope one way and every one of them presents a unique challenge. And the greenside bunkering is exquisite.
Davey says Commonwealth is not an overly long course, “But a key strategy is to give yourself the best angle for your approach to the green and this requires staying as close to the hazards as possible.”
The short par 4s are a highlight. The fourth is about 320 metres and doglegs to the right – with a fairway bunker on the right about 200 metres from the tee. The approach is to a green sloping hard from left to right with a big trap on the left. “It’s all about position. A great par 4,” Davey enthuses.
The eighth is a similarly good hole to an elevated green situated on one of the highest points on the course. Members often under-club their approach shots.
“Commonwealth is generally quite flat. So the second shot here is further than it looks and is to a heavily guarded green. It can be quite intimidating for members,” Davey says.
The signature hole is perhaps the 16th, a big dogleg left around the water. A very pretty hole, it is again longer than it looks. The closer you hit it to the water, the better shot you have into the green.
“It’s an exciting time to be working here,” Davey adds. “I have no doubt we can return to the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s and host major tournaments like the Australian Open again.”
Commonwealth Golf Club
Where: Glennie Ave, Oakleigh South VIC 3167
Phone: (03) 9575 0444