Southern Golf Club used the hosting of a significant amateur tournament to bust out of Melbourne’s COVID funk and propel itself towards an exciting next chapter
Photographs by Gary Lisbon
Southern Golf Club in Melbourne’s south-east is on a high. Fresh from hosting the club’s first ever international four-round golf tournament, Southern is enjoying one of the better periods in its 75-year history.
“The Australian Master of the Amateurs, what an event that was,” recalls general manager Brad Robb. “I was at home on a Friday afternoon and an e-mail came through: ‘Please call Peter Mann.’ I didn’t know Peter personally at the time, but I knew who he was and knew all about this event. I rang him straight back and we met with Peter and his wife, Angela, the following Monday to go over the hosting agreement and had it signed off by Thursday that week. This all happened last May and the tournament was scheduled for the first week of January, so I think Peter and Angela were relieved to lock in a venue and, equally, we were excited that we got the chance to take it on.
“We are in a world-famous region for golf courses and getting a tournament of high calibre is extremely difficult. So when you have the opportunity to pick up Australia’s best amateur golf tournament, and an event that is in the top handful of amateur golf events in the Southern Hemisphere, how can you say no to that?”
The Master of the Amateurs tournament has had a proud history in Melbourne, with nine years at Yarra Yarra before moving to Royal Melbourne. The event had an amazing relationship with Royal Melbourne but had to move it away due to the Presidents Cup being played there in 2019. It found its way to Victoria Golf Club and the first year there, Sahith Theegala won the men’s championship and he is now ranked 24th in the world. Unfortunately Victoria didn’t get to experience the best of the tournament with COVID-19 interrupting the 2021 and 2022 event, and with their commitment to host the Australian Open last year, they had to let the tournament find a new venue.
“We are proud to host this event now and have locked it in for three years with another three-year option after that,” Robb says. “We hope they don’t have to find another venue and Southern can be the long-term home of the Australian Master of the Amateurs. The event is only going to grow; we will have it televised in 2024 over the final two days and hope to extend that in 2025 and 2026 to cover all four days.”
Southern was proud to be part of the resurgence of the event. “Peter and Angela and their team did a great job keeping it going during COVID,” Robb adds. “They still had a full field, but it was ultimately just a national field because the international players couldn’t get into the country. It certainly didn’t take anything away from the event, though – Harrison Crowe won the men’s championship in 2022 and he qualified for the Masters this year after his win at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last November. Lion Higo and Jeneath Wong won the ladies championships in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and they are both at Pepperdine University now and part of one of the strongest college golf teams in America.
“When you look at the some of the past players, it really puts the significance of this event into perspective. Jason Day, Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Rickie Fowler, Will Zalatoris, Corey Conners, Matthew Wolff, Aaron Wise, Tommy Fleetwood, Sahith Theegala, Andy Sullivan, Russell Henley, the list goes on. They actually had 13 past players invited to the Masters this year; unfortunately Will Zalatoris pulled out due to injury and Aaron Wise wasn’t able to take his place in the field.
“We had such a fun week. It was almost the release that we needed. All the hard work had been done and we didn’t feel much pressure at all during tournament week and had the opportunity to enjoy it for what it was. The members got behind the event, they were proud it was at their club. That’s so important to the success of any event – your members need to embrace it.”
A bright future
Coming off the back of one of the wettest springs in 75 years, Southern was well behind in course preparations.
“We couldn’t panic, though, even though we were very nervous in the early part of December,” Robb says. “Our course superintendent Shaun Taylor and his team did an amazing job getting the course to where it was come January 2. There were things we weren’t happy with, but we set high standards and a lot of those little things went unnoticed. The course will be even better in 2024, even though all the players raved about it this year. John Gough, the men’s winner, spent a month in Australia playing all over the country and said Southern had the best greens he played on during his trip.
“Southern is staying grounded, though. We are certainly not getting ahead of ourselves. When you have the likes of Royal Melbourne, Peninsula-Kingswood, Victoria, Kingston Heath and Metropolitan at your doorstep, it’s a tough little area to compete in. We don’t get too drawn into what the other clubs are doing; we are proud of our club and our course and the culture within the club is as strong as I have ever seen it. People come to Southern and love it here, our course is always presented well and we have a great relaxed environment. Our membership is full and we have a waiting list to join the club, which gives you confidence going forward.
“We have OCM starting some work on our course this year. They provided the club with a masterplan a few years ago and we are embarking on the first major changes from their plan, which is exciting. Our front nine, or the ‘new nine’ as we like to call it, we opened that in 1979 after swapping some land across the road with the then-Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (now Melbourne Water). It was a genius move at the time as we had to cross Lower Dandenong Rd to play six holes, which is now a nine-hole public course called Spring Park.”
Peter Thomson designed the holes on the new nine and he ventured away from the traditional Sandbelt look and feel of the existing nine. Thomson created lots of mounds, put in pot bunkers and all the greens were elevated, many with multiple tiers. In the mid-1990s, the club dug a huge storage dam and instead of taking the spoil off-site, it created two more huge mounds on the front nine between holes.
“The two nines are very different and we want to address that and reset, get back to what this region is famous for and that is quality Sandbelt golf courses,” Robb says. “Those two big mounds are going as part of the upcoming works; it will completely change that part of the course for the better.
“Mike, Ashley and the team at OCM are great, amazing to work with and the vision they have for Southern going forward is exciting. It is great to be in a position to improve the course and hosting a major event each year only fuels that desire to keep improving. It is exciting to think how it all might look in five to seven years’ time. If their other work is any indication to go by – Peninsula-Kingswood, Lonsdale Links, Victoria, the new short course at Kingston Heath – we are in for a treat. I am yet to see something that they have done that isn’t amazing.
“There is plenty happening at Southern Golf Club. It feels like it has come post COVID and is a different place now. We paid off our clubhouse debt last year and that was a major milestone for the club. We have a healthy balance sheet and can continue to invest money back into the course and clubhouse. We have great plans in place, some improvements are coming to the practice facilities, and we are currently setting up what we believe will be one of the best junior golf academies in the country.
“Our focus will be to get young people into the game, and we are fortunate enough to be in a position to start the Bob Shearer Foundation. After Bob’s passing in 2022, two members pledged a significant amount of money to the club to start the foundation, which will be used to give young golfers an opportunity to chase their dream on the professional stage. We know how tough that is, and when you are fighting for every dollar, having some financial support behind you takes a bit of the pressure off. It will be a staged process, getting young people into the game, supporting them through the academy, pennant, elite amateur golf and then hopefully giving them an opportunity to be successful touring professionals, just like Bob was.
“You never know, one day we may just have a player that starts the game at Southern, wins the Australian Master of the Amateurs and goes on to become one of the best professional golfers in the world. As Peter Mann always says, live the dream! We hope to give someone that opportunity one day. It’s all about giving back. We are excited. The future is bright.”
Southern Golf Club
Where: Lower Dandenong Rd, Keysborough VIC 3173
Phone: (03) 9798 3111