It’s been a hectic past few years for Yarra Yarra, which is now wide open in every sense of the word.
Photos by Gary Lisbon
If the Yarra Yarra course were a boxer, it would surely be George Foreman – the master of the comeback. The revered Alex Russell design is a heavyweight member of the famous Melbourne Sandbelt but one that has taken a few beatings, only to bounce back with gusto.
Its latest revival might just be the most impressive yet. In a bid to restore some of Russell’s design characteristics that had been lost with the passing of time and tinkering by other architects, the club called upon Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design company to lift it off the canvas.
The restoration of Yarra Yarra began with multiple goals, says course superintendent Clint Raven: “Our primary goal was to restore/recapture the design and strategic intent in Alex Russell’s original work; to reveal the wonderful piece of property that had been hidden away under layers of vegetation; to return the elegance that had been lost in the areas between the green complexes and the tees; and to provide a course that was challenging to the lower-handicap golfer yet fun and inviting for the average golfer.”
Overall, Doak sought to integrate the tees into their surrounds as part of a greater decluttering of the site; remove superfluous bunkers and/or reshape those bunkers that were out of character with the Russell style; adjust fairway mowing lines to fully engage with hazards and present strategic risk/reward angles into tucked hole locations and restore altered greens where possible. Where greens couldn’t be restored to their original location, Doak and his design associate Brian Slawnik rebuilt them to look and play like the original Russell greens elsewhere on the course.
“The artistry that Brian Slawnik was able to achieve throughout the course and bring it back to its glory days is amazing. Our team were the lucky ones to have been able to put the polish on it,” Raven says.
The vegetation removal was judicious, with many of the non-indigenous trees removed to reveal the quality of the property. The native trees that were retained were set strategically away from the lines of play. Combined with the more expansive open mown areas, it is a striking outcome to the eye and to golfers’ grey matter. Where previously one might have played a little more timidly between the tight treelines, the latest iteration invites a few more bold lines and brave carries while still providing options.
No holes were changed in terms of their physical playing corridors, although the order of the first six holes was altered. What was formerly the sixth hole is now the first with the old fifth now the outstanding second. Holes three to six are the former first to fourth while play remains the same from the seventh hole onwards.
The work was carried out in stages with the last touches made in the early part of 2020. After its intentional omission from our biennial Top 100 Courses ranking two years ago due to the ongoing work, Yarra Yarra bounced back to No.27 this time – its highest mark since 2000 when the ranking landscape was far less competitive.
Andrew Bertram, Yarra Yarra’s long-time head professional, has heard the feedback from members and visitors alike during two years of intermittent golf in Melbourne.
“We wanted people to walk out of here having had some fun playing golf and to be the best members course we could possibly be. And I think we’ve gone a fair way towards achieving that,” Bertram says. “Then there’s the enjoyment factor. Since the restoration, the conditioning and turf quality are so much improved and the enjoyment factor of playing our golf course has increased so much.”
Among the comments Bertram repeatedly hears are: ‘I love how the golf course looks. I love the look and feel of the golf course.’ “One of the comments that stands out is: ‘I never realised how much movement of land there was here. I always thought the golf course was quite flat.’”
Of all the holes, the new-look 10th elicits most post-round discussion. It is arguably the most different visually, as well as from a playability standpoint. The fairway, which is wide for a 306-metre par 4, trundles steadily downhill before rising to a pulpit-style and bunkerless green with steep runoffs for all 360 degrees. Pitch shots need to be precise, while greenside chips require more judgment and touch than first impressions allow. It’s a simple but beguiling short par 4. Bertram says the hole does divide opinions, with better golfers in particular embracing the challenge it presents.
Elsewhere, the changes to the 12th, 13th and 14th have drawn praise. The 14th is certainly a hole that highlights the difference between Yarra Yarra today and in the past. Formerly a narrow, medium-length par 4, smart tree removal has expanded the fairway, while the addition of fairway bunkers has taken the challenge from one of tree avoidance the provision of clear options. The question now becomes, Do I hit to the left with a tighter landing area but a less challenging shot to the green, or do I hit long right and take on the challenge of a well-positioned greenside bunker? The intent of the original design has returned to what was previously regarded as an innocuous hole.
“That area of the course, and the way it plays, has garnered a lot of discussion,” Bertram adds.
A FRESH START
The revised routing of the early holes was an obvious choice for Doak and Slawnik. Working to a theory that you need to ‘grab’ golfers in a big way in the first few holes, they set about reconfiguring the start by using the old sixth hole as the opener. History was on their side, as most major events at Yarra Yarra – the Australian Amateur or Women’s Australian Open – began play from that hole. It was only natural for member rounds to do the same, which also removed what is now the 203-metre, par-3 third hole from being a quirky starting point.
The re-routing and restoration have been a blessing from a pace-of-play standpoint, too. Bertram says golf ball sales are down, but round speed and member satisfaction is way up.
“When I started here 18 years ago, one of the first things we had to do was address medal days, which were five hours every month and the speed of play was horrendous. Now, stroke rounds are four hours and 15 minutes.”
Rounds are faster and more enjoyable, but how are golfers handling the renovated test from a scoring perspective? Even though members don’t need to look for stray golf balls as much and are enjoying the course more, those two factors are not necessarily translating into better scores. Not that anyone cares.
“They walk off the course saying, ‘I’ve had a great day,’” Bertram says.
“Without any doubt, we know that scoring hasn’t improved and the average club golfer is enjoying their golf a lot more. You still need to put the ball in the right position off the tee to be able to put your ball in the right position on the green. You can’t just flail away, especially when the course is playing as it should and it’s bouncing and running.”
Yarra Yarra today is a wonderful mix of old and new. Long-time members, or visitors with long memories, will still see elements of the golf course they’ve known and loved, while newcomers will marvel at the open spaces, flowing contours and majestic design attributes that are now being showcased.
More is planned. The club and its board recently finalised a strategy for the next five years and are committed to further course enhancements, plus bringing its practice facilities up to Sandbelt standard. As club president Danny McGrady puts it: “We are committed to underpinning our strengths while also focusing on our weaknesses. And with our Renaissance relationship and a management team and board striving for excellence, we will continue to invest in protecting our heritage while underlining our golfing relevance.”
Raven and his team are now embarking on the execution of a vegetation plan that will focus on the indigenous plants of the Sandbelt, to provide a consistent theme across the course. The club is once more a proud venue for its members but is also welcoming interstate and overseas visitor bookings once again.
Make no mistake, Yarra Yarra is fighting fit once more. Alex Russell would be proud.
Yarra Yarra Golf Club
Where: Warrigul Rd, Bentleigh East VIC 3165
Phone: (03) 9575 0575