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Courses: The Times They Are A-Changin' - Australian Golf Digest Courses: The Times They Are A-Changin' - Australian Golf Digest

There is a changing face of our sport that’s seeing growth in traditional on-course golf being fuelled through the popularity of off-course alternatives – driving ranges, indoor golf and mini-golf. We take a closer look at the facilities responsible for golf’s newfound popularity.

The complexion of golf in Australia continues to evolve. Much like our cosmopolitan society, today there isn’t one ‘look’ to our sport. Diversity reigns, with innovative and exciting ways to interact with the game emerging all the time. Where once upon a time all golf took place on familiar terrain, in 2024 you can play on pitch-and-putt courses, ingenious short-course designs, Himalayas putting greens, indoor practice facilities, plus state-of-the-art simulators – both at home and in public venues. The list goes on.

The mixed appearance is clearly having an impact. Our national body, Golf Australia, proudly announced during the week of the Australian Open participation figures that showcase the impact of offering various formats. Golf here is celebrating a fourth consecutive year of participation growth, with 17.6 percent of adult Australians hitting a golf ball in 2022-2023. The latest annual participation report revealed 3.5 million adult Australians played golf in that 12-month period – at golf courses, driving ranges, simulators or mini-golf facilities.

The report also revealed that 2.2 million Australians played on a golf course at least once in 2022-2023, with half of those playing at least one form of alternative golf – either on the driving range, on a simulator or on a mini-golf course. A further 1.3 million people only played off-course.

Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland said golf continues to surge in popularity both on and off the course.

“Golf is clearly one of Australia’s biggest participation sports,” Sutherland said. “It has always been big, and it is getting bigger. The 10-percent increase in golf club membership over recent years is one thing, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Australians flocking to the game. There is a changing face of our sport that sees growth in traditional on-course golf being fuelled through the popularity of off-course golf – driving ranges, indoor golf and mini-golf.”

More than a million ‘golfers’ who don’t play the game on a conventional golf course is substantial evidence of the “changing face” Sutherland speaks of, and that we recognise. There’s every reason to believe that figure will rise in time – especially considering the growth in the number of off-course golf options now available. After all, many indoor and simulator facilities offer 24-hour access, meaning you can ‘play’ 18 holes at an array of courses across the world during the dead of night. What’s more evolutionary than that?

With that in mind, we highlight a selection of Australian facilities changing the face of the game here.

Morack makeover set to be a big hit

The much-anticipated unveiling of Morack Public Golf [above] stands as a testament to the evolving landscape of golf in Australia and New Zealand.

This $15 million state-of-the-art modern golf facility – a joint venture between Whitehorse Council and golf entertainment brand Swing Factory – redefines the concept of public golf, blending cutting-edge technology, modern design and a commitment to providing an unparalleled experience for golfers and non-golfers of any age, gender or ability.

Featuring 28 bays, including eight premium lounge bays and Swing Factory’s signature MEGA bay, Morack Public Golf is equipped with the globally acclaimed Toptracer Range technology, ensuring golf enthusiasts from beginners to seasoned players can enhance their skills with precision and data-driven insights.

The joint-partnership reflects a shared commitment to fostering a vibrant golf community and contributing to the increased demand for local sporting infrastructure. Erich Weber, managing director of Swing Factory, emphasises the brand’s progressive vision.

“We have been working on the Swing Factory concept for more than three years and it’s exciting to see Morack Public Golf open and people getting to experience what the brand is all about,” Weber said. “Swing Factory is committed to catering to the modern golfer, providing a space that not only improves their game but also entertains the entire family and – importantly – welcomes new players and demographics to the sport of golf.”

Beyond the cutting-edge technology, Morack Public Golf boasts a full-service hospitality offering, adding a social element to the golf experience. The modern clubhouse, designed by the renowned architectural firm Centrum, enhances the overall aesthetic appeal and functionality of the facility.

Adding to the allure, Morack Public Golf features an 18-hole, state-of-the-art mini-golf course designed by Richard Chamberlain, which is set to open in early February. This innovative addition further positions Morack Public Golf as a ‘entertainment destination’ for the entire community. The existing 18-hole golf course has already undergone some renovation with more planned over the coming 12 to 18 months.

This marks the first of two Swing Factory facilities set to open in early 2024, with the business investing more than $6 million into the renovation of the iconic Golf Paradise in the northern Sydney suburb of Terrey Hills. Spread across 7.2 hectares, upon completion Swing Factory Terrey Hills will boast 58 bays, all equipped with Toptracer Range, and an architecturally designed mini-golf course, as well as an extensive food and beverage offering.

“This expansion reinforces our commitment to help shape the future of golf entertainment across the country,” Weber says. “Swing Factory has emerged as a leader in the new age of golf entertainment, dedicating more than three years to build a brand that caters to the evolving needs of the modern golfer. We look forward to unveiling more locations and continue to set a high standard for the integration of technology, design and golf entertainment in Australia.”

Turning dead space into five holes of fun

Latrobe Golf Club in Melbourne’s eastern reaches is a course that has successfully embraced the philosophy of ‘less is more’.

The club has received rave reviews since the introduction of its dynamic five-hole short course [above] that loops around a triangular-shaped dam – one of the club’s primary water storages. The bold decision to venture beyond the traditional 18-hole layout has proven immensely successful, resulting in increased membership, heightened engagement among junior and senior golfers, and a substantial boost in corporate golf revenue.

Aptly named ‘The Island’, this clever use of dead space officially opened its fairways for play a little more than two years ago and removes everything that has, historically, turned people away from the game. The club’s vision for a short course offering began in 2013 when it collaborated with Yarra Bend public golf course to support junior golfers with a makeshift short course. Fast forward to 2016, and a workshop unveiled plans for a more formal short course on a prime piece of land framed by the Yarra River.

Championing the initiative were long-time club professional Tony Craswell, along with former board members Rosalie Flynn and Linda Nguyen. Craswell emphasised the all-encompassing success of the five-hole course, a layout he says was designed to cater to players of varying skill levels, genders and ages.

“The five-hole course, to me, just nailed everything,” Craswell says. “It takes care of time, creating a facility that is welcoming, non-intimidating and is skill-appropriate for people beginning the game. You imagine women, all-abilities [golfers] and juniors just being able to drive through all the stress of what a private golf club is, to their own little carpark, jump out and just be able to play golf at their own pace.”

He’s not wrong. The Island’s design encourages a quick yet fulfilling playing experience, with most greens reachable using a wedge, except for the challenging fifth hole that demands a mid to short iron. The tees and greens showcase top-tier quality with Santa Ana couch for tees and fairways, and Pure Distinction on the greens – a grass highly acclaimed on the Melbourne Sandbelt.

“What I love about The Island at Latrobe is, whilst the focus has been getting new people into the game, it’s equally important to remember those on the way out and who are no longer able to play 18 or 9 holes,” says Golf Barons host Philip Wall.

“Just as The Island can be a golf kindergarten, it can also be a retirement village. Keeping people playing golf for as long as possible, irrespective of performance, helps nurture better health, friendships and communities, something I know my own father would have loved. Latrobe is a club that’s actually taking the ‘Grow the game’ mantra well beyond a marketing hashtag.”

Clever ways to target youth

In an effort to infuse youthfulness into the oft-perceived serious realm of golf, Black Bull Golf Club in the Murray River town of Yarrawonga is strategically leveraging social media connections to help it sell the sport. Through the vibrant presence of social media influencers Jackson Brazier and Joel Naburgs, the dynamic content-creating duo known as ‘Aussie Golf Lads’, Black Bull is trying to inject more fun and excitement into golf and show today’s younger demographic that it’s OK to not take yourself too seriously on the links.

Using Naburgs’ social media expertise and Brazier’s experience as a solo music artist, they quickly amassed a significant following across multiple social media platforms, accumulating millions of views with their humorous takes on the many on-course predicaments golfers find themselves in, all while trying to master it themselves.

Mentored by Black Bull Golf Club’s director of golf James McCully, the pair aim to evolve beyond content creation, aspiring to build a golf community. And their influence already appears to be rubbing off – they’ve inspired McCully to turn to social media to provide his own insightful tips for struggling golfers, all while putting Black Bull Golf Club further in the spotlight.

Just a few minutes away, Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club Resort continues to leverage on a winning formula of its own – a 66-seat movie cinema that’s brought more people to its fairways than any discount green fee promotion ever could. But this is no ordinary regional cinema. This big screen boasts reclining leather seats and regular new-release screenings in one of Australia’s most iconic tourism hot spots.

“We like to think of ourselves as bringing the gold-class cinema experience to the bush,” says the club’s digital marketing manager Rod Alexander, formally of Melbourne. “I couldn’t believe just how impressive this resort was when I first arrived. Having 45 holes and bowling greens was one thing, but when I saw the club’s very own cinema for the first time, I knew I wasn’t joining your average golf facility.”

Alexander says the cinema had, inadvertently, introduced countless visitors to its fairways and familiarised them with the club. “Moviegoers look out the windows when they’re here and see fairways and greens and naturally want to go play golf,” Alexander says.

So popular have been the pictures, a neighbouring club down the river has built one of their own. “Our cinema staff must hate us during the school holidays,” Alexander jokes. “This place is swarming with kids and our popcorn machine gets a big workout.”

A popcorn shortage… it’s a problem most clubs have probably never thought about but would love to have.

Glenelg attracts more than just golfers

Monina Gilbey is not a golfer. In fact, she laughs as she tells people that she is “actually not interested in playing golf”.

Instead, she has been drawn to the game by the beautiful garden beds, the singing birds, the frogs in the ponds and all the other natural wonders that can be found living within the green space of Glenelg Golf Club in Adelaide.

“Golf was never on my radar,” Gilbey says. “I’d known [Glenelg course superintendent] Tim Warren for years through my garden design stuff. I was between jobs, and he rang me one day and offered me this job at Glenelg Golf Club and I was like, ‘Why would I want to work at a golf course?’

“He said, ‘You never know. You might enjoy it. Just see what happens.’ And I love it. It’s a great place to work.”

Her passion is clearly reflected in the quality of her work. Gilbey and her Glenelg colleagues recently took out the Australian Sports Turf Managers Association’s (ASTMA) Claude Crockford Sustainability & Environmental Award. Such awards are nothing new to Gilbey as she claimed many during her days making public gardens, schools, coastal areas and other spaces more sustainable, but a significant difference in her move to golf has been navigating the male-dominated landscape. She is one of two women on Glenelg’s team, while the ASTMA figures show that only 1.4 percent of the workforce are female. Gilbey is not intimidated by those numbers, although she is very eager to have more female colleagues.

“I’m hoping that this encourages more women to pursue working in golf,” she said.

“I don’t think women really think about it, and I guess you can’t be what you can’t see. You don’t really see photos of female greenkeepers or see them on the golf course or meet them. In my job, which is even more specialised on the biodiversity and vegetation side of it, you don’t even know those things exist.

“I get to work in 49 hectares of land every day, which is fantastic, and I think people don’t realise how great an environment it is to be in. They don’t really realise what’s there.”  – Dane Heverin

Making the most of your location

Another sign of the changing times golf finds itself in is that golf destinations needn’t focus solely on their golf course offerings to attract new crowds. Take Sanctuary Cove Resort on the Gold Coast, for example. Here’s a place with not one but two outstanding golf courses – including Arnold Palmer’s only Australian design – yet its popularity continues to soar on the back of its world-class off-course offerings.

This waterside precinct provides an array of activities, making it an ideal destination. You can indulge in exquisite dining at waterfront restaurants, rejuvenate at the on-site spa, or explore the vibrant marine village for boutique shopping. Accommodation ranges from opulent suites to private villas, ensuring a comfortable and stylish stay. The marketing slogan says it all: “Some stay for the weekend. Some stay forever.”

The resort’s commitment to providing a holistic experience makes it the perfect destination, promising not just an exceptional golf retreat but a luxurious and diverse getaway for all.

The same can be said for a high-profile neighbouring course. At Links Golf & Wellbeing (formerly Links Hope Island), management are looking to engage and embrace an even wider demographic than has previously been the case. It’s why their focus has shifted to a greater emphasis on wellness, lifestyle and leisure, while all the time embodying the concept of ‘casual-elegance’.

“What sets Links Golf & Wellbeing apart is its holistic and modern approach to wellness,” says the facility’s marketing executive Tegan Deas. “With a world-class, links-style golf course, a café, restaurant and bar, a dedicated yoga space, a vast array of event and conference facilities, a serene hair beauty day spa and now a well-appointed art gallery, Links Golf & Wellbeing offers an unparalleled experience for its members and visitors alike.”

While Links Golf & Wellbeing has established its reputation as an outstanding golf facility capable of hosting events such as the 1997 Johnnie Walker Classic won by Ernie Els, management recognises the needs of the new generation and is committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle to complement its fine golf layout. With this in mind, Links Golf & Wellbeing introduced a membership category designed specifically for Next Generation golfers, aged 18 to 29, with a reduced joining fee, and see this as an excellent way to encourage young adults into membership of a golf club.

In addition, to take advantage of its position as a premier golf resort, Links Golf & Wellbeing recently launched the Links Autumn Classic, an event destined to become a mainstay of competitive golf in the region. This event offers 54 holes of competitive golf over three consecutive days in a single Stableford format. The event takes place from April 17-19 and promises to be a popular addition to the Gold Coast golf calendar after a difficult period of inclement weather to start the new year.

Art exhibitions are a proven means for artists showcasing their talents. However, traditional exhibition spaces are often perceived as being too formal or intimidating for some. To address this issue, Art Lovers Australia and Links Golf & Wellbeing have teamed up to create a distinctive collaboration. The clubhouse has a designated gallery area where various art exhibitions will be displayed throughout the year.

To celebrate this collaboration, Links Golf & Wellbeing is offering a 10-percent discount on all art on the Art Lover’s Australia website. Use the discount code GOLF at the checkout to avail.

“Being open to the changing needs of members and visitors alike has been a hallmark of Links Golf & Wellbeing’s success to date,” Deas adds. “The introduction of the new and innovative activities and facilities will ensure its reputation as one of the most popular golf and leisure resorts in the country is not only maintained but enhanced further.”

From scenic golf resort to bustling Olympic village

If you think Kooralbyn Valley Resort’s appeal begins and ends with golfers travelling to the Gold Coast Hinterland, think again. The sprawling 800-acre retreat, nestled in the heart of the tranquil Scenic Rim, has long transcended the ordinary to become an all-encompassing haven for relaxation, exploration, and play. Beyond its championship golf course – home to the likes of Adam Scott and Jason Day in their younger days – visitors have been able to revel in complimentary lawn bowls, mini-golf, tennis and an array of activities spanning the skies to the water’s edge.

It’s that last part, however, that earmarked this world-class facility to be transformed into a satellite village for the Brisbane 2032 Olympic Games. Kooralbyn Valley has been officially signed up as the Olympic village for the water sports at Lake Wyaralong – a nearby venue for the Games’ rowing and canoeing events at both the 2032 Olympics and Paralympic Games.

Kooralbyn Valley resort owner Peter Huang said his facility was the ideal accommodation nearest the dam, suitable for “international champions”.

“The resort has been reserved for athletes for a few months in preparation of the events,” he told the Jimboomba Times.

It won’t be the last time a golf resort of this nature is utilised for such a prestigious event and continues a trend of elite sporting codes turning to golf resorts in times of need. At the height of the COVID pandemic, several NRL and AFL teams were forced into non-contact team ‘bubbles’ in order to complete their respective seasons.

Membership with added incentives

For a snapshot on how far golf has come – or perhaps how creative clubs are getting with their value-adds – one only needs to look at today’s wide range of membership offerings. Gone are the days where your hard-earned only bought you access to the golf course on certain days of the week or a $100 bar tab if you were lucky. Now, it’s all about catering for the entire family, or those whose disposable income isn’t enough to justify a golf membership without added extras.

One such club taking the bells-and-whistles approach to its membership program is Hidden Valley Resort, 65 kilometres north of Melbourne and even closer to Tullamarine Airport. Known by many for its stunning Craig Parry design and unique island-green finishing hole, Hidden Valley doesn’t just offer all its members discounted food and beverages. They also enjoy use of the resort’s 20-metre indoor heated pool, 10-percent discounts on swimming lessons with Hidden Valley Swim School, access to a fully equipped gym with discounted personal training, tennis, pickleball and bowls activities, plus further discounts on golf-cart hire and driving range balls. It seems more expensive not to join, right?

The same thinking can be applied to the very progressive Curlewis Golf Club on Victoria’s beautiful Bellarine Peninsula. Apart from transforming its course into a Top 100-ranked layout, its owners also invested heavily in other areas to make it arguably one of the most complete golf facilities in the country. Among the add-ons, a state-of-the-art driving range fully kitted out with Toptracer Range technology, a two-tiered mini-golf course that welcomes golfers of all ages and abilities to navigate water, rocks and tunnels, even X-Golf simulators with dedicated kiosks serving up virtual reality gaming, food and beverages, competitions, golf lessons and social events. On top of this, the club can now lay claim to having its own award-winning, on-site accommodation with several eco-suites nestled amid the property’s indigenous native landscape, sleeping up to 120 people.

Weddings, corporate functions, kids’ parties – you name, they do it all at Curlewis. This is golf in 2024.