IT IS the best golf course you’ve never heard of.
That’s how members and fans of Curlewis Golf Club describe this charming layout on the stunning Bellarine Peninsula, only 15 minutes from Geelong and one hour from Melbourne.
While Victoria’s smorgasbord of world-class golf has long overshadowed Curlewis, that is about to change under the new ownership of a couple regarded as the patron saints of Bellarine Peninsula tourism.
David and Lyndsay Sharp have transformed the peninsula into a food and wine haven – in 2007, the couple purchased Leura Park Estate winery in Curlewis before bolstering the Bellarine’s viticulture offering with the creation of Jack Rabbit Vineyard nearby. Its award-winning sparkling and riesling has been a huge hit with locals, especially when enjoyed at Jack Rabbit’s restaurant cafe overlooking picturesque Port Phillip Bay.
An accountant and marketing specialist, respectively, David and Lyndsay’s attention turned to golf when Curlewis Golf Club was days away from bankruptcy in May last year. A failed investment in a water treatment plant left Curlewis trading insolvent for several days until the Sharps saved the club.
Their vision is to breathe life into a golf course which resembles some of the revered layouts of the Melbourne Sandbelt, but not just with agronomical and architectural upgrades. They’ve employed a whole new mantra aimed at stifling golf’s archaic obstacles, from outdated traditions to membership dependency. A course you’ve never heard of? Not for much longer.
Curlewis members believe no-one knows about their course. They call it a hidden gem; undiscovered by golfers seeking rounds at popular layouts Thirteenth Beach or The Sands Torquay. Yet from the first hole, a sense of familiarity envelopes the golfer if they’ve ever stepped foot on any of the Melbourne Sandbelt’s acclaimed layouts. Immediately, similarities are obvious: gently undulating holes lined by native trees and sand waste; subtle changes in elevation; sharp doglegs; and boldly contoured green complexes.
“It’s a fantastic course; it’s the best course that no-one knows about,” says club professional and director of golf operations, Steve Brodie.
“It’s an old-fashioned course and that’s the charm. You can tell it’s an older design by the bunkering and some of the some of the locations of the greens; they’re very unique.” If you’ve ever played a Vern Morcom design – think The National: Long Island or Royal Hobart – the golfing deja vu grows. Morcom is renowned for creating timeless courses that require minimal change. Royal Hobart, for example, held the Australian Open in 1971 and 45 years later remains a good test of golf having only had minor alterations.
Like his Frankston North and Tasmanian masterpieces, Morcom makes trouble visible for the low marker, yet leaves the higher handicaps in ignorant bliss of the aggressive lines. As such, varying abilities can get around Curlewis and have the same level of enjoyment.
“Everyone can play it,” says Brodie. “As a club pro, I can take some of the aggressive routes and challenge myself, but I can also take my kids out there and they can enjoy it, too.”
The driveable par-4 third is proof of this dichotomy. Low handicappers see an opportunity to drive the left side of the fairway and allow the ball to feed back towards the green, while the novice sees it as a good chance to make par on a short hole with a wide fairway. The higher handicappers appreciate that par 3s here are mostly short or mid-range, yet bunkering and blind run-off areas allow plenty of risk/reward scenarios for the better golfer.
Only turf conditioning and a couple of architectural question marks prevent Curlewis from being one of Melbourne’s best public courses. The Sharps have recognised its minor flaws and massive potential, having commissioned the Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead firm to make some design changes.
“We’re looking to implement some improvements to the course, which Mike Clayton and his team are excited to implement,” says club manager Brenden Caligari.
“They’ll completely remove the double-doglegged, par-5 sixth and make some other changes. We’ve already made some minor improvements to the irrigation to get the turf in better shape
“Mike Clayton says his role is to make the course more enjoyable – not harder or easier. And we’re happy with that.”
Much will depend on how well Clayton’s team can interpret Morcom’s philosophy and translate it to the modern game. One thing is for sure – if Curlewis’ potential is reached, it won’t remain a surprise in the future.
‘Contemporary and Forward Thinking’
As hospitality pioneers of the Bellarine, David and Lyndsay Sharp know how to run a well-oiled tourism attraction. Their Leura Park Estate and Jack Rabbit wineries [below], as well as the Flying Brick cidery, all boast a relaxed and inviting atmosphere. When they rescued Curlewis from financial dire straits, the couple knew the same zeitgeist would guide the club into a profitable future.
“We didn’t just want to save Curlewis Golf Club, we want to see it stand tall amongst the top golf courses in the area,” says Lyndsay.
“It’s a great course on an amazing piece of land and we didn’t want to see its fate to be sealed as a another housing development. “Being in the hospitality industry, it was a great fit; we see the golf club as being a key piece in the puzzle. Golf is more and more becoming a destination sport and it’s an important drawcard to attract visitors to the Bellarine Peninsula.”
In order to achieve this, the Sharps acquired Caligari from his corporate partnerships manager role at the Geelong Cats AFL club. The Sharps wanted someone who wasn’t a lifelong golfer to manage Curlewis with a refreshing, outsiders’ perspective.
Caligari is on a mission to make the club more inviting by relaxing some traditions he believes modern golf has outgrown.
“If a 14-year-old comes into the clubhouse with their hat on, we don’t make them remove it. What does that achieve? Not much, besides telling that teenager he can’t relate to golfers. You must dress respectively at Curlewis, but a collared shirt doesn’t make someone a human being,” says Caligari.
“Our club motto is, ‘contemporary and forward thinking’. We’re not held back by tradition. We recognise tradition has a place in golf, but it doesn’t guide our future.
“We’re proud we do things differently. We’re very friendly, very welcoming and it’s not your typical golf club where the membership is a segregated enclave.” This open-door policy includes coaching clinics for women on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For just $295, learners get two semesters of bi-weekly clinics with promised access to the golf course.
“My mission is to get them to the golf course,” says Brodie. “I’m passionate about giving students the skills they need to go and play. I also do free clinics for the juniors on a Friday afternoon, which has been a big hit with local families.”
Already, the influence of the new regime has resulted in Curlewis acquiring 112 members since the takeover.
“But our focus isn’t on bringing someone in and making them a member,” says Caligari. “We want to engage people on the periphery of golf and make it more fun for them – equip them with the skills they need to enjoy the game without any pressure. And if they like it, they’ll return.”
Where There’s Golf, There’s Wine
One of the many benefits of being taken over by winery owners is Curlewis sells bottles of Leura Park Estate and Jack Rabbit wines to golfers in the clubhouse at cellar door prices.
“Many people don’t know the Bellarine Peninsula wine industry started in the late 1800s. There’s no shortage of wineries rated 5-star by James Halliday,” says David Sharp.
“There are some truly amazing wines down here. Last year, Leura Park’s 2013 single vineyard Estate Shiraz won the Shiraz of The Show at the 2014 National Wine Show.” Cellar door visits will be made particularly easy when Curlewis establishes a 20-room boutique hotel next to the course.
“The Bellarine Peninsula is very short on accommodation and it will allow us to attract golfers in a stay-and-play fashion, says David. “The hotel will be eco-friendly and will fit in with the surrounds of the course. The decor will be understated and contemporary.”
1345 Portarlington Rd, Curlewis, VIC 3222
Phone: (03) 5251 2534