Golf courses ravaged by summer’s horrendous bushfire crisis are in desperate need of one thing above all else: golfers.
Locals estimate the population of Mallacoota swells by 8,000 people during the summer months. On the northern side of the Victorian–New South Wales border, South Coast businesses rely on a six-week period after New Year’s Eve to sustain their cash flow for the rest of the year.
From Forster to Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid-North Coast, fires that flared up in October created a sense of uncertainty that kept visitors away and locals on edge for months on end, while about 96 per cent of the world-renowned Flinders Chase National Park on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island was destroyed.
It was a national crisis that sent the planet into a state of shock and will take years for the physical and emotional scars to fully heal. An estimated 18.6 million hectares were burnt, more than 5,900 buildings were destroyed, tragically killing at least 34 people and decimating the wildlife population that called the bush home.
With the exception of Mallacoota Golf Club that was engulfed by a red thunderball on New Year’s Eve, Australia’s golf courses escaped relatively unscathed, but for the communities in which they are situated there is a long road ahead. You can help them to get back on their feet. Simply pay them a visit and play some golf.
NSW South Coast
As the firefront bore down on the NSW South Coast towns stretching from Nowra in the north down to Merimbula and into the Bega Valley in the final hours of 2019, local golf clubs went from places of recreation to ones of sanctuary.
Locals and tourists sought shelter at Narooma Golf Club and Club Catalina at Batemans Bay, some families unable to leave for days as firefighting authorities began the arduous process of opening roads and ascertaining the full extent of the damage.
“We weren’t the official evacuation centre – that was across the road from us – but we took overflow. We had close to 300 people here overnight on New Year’s Eve,” recalls Club Catalina marketing and communications manager Maria Moreta, also a volunteer with the Rural Fire Service.
“When I came back to my office a few days later, I had a few families that were living in my office. The office area at the front of the club was the best and safest part of the club with the least amount of smoke in it.
“There are some people who have got back to some kind of normality, but there are a lot of people still trying to get through day by day. You see it in the members; our staff notice it.”
As a way to accelerate the recovery process, Golf NSW established the Golf NSW Club Bushfire Relief Fund for clubs whose business operations were impacted by the bushfires. An initial contribution of $100,000 from the NSW Golf Foundation assisted the establishment of this initiative. They concentrated on five clubs in the Far South Coast initially but have also assisted clubs affected in the Blue Mountains, Central West and Mid North Coast.
Ranked No.82 in Australian Golf Digest’s most recent ranking of the Top 100 Courses in the country, Narooma Golf Club remains the headline act of golf on the South Coast but there is an abundance of quality layouts in need of an influx of golfers on their fairways, Mollymook’s Hilltop course also among the nation’s Top 100.
“There are six businesses that I know of that have closed down because this has all happened in peak tourist trade,” explains Moreta, who is also co-ordinating celebrations marking 100 years of golf on the Catalina site, including a gala dinner and hickory tournament on the weekend of June 19-21.
“They rely on that income for the rest of the year. There are six that have closed down already and there are many more on tenterhooks.
“Batemans Bay itself is fine. All the restaurants and golf courses are all fine, accommodation providers are all ready and willing for people to come back and enjoy the area. Even in winter, it’s mild here. You’re playing golf in short sleeves. Compared to places like Canberra or Orange, it’s still very pleasant and still looks pristine and beautiful. We’re now at the point where people can come to the area and have exactly the type of holiday they may have had 12 months ago.”
Launched late last year, the South Coast Golf Trail that encompasses Mollymook Golf Club, Club Catalina and Narooma Golf Club is the perfect starting point from which to plan a South Coast golf getaway.
“This extraordinary and heartbreaking event is a serious blow to many businesses and by extension all families in the area,” says Narooma general manager Dominic Connaughton. “Australia is a nation of mateship, and right now we are in need of this camaraderie and support more than ever because our communities simply
will not survive without the support of our fellow Australians.”
A young girl piloting a tinnie under a blood red sky off the east coast of Victoria will be one of the enduring images of Australia’s blazing summer. As the sun set on December 30, 2019, Mallacoota locals braced for the impending firewall headed their way, living in darkness until mid-morning on New Year’s Eve, many forced to seek aquatic refuge on the waters offshore as the town was set ablaze.
The fire ripped through the Mallacoota golf course – a lone local extinguished spot fires that ultimately saved the clubhouse and machinery shed – and while nine holes remain closed and the cleanup continues, the club has also been assisting in the healing process.
“Virtually every single tree on our front nine is dead. It’s a black stick,” Mallacoota club captain Greg Hopkins tells Australian Golf Digest. “We’re hoping to have the back nine open again for an open day we’re hosting on April 18, but it will cost around $50,000 to get all the dead trees removed from out there.
“Tuesday was the main fire and then on Saturday we were expecting 40-degree heat and the fire to come back to the north. We worked out that the seventh fairway was the best place to hide cars and boats because everything was already burnt and furthest away if the fire came back from the other way. By Saturday the seventh fairway was covered in cars and boats and caravans. Everybody put them out there.”
Every Sunday since the fires, the club and the local Lions Club have hosted free events with food and live music, their New Year’s Eve celebrations rescheduled for March 28 when Paul Kelly and Angus and Julia Stone donated their musical talents to help the cause.
Along with Mallacoota, Buchan Valley was the other East Gippsland course to experience bushfire damage, and Golf Victoria and Golf Australia are working with clubs to help recoup some of the lost summer trade. The Victorian Sand Greens Championship is scheduled for Loch Sport Golf Club in August, a two-day women’s spring tournament will be played at Lakes Entrance and Bairnsdale in October, with the possibility of the 2021 Vic Mid-Amateur and 2022 Vic Senior Amateur also being taken to the region.
“We’re going to be a long time recovering, there’s no doubt about that,” says Hopkins, who has been overwhelmed by the support Mallacoota has received from other clubs in the area who have helped to raise about $50,000 to date.
“Those who lost their homes are still really affected. They’re trying to go back to work but they are lacking motivation. The CBD wasn’t impacted by the fire as such, but our butcher and supermarket and all those shops didn’t have the 8,000 tourists here for the month of January. Our butcher couldn’t even get meat in because the road was shut. From a financial perspective, they’ve suffered massively. That has really impacted the town.”
The other glimmer of hope for Mallacoota is that the fire that burnt the previously dominant ti tree to a crisp on the front nine has exposed the adjacent coastline and opened the possibility for a better golf experience. An associate of Tony Cashmore, course architect Michael Henderson has begun initial consultations with Mallacoota on the potential of three new holes alongside the beach and given Hopkins reason to believe some good will come from such horror.
“We’ve just had the course re-surveyed and we own quite a bit of extra land that we didn’t know we owned,” Hopkins says. “Mick Henderson has volunteered his time and he’s quite blown away by our location.
“It was just obviously a track cut through the bush by a few locals, but he’s got some great ideas of pushing three extra holes onto the coastal side and getting rid of three of our weaker holes on the back nine. If we can get a few more holes over near the beach that’s more open to spectacular views, in time we might be a spot where people really want to come and play.”
NSW Mid North Coast
There were 130 golfers on the Tuncurry course and superintendent Mark Spraggs was treating his kids to a morning swim at the beach. Saturday, October 26 was shaping as just like any other idyllic morning on the NSW Mid North Coast until a wind shift dramatically altered the path of a fire in the Minimbah Valley and put Spraggs and those on course directly in its path.
“That was a scary Saturday,” Spraggs recalls. “The morning was quite cool. There was dew on the ground and it wasn’t too bad, but at around 10 o’clock I remember checking my phone and it was 34.3 degrees with about a 20-kilometre-per-hour wind coming from the west, so the fire was coming towards us.
“I had my kids at the beach having a swim and then in the space of an hour the whole thing changed. At about 1.30 on that Saturday afternoon I got a phone call from the club president asking what was going on. I wasn’t too concerned at that time, I thought we’d be OK, but by about 2.30 we had four police cars driving all over the golf course evacuating everyone followed by three fire trucks. The police went out to every group asking golfers to evacuate the course because the fire was one kilometre away and moving in our direction quite quickly. They got 130 golfers off the golf course and out the driveway in 15 minutes.”
A fire that ripped through the course two years earlier helped to limit the spread this time around while nearby Tallwoods also got through without damage to the golf course, the fire coming so close as to necessitate the closure of Blackhead Road leading towards the property.
The threat of more fires flaring up remained over summer and impacted what is ordinarily a holiday haven for many tourists at that time of year.
“It was just a scary time. It was eerie. No one was outside, no one was doing anything,” Spraggs says. “People still came to town but it certainly wasn’t as busy as it has been in past years. Everyone was affected by the bushfires. People didn’t leave their homes and if they did, they wanted to know they were going to be somewhere safe. A lot of the smaller businesses are definitely struggling.”
On the same day as the evacuation at Tuncurry, a lightning strike sparked a blaze little more than an hour up the road at Port Macquarie. Serving as an Asset Protection Zone between bushland and the neighbouring residential estate, golfers were on the course at Emerald Downs when the RFS and National Parks brought in a bulldozer to cut a containment line. On the Sunday night a change in wind direction propelled the fire across that containment line and burned all the way along the 13th and 14th fairways.
“I came out here on the Monday morning early. I just felt something weird, that I had to come out,” says Emerald Downs Estate and Golf Course manager Brendon Roods.
“I went down to say g’day to some golfers on the 14th tee at around 8 o’clock and we had two helicopters come overhead and then two seaplanes that followed them. They dropped water 40 metres from where we were standing. Because the bush was so thick at the time, we couldn’t see the fire until it was almost right beside us. That day felt like it went forever but it went so quickly as well.”
Flare-ups and smoke generated among the peat moss in the adjacent wetland meant that the threat of further fires loomed large until significant rainfall in the area in mid-January, the large population of resident koalas the most affected members of the Emerald Downs community.
Open to public play seven days a week and located nearby to Port Macquarie Golf Club, Emerald Downs boasts strong relationships with Kew and Wauchope golf clubs and has plans to build a nine-hole pitch-and-putt course and mini golf in the future. A visit to Port Macquarie also wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, a facility playing such an important role in the recuperation of koalas injured and displaced by the bushfire crisis.
There is planning approval for a spectacular new addition to golf on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia, but for the meantime Golf SA is intent on providing support to the three existing clubs on the island.
To be designed by Darius Oliver – one of the key figures behind Cape Wickham on King Island – The Cliffs, Kangaroo Island promises to create a new destination golf experience for South Australia.
At present, Kangaroo Island is home to three sand-greens golf courses – Parndana, Kingscote and Penneshaw – and Golf SA is determined to use its influence to help the community ravaged by bushfires sparked by lightning strikes in Flinders National Park on December 20.
“Our aim ultimately is to show the Kangaroo Island community that golf is thinking of them,” says Christian Puccini, Golf Australia’s game development and state manager in SA. “We want to use our sport to get 100-plus golfers over from the mainland to KI and get them spending locally to get the local economy rolling again. We will be holding a three-day event on Kangaroo Island from May 19-21 with the idea that players with and without handicaps can take part and also take part in some sight-seeing while they are on the island.
“We have been very fortunate, as far as we are aware, in that there has been no damage to any infrastructure at any golf clubs in SA, but no doubt golf club members and club volunteers in those regions have been personally affected. It’s important for us to adopt an ‘everyone welcome’ approach and use the #BookThemOut theme rolled out by Tourism SA. We want to use our sport to get golfers over from the mainland visiting KI. Get them playing golf, spending locally, booking local accommodation and purchasing food and produce to get the local economy rolling again.”
For all regions so severely impacted, the message is simple: we need you. So put the clubs in the car, fill the petrol tank and set off on a golf trip that will truly make a difference.