Our biennial ranking of the premier courses in the country is once again a celebration of the very best in Australian golf, just as it should be. Yet inside the local golf-club scene exists an intriguing realm of mistakes and maladies that Australian course architects know only too well.

Read on for the 2020/21 Australian Golf Digest Top 100 Golf Courses

It’s unlikely too many golfers walk onto the first tee of a golf course and ponder, even for a second, how the place came to be. Yet whether it’s a top-echelon layout or a council-run facility, every course owns a story about why it’s there and, quite often, why it isn’t covered with houses or utilised for a different recreational activity instead.

Golf-course architecture in Australia has witnessed more highs and lows than a mountain range. There was a period of heavy investment during the 1980s and ’90s that spawned a large number of new builds, a stint that produced several tremendous courses but ultimately was higher on quantity than quality. Another more confined boom occurred either side of the change of millennium and was one that gave us many of our modern classics. Much earlier, of course, came the true ‘Golden Era’ of the 1920s, a touchstone time that remains so influential on local and international course architecture today.

But now, as a new ’20s begins, a much less golden time is underway on the local scene. Brand new courses are scarce or non-existent, and while restoration and redesign are very much in vogue, competition among Australian course architects is fierce – and now they’re competing against their counterparts from overseas. Despite the array of local design talent at arm’s length, an increasing number of golf clubs have opted for international (mostly American) architects to renovate their courses. Busiest is Michigan-based Tom Doak, who in the past few years alone has redesigned Concord in Sydney, The National’s Ocean (now called Gunnamatta) course on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and esteemed Yarra Yarra on the Melbourne Sandbelt. And that’s on top of his ongoing consultation work at places like Royal Melbourne and Royal Adelaide. Likewise, Gil Hanse, he of Olympic golf course in Brazil fame, won the right to rework Royal Sydney, a year-long project scheduled to begin in autumn 2021.

“I’m well aware I’ve taken some work away from Australian-based designers,” Doak told Australian Golf Digest in January 2018. “This is such an odd business. I’ve got some good friends that are architects down here and they would all love to be consulting on Royal Melbourne, Yarra Yarra and some of the clubs we’re working with. At the same time, Mike Clayton and Geoff Ogilvy are trying to win jobs in the States, too. So I don’t think there’s any real animosity there.

“The odd thing is, it’s always been that way. Alister MacKenzie had the advantage of also being the ‘cool guy from outside’ and there was cachet to that. That’s why Royal Melbourne hired him and that’s why everybody else said, ‘Oh, if he’s the best, let’s get him too.’ I’m kind of going through the same thing now. Once we agreed to consult at Royal Melbourne for a few years and be here more regularly, some of those very same clubs said, ‘Well, seeing as you’re here, would you be interested in talking to us, too?’

“I’ve limited how many I’ve said ‘yes’ to because it’s a big commitment to come back and forth from the States. MacKenzie only came once! For six weeks, he waved his hands around a lot and left a couple of great guys here to do the construction and never saw any of it again. There are days when I envy that.”

Course Architects
Royal Sydney is bracing for a course overhaul that is set to begin in April 2021.

Local Rumblings

Locally, the most prolific design firm so far this century has been OCCM, the team comprising Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Clayton, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead. Last October, however, the firm dropped a bombshell by announcing Clayton was leaving to go it alone, while also forming a new partnership (CDP Golf Design) with internationally based Mike DeVries and Frank Pont. It was a Beatles/John Lennon moment. OCCM became OCM and speculation was rife as to why.

It’s possible Clayton’s occasionally polarising views may have been seen as costing the firm potential work. If so, it’s an intriguing stance given how much of the recent redesign work available in Australia did fall to OCCM, including among others, The Lakes, Lake Karrinyup, Royal Queensland, Royal Canberra, Bonnie Doon and the much-vaunted recent work at Victoria and Peninsula-Kingswood. But much of the responsibility of their later work, including those latter four projects, fell to either Cocking or Mead.

Whether as a three or four-man firm, OCM has a different take on the influx of overseas designers.

“Ashley and I were fortunate to work closely with Tom and his crew during the design and construction of Barnbougle Dunes and St Andrews Beach in the early 2000s,” Cocking says. “It was such a terrific learning curve that increased our knowledge on a vast range of design and construction in a very short space of time – like cramming four or five years of study into one. It changed our view on the construction process and heavily influenced how we work and have set up the company today. I would be prepared to say this has definitely contributed to our success and, ironically, has no doubt helped us get work overseas.”

Ask the overseas-based designers themselves, and the response is: this is a two-way street. And they are correct, particularly when you consider the heavy Australian influence on golf-course design across Asia, although it was a fledgling golf market for so long with few noted course architects based in the region. It was also during a period of much higher prosperity and opportunity on the architecture scene, which is simply no longer the case.

Cocking echoes Doak’s sentiments that having overseas architects working here is nothing new. Think Robert Trent Jones Jnr, Dick Wilson and the like from years past. He also alludes to another advantage to the American ‘invasion’.

“The presence of overseas architects in Australia has perhaps forced the local architects to differentiate themselves, change how they work and overall ‘lift their game’,” Cocking says. “Perhaps, in the end, this has been a good thing. Nothing like a bit of competition to motivate! Having some of the world’s best architects work locally has been great for the end-user – the Australian golfer – as the quality of golf in this country has lifted considerably in the past 20 years. Just look at the current rankings and the depth we now have here… it’s very hard to get into the top 20, such is the quality of courses.”

Harley Kruse, the president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects, views the situation as a combination of a greater awareness of what constitutes good architecture as well as Australia paying the price, to a degree, for old work prior to the current wave.

“There was a fair amount of golf-course architecture done in this country in the ’70s, ’80s and even the early ’90s, and at the time there were compliments abound,” Kruse says. “By and large courses improved and solved quite a few of their issues, but when you look back on it closely there was some pretty mundane stuff built, or things got a bit overcooked and looked out of place compared to the natural landforms or the existing course style. Some of this has been redone over the years, or it’s just there and there’s not the money to fix it up, or it’ll happen in time.

“It could be argued that the better architecture and course construction in this country has come predominantly post-late ’90s in a way. Why? Because there was a bit of a golden age in course development at the time, which developed the related professions, but also I think there’s now a greater knowledge and understanding of delivering good golf-course architecture in Australia and around the world. There are some really highly skilled construction people and a turf-maintenance profession that is truly world-class. When you have skilled course design, construction and maintenance skills working together you get the best results. At the same time the end users, the clubs and golfers, are generally more well-travelled, golf-wise, and have better knowledge of course architecture than ever before.”

When you have skilled course design, construction and maintenance skills working together you get the best results. – Harley Kanse

That turn-of the-millennium period gave birth to courses like the pair at Moonah Links, two more courses at The National, Ellerston, Magenta Shores, Brookwater, Pelican Waters and many more – all penned by Australian designers. Hot on the heels of that run came the first of Tasmania’s two Barnbougle courses, a collaboration between an international in Doak and a local in Clayton. It began a trend that continues today, sparking cases of “cultural cringe” that Kruse says mirrors a bygone attitude that once gripped building architecture in Australia.

“Competition in anything in life is good and we now live in a profession that’s truly global,” Kruse says. “We Aussie architects have been working up in Asia for years and we’re designing courses in markets there that maybe don’t have an architectural profession. Our members are also doing great work in Europe and the USA. But when an architect from overseas turns up on our turf, a few people get sensitive about it all, but the reality is: we live in a global world. If you’re good at what you do and it’s promoted, you’ll get work around the world. That’s the reality of what we live in.

“Having Doak with Clayton at Barnbougle come in there and then St Andrews Beach, and then King Island with DeVries and Renaissance Golf (Doak’s firm) now consulting to Royal Melbourne, Royal Adelaide and Yarra Yarra and doing the work there; we can choose to grumble about it but the reality is that this competition means Australian course architects have to lift their game and compete. We Australian course architects have had to lift our game and to sell ourselves to a boarder church of golf clubs.

“Out of what’s happened, too, is maybe there’s a greater knowledge among golf clubs about what good architecture is. I especially see this among the savvy 30 to 50-year-old keen golfers who are armchair golf architect nuts, who follow the social media feeds, listen to the podcasts and are on websites that discuss golf-course architecture. If these guys are here and articulating good architecture then the architecture becomes front-of-mind and a lot more people are talking about golf-course architecture than ever before, whether it’s armchair architects or us in the profession.”

Such a spotlight has led to the rise of the modern “starchitects”, like Doak, Hanse, DeVries, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, plus Kyle Phillips, another American who has submitted a concept masterplan for Sydney’s Elanora Country Club. But do such high-profile names need Australia more than Australia needs them? When Hanse secured the right to build the Olympic golf course in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games, he did so by pitching a design with physical attributes like those of the great Melbourne Sandbelt courses. Upon winning the bid on that basis, Hanse had to promptly dash to the Victorian capital and visit the great courses… because he’d never been there before.

“When Tiger Woods comes out at the Presidents Cup and says the Sandbelt is what golf should be, the rest of the world begins to admire and wants to emulate Melbourne-Sandbelt golf,” Kruse says. “But of course, Australian architects know the Sandbelt courses intimately – both in terms of their history, design and the particular maintenance practices and presentation better than most. But despite this knowledge, the commercial reality is some clubs will continue to engage the big names in golf-course architecture; yes, for their proven high quality of work but also, and sometimes more importantly, if a big name will help things get across the line with members.”

Ross Perrett, the long-time design partner of the late Peter Thomson, has, since Thomson’s retirement at age 86 and subsequent passing in June 2018, linked with Karrie Webb. Their notable first union was in bidding for the Olympic course in Rio, the project that eventually went to Hanse. Perrett and Webb are forging on together amid competitive times and are now renovating Brisbane’s Indooroopilly Golf Club. But just securing that job was hard work as 29 firms submitted for it, while joining them in the final three options were Gary Player and Robert Trent Jones Jnr – both non-Australians who are in their 80s.

“It’s really frustrating because there’s no one better equipped to redesign an Australian golf course than an Australian designer,” Webb tells us elsewhere in this issue. “I take nothing away from guys like Tom Doak and Gil Hanse, both exceptional at what they do, but I think Australian companies can do as good a job for half the price. Clubs are also likely to get a more personal experience during the entire process because we’re based here, not flying in at different times to complete the job.”

Bob Harrison produced some of Australia’s best courses while in a lengthy design partnership with Greg Norman and now has multiple projects underway working with Scott Champion’s help. Harrison sees two tiers of course architects based on their ability to draw a good result from a bad site.

“Most of the star fellows, you would argue, are pretty good when the sites are out-of-this world,” he says. “But I think you’d also argue that not many of them would have the capacity to cope with, say, the Glades or Sanctuary Lakes, where you’ve got flood conditions to satisfy – the movement and storage of floodwater – where you’ve got to draw half or quarter-metre contours over all of the proposed golf-course design to prescribe the desired golf-course shape, and achieve appropriate flood-modelling to satisfy the authorities that you’re abiding by all the rules. All of which is beyond just being able to do good golf holes or do nice shapes. So I reckon there are categories of golf architects. There are those that are good on great sites, and there are those that can cope with the larger number of projects that are on crappy ground. I think many would also struggle in severely mountainous country that is not naturally suitable for golf.

“What would Doak be like in these situations? I don’t know, but my guess is that it’s probably not his forte. On the other hand, if you’re Tom Doak you don’t do that stuff. And Bill Coore and company, I suspect they don’t do those projects.”

Course Architects

Good Intentions, Tough Decisions

The tale behind Royal Sydney Golf Club choosing Hanse is a compelling one, with lessons to be drawn for those inside the prestigious club and for many outside it.

Unlike other great Australian layouts that were designed as 18 holes from scratch, Royal Sydney simply evolved as land became available. The planting of trees in the early 1950s by a well-intentioned member inadvertently set the course in a parkland-style direction and saw fairways narrow over the next decades as they succumbed to shade and root competition. When course architects Thomson Wolveridge and later Ross Watson were called in, they were briefed to work within those tree corridors and so the real surgery always needed couldn’t really happen.

In looking for another architect to renovate the course again, the club this time wanted to ‘go foreign’, most likely because it thought it would be easier to persuade its members of the benefits of turning to an outsider. Royal Sydney searched the world for the best golf course architect it could find that would also be a good fit and work well with the club. Hanse’s portfolio of work was truly outstanding, spanning work at Merion, Pinehurst, Los Angeles Country Club and Tokyo Golf Club plus at the time his Rio course was fresh from hosting the Olympics. Harley Kruse was appointed for the golf course revegetation works and presented jointly with Hanse to the members.

“Gil is a great guy and I can see why he is such a good course architect,” Kruse says. “His design work will bring the much-needed finality to the site. Gil is an architect, but it is on the machine that he becomes the true artist where he creates and controls the most delicate of shapes. As he says in his laconic and affable way, ‘I design golf courses to feed my bulldozer habit.’”

Hanse’s final plan, which gained club and member approval last September, was his second attempt after his controversial first draft – which included turning the iconic par-4 18th hole into a par 3 – was shut down in 2017. Judicious tree removal is part of the project, while the fairways will average 41 metres in width compared to 23 metres now. Other changes include redesigning and re-routing the layout to have two loops of nine holes plus returning the site to a native heathland setting. Fifteen hectares of what is currently mown, fertilised and sometimes-irrigated couch rough will be removed and turned into six hectares of heathland and nine hectares of naturalised rough and sandy areas.

“Our Championship course has not undergone such a comprehensive renovation for 100 years,” said Royal Sydney president Chris Chapman. “The course and its in-ground and on-ground infrastructure are showing their age and would have had to be resolved at some point in the near future. In addressing these issues through the vision of one of the world’s best golf-course architects, the club will create an important sanctuary of native flora and fauna in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – an incredible opportunity. This re-imagined Championship course will stand among the finest heath courses and be contemporary, playable and sustainable.”

However, a different Australian-based course architect who didn’t bid for and isn’t associated with the Royal Sydney project but remains familiar with the internal machinations of the process (members shared the club’s internal information documents with him) insists the esteemed club has been hoodwinked – or at very least chose the most expensive of all the options put forward. “The process got stretched out to the point that eventually there was too little resistance for it not to get through. Everyone was sick of it,” he says.

The estimated cost for the project is acknowledged as being in the region of $17.5 million. Granted, it is an extensive redesign, however that figure is enough “to build two to two-and-a-half brand new, top-quality courses on that sort of ground”, according to the architect familiar with the situation. He adds that the club scuttled an alternative option that was about $1.5 million cheaper, and that perhaps the most astonishing aspect is that this was the only option offered for the vote despite cheaper, quality alternatives. “That whole thing needs reviewing, and the technical scope needs reassessment by an independent, appropriately qualified agronomist. When it comes to actually happen, it then needs a really rigourous approach to the tendering process.”

What it is, however, is the largest ecological restoration and biodiversity project in the City of Woollahra and probably the largest project of its type in suburban Sydney once complete. Hanse’s golf-course upgrade will take just a year, beginning in April 2021, but Kruse’s landscaping work could take three to five years, such is the scope of the project.

“For Royal Sydney, it’s about setting up the Championship course for future generations of members,” Kruse says. “It should be done well. And when it is done and done well, with great architecture by Gil and a sound landscape that focuses on sustainability and biodiversity – all these sorts of things will get done – it will hopefully be a benchmark renovation project for other golf clubs in Sydney and Australia to observe. Royal Sydney’s course renovation will provide a far better golf offering, and one that may well exceed the expectation of their members while providing a great golf asset among the incredible facilities this unique club has to offer potential members.”

‘Stale, Male & Pale’

Royal Sydney may well be getting it right, but it has the fiscal capacity to take the chance. Most clubs do not. But that doesn’t stop the less financially flush clubs from making fundamentally flawed decisions when it comes to their most important asset: the golf course.

Improving a course doesn’t necessarily mean spending a whole lot of money. Many treed layouts older than 50 years will have tree problems, so clever and careful removal can do wonders for a course where canopies have gradually crept outwards, also possibly denying the turf of adequate daylight. Meanwhile, more courses ought to be expanding their golf offerings by contracting, in a sense. One club Kruse is working with is contemplating diversifying its assets by reducing the current 27 holes to 18 and freeing up some of the land of the third nine. This will allow the club to build a substantial practice fairway, a shorter nine-hole layout, mini-golf and a big practice-putting course, while also improving the original 18 holes. It’s a plan so all-encompassing that more clubs should be entertaining it.

More courses ought to be expanding their golf offerings by contracting, in a sense.

However, golf’s biggest problem in club-land is altering the deeply entrenched mindsets of what are usually held by older men out of touch with the generations younger than them and unwilling to explore potentially favourable alternatives. Kruse shares a line that he says Stephen Pitt, the chief executive of the Golf Australia organisation, has used to describe the malaise: “Stale, male and pale.”

How else, Kruse asks, do we take a non-golfer off the street and first turn them into a golfer and then hopefully turn them into a member? The stepping stones just aren’t there, or certainly not inside the same four fences at many golf facilities. His plan would change that.

Kruse sees this as part of the Australian architects’ charter in the future – helping clubs become as sustainable as possible. He references another club with an opportunity before it, this time in Sydney, which has been trading at a loss for several years and with a mediocre-at-best 18-hole course shoehorned into 29 hectares and with several dangerous crossover holes. The club has struck a development deal with its carpark land that aims to solve its financial woes so Kruse was brought in to advise on the golf course. He penned an alternative layout that consists of 12 holes but a better and safer 12 holes than the existing 18. It contains two six-hole loops that return to the clubhouse and allow for six, nine, 12 or 18-hole rounds. Additionally, his plan calls for a full-size practice range in an affluent area without one – but a range with a difference. This range would have twin uses, both as a conventional practice fairway but also a six-hole short course with target greens made from artificial grass in the open area where the balls land. In something of a switch on/switch off scenario, play would toggle between the two usages based on timing and demand for each. Once again, it’s a novel, innovative and smart piece of out-of-the-square thinking. However, the club’s board is pushing back on the less-than-18-holes sticking point.

“Until something like a [12-hole course] happens or you get a real-estate developer who says, ‘We’re not going to build 18, we’re going to do 12 holes and real estate’… and there’s a lot of talk about 12 holes and a time-poor society, but no one’s actually delivered it yet,” Kruse says. “No one’s done it yet, but I feel that land costs and the costs of building and operating 18 holes will see some new approaches. And I’m of the belief that golfers in this location will pay the same or more money for a quality 12 holes than a compromised and poor 18 holes.

“The journey has been a long one. A classic older male board at the beginning didn’t want to even contemplate the 12-hole offering, as the mindset was golf had to stay 18 holes or more members will leave. As I was reminded, golf had been played that way on the land since the 1960s. However, two more years of considerable losses practically suggested that things were indeed broken and had to be fixed. Something needed to change or else the club might have to shut forever. Interestingly and not unexpectedly, there are members who have threatened to leave the club should the course change from 18 holes. Similarly, though, there have been people who have said to me they would join if there were 12 good holes and a great practice facility where they could practise before or after work and then take their family there on weekends.”

The internecine struggle goes on at that club. Meanwhile, Kruse tells the story of one Top 100-ranked club where a past captain devised redesign work for the course superintendent to carry out but at the last minute brought in a golf-course architect (not Kruse) to provide some token insight, yet only so they could say to members they sought professional expertise. Without touching that architect’s plan, their concept required spending a six-figure sum of the club’s money on superfluous changes and peripheral features that didn’t provide a net improvement to the golf course.

Other Mistakes Golf Clubs Make

Sadly, these are situations that in one shape or another could be transplanted to almost any golf club in the country and hold true. One former general manager of an elite Sydney golf club once described the raft of opinions he received from his membership as like “having 1,500 unpaid consultants”. The thoughts and ideas are well meaning, of course (after all, no one sets out to sabotage their home club), but that doesn’t make them right, viable or an improvement.

If there’s a consensus of opinion among the six Australian course architects interviewed for this story, it’s that golf clubs themselves can be their own largest obstacle. Here’s a scenario that has played out multiple times: a club comes into money, usually via a third-party deal, development or land sell-off, and the windfall is either squandered recklessly or spent erroneously. Often it’s by over-capitalising on the clubhouse or non-golf facilities and not injecting sufficient funds or attention towards the golf course. Club board members, directors or committee people who give their time voluntarily are frequently the culprits. Their professional experience gives them credibility in certain fields but that doesn’t always translate into shrewd and smart decision-making when it comes to how a golf club can operate best. And mistakes are made.

“Dealing with one person, no matter how hard, is infinitely better than dealing with committees in most cases,” one architect says. “It’s sad but it’s actually a little bit surprising – or maybe not? I don’t know… What is it about people who get on golf-club committees? If you look at their credentials, they’re often quite impressive. And yet very few golf-club committees operate attractively.”

An influx of money can lead to precarious situations. When Melbourne’s Croydon Golf Club moved to the Yarra Valley – the first significant course and club relocation after a land sale – it highlighted the dangers of how poor direction can easily unravel a position of financial strength. The move to Yering Meadows became the test case for several more relocating clubs, but unfortunately mostly on what not to do. Architects who saw the brief say the club’s wish was for that oft-quoted and abused term: a ‘championship’ golf course. Veteran designer Ross Watson filled the brief adroitly and delivered a challenging and pleasant 27 holes, with the Nursery course breaking into our Top 100 ranking in 2010. But the focus on a ‘championship’ layout didn’t take into account the membership and it turned out to be the wrong sort of golf course. Where ‘fun’ and ‘interesting’ should have dominated discussion, ‘championship’ took over (even though the course would never have held one). The result? Members found the course too difficult and many left.

Carried out properly – granted, a subjective proviso – the architectural work undertaken by clubs shouldn’t be like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where there’s a need to start again right after the project’s finished. It should instead be more about setting up clubs for the next few generations. At Killara Golf Club in Sydney’s north, Harley Kruse has successfully redesigned a golf course that by necessity is fractured – it’s split into three parcels of land due to neighbouring roads. He did so by taking into account the considerable assets the club does have rather than being constrained by its limitations. Some of the work is yet to be completed at Killara, but Kruse highlights it as an example of a club uncovering its unique identity and establishing a point of difference. Often that happens off the fairway and away from playing lines, and is more about vegetation and landscaping. Even venerable Royal Melbourne has room to improve in this department because of what’s away from the fairway edge.

Some clubs also do themselves no favours by scrutinising every move architects make rather than allowing them their freedom. “Without a doubt the best results always come from the clubs that give you total licence,” says Mike Cocking, adding that – in his recent experience – Peninsula Kingswood happily fell into that group.

Course Architects
Should established courses be sacrificing some land – and holes – for mini-golf courses?

Love Me Tender

There’s a delicacy related to such projects, and strange things are prone to happening. The worst result during the tendering process is to run second. There is no silver medal on offer, as being considered the next-best option usually means the unhappy combination of maximum time, effort and expense going into conceptualising a plan for zero result. Almost always, an architect or their firm will wear the costs of whatever expenses are involved in putting forward a plan, so if the bid is unsuccessful, that is far worse than not bidding at all.

“I’d rather [not be considered at all or dismissed at the outset] than go through a six-month process and come second. I think I’ve got 10 seconds so far,” Bob Harrison laments. “And two of them were right at the last moment when the jobs were almost signed off. I suppose I can’t complain too much because we have also been successful.

“I’ve had a laugh with Mike Clayton several times that people either love him or hate him, which means he doesn’t get seconds. And that’s terrific because you don’t waste all that time and energy and hope. The process can take six months, and if you run a close second with all the work you’ve got to do leading up to that, it’s difficult.”

Harrison, for one, says in roughly half the cases the process is more a competition than a tender, where submissions are less of a bidding system for design and more a match-up of the detailed plans from each submitting architect.

“Here’s what’s wrong with that: it often happens that the person who’s got the least amount of work on, who you would argue might well be a less-desirable option, has the most amount of time to glamourise whatever the heck they’re going to submit. And often a glamorous plan in front of somebody who doesn’t necessarily know what they’re looking at is what sways the day. But the worst feature of this approach is that design is a process – or results from a process – not something you produce at the outset of the relationship with the client.”

And occasionally, Harrison says, the result is a pre-determined outcome with the ‘competition’ merely window dressing to make the process appear legitimate as the successful architect has already been chosen. “They were afraid to appoint somebody without it looking like they’d had a competition,” Harrison says of one particular instance.

“In some cases, you go through a very rigourous process, which they insist on, and then they don’t insist on it when they pick [the appointed architect] out of thin air. And that’s really alarming. That’s just bad form from the people running the show. But you can’t do anything about that.

“And if we are discussing what makes marketing or competing difficult, one aspect – at least for me personally – is that some journalists do not give credit where it’s due for past work. I don’t get acknowledged by some for having done the majority of the Australian design when I was design partner at Greg Norman Design. Some prominent publications are in the same boat.”

Arguably Harrison’s most high-profile project since parting ways with Norman’s design firm more than a decade ago is Ardfin Estate, the exclusive domain of Australian hedge-fund millionaire Greg Coffey on the island of Jura in Scotland. Harrison tells a story of an Australian club where he lost in the bidding process for extensive redesign work only to be phoned a month later by the club president who was hoping for an opportunity for a group – of eight! – to play golf at Ardfin.

Then there are the delays. If you think golf courses pop up overnight or deals are hatched in a heartbeat, think again. “At the beginning of a project, you can always anticipate that it’s going to take longer than everybody thinks, but in recent years some of them have taken just so long,” Harrison says.

Ardfin was six-and-a-half years from first involvement to completion in 2018, as both the approval process and the weather during construction contributed. Harrison’s project at Newcastle Golf Club is four-and-a-half years old so far, and without any tangible activity yet as the club is still ironing out a deal with a developer while it simultaneously canvasses the thoughts of its membership. So with approval still to come, it’s shaping as more like seven years. His approved but yet-to-start project at Nora Creina near Robe in South Australia will also wind up being seven years or longer by the time even one of the two 18-hole courses is completed.

“It’s part of the game. The approval process is the biggest thing,” Harrison says, before elaborating on Nora Creina. “That one’s taken three-and-a-half years and they’re still not done yet. They’ve gotten approval but we’ve got to satisfy some conditions yet – and these courses have already been designed in great detail and we have committed to be constrained by this design during construction.”

Course Architects

More Architectural Challenges

As president of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects, Kruse says one of the issues they face is the perception that architects deal only with top-tier golf courses when in fact the biggest growth in design work is beyond the big cities. A tier-two or tier-three club might view a golf-course architect as either expensive, not necessary or both. Consequently, many clubs don’t think they can afford to bring in an experienced and external pair of professional, course-design eyes. Often, the club will entrust its golf-savvy club captain or greens committee chairman to come up with the ideas instead and, along with the course superintendent, carry out the work. It might be spending money on reworking bunkers when perhaps the bunkers had no strategic or playing merit in the first place, or on miles and miles of expensive concrete cartpaths. Such clubs often miss opportunities and frequently the work sees no net improvement to the overall quality of the course for the money spent.

Another factor for many regional clubs is the retiree market plus ‘sea-changers’ and ‘tree-changers’ leaving cities for regional areas. If the golf courses of renowned retirement and relocation destinations are improved, they stand to capture more incoming golfers.

“Nearly every golf course, whether you’re the grand dame of Royal Melbourne right through to a country course in rural Australia, there’s an improvement that could be made that will benefit the members,” Kruse says. “Small incremental improvements that follow a steady path set by a course improvements plan or masterplan allow clubs to choose and prioritise improvements based on their finances and resources at a given time.”

Which can be a game within itself. Harrison points to an inconsistency in fee structures among local architects, a factor that plays its part in clubs’ uncertainty over who to chose. “The glamorous jobs you tend to lose to overseas architects. Not always, but often,” he says. “On the non-glamorous jobs, you’d argue that there are too many of us. And within our own society there’s a large range of fee structures. And that’s actually awkward for a potential client in some cases, I would think. How do you choose? What’s the basis? We are nowhere near as expensive as a lot of our competition at the top end… but then you’ve got blokes who are half the cost or less. We encourage potential clients to look at past work and talk with our previous clients, but not many do.”

Perhaps most pressing, though, is the ingrained mindset that golf must be 18 holes. Like many of their industry counterparts, Harley Kruse and Mike Cocking lament that there hasn’t been more deviation away from this thinking, particularly as leisure time in modern life and space in modern cities both seem more scarce than ever. Cocking says they have encouraged some clients to agree on a layout with fewer than 18 holes but without luck. At one stage their work on a recent project looked like being a 15-hole affair with three holes played a second time from either different tees or towards a different green. “We did modelling on it and worked out that you could have essentially the same number of golfers play the course in one day,” he says. Ultimately, maybe predictably, the desire for having 18 holes trumped any wish to defy convention.

“It’s so disappointing that no one has been first through that barrier in building a great nine-hole course. Because I feel like when someone does, it could change everything,” Cocking says. “There are a lot of courses out there that may be struggling and they’re 18 holes where a legitimate option would be to sell off a little bit of land, subdivide it, put a bit of money back into the course and make it a really good nine, 12 or 15-hole course. It feels like we’ve been talking about it for 10 or 15 years and still nothing.”

It’s so disappointing that no one has been first through that barrier in building a great nine-hole course. Because I feel like when someone does, it could change everything. – Mike Cocking

The situation at Melbourne’s Sandringham Golf Club frustrates several local architects. Redeveloped thanks to funding from the Victorian Government directed towards Golf Australia, Golf Victoria and the PGA of Australia for a high-performance training and administration facility, there were multiple options for what to do with the course itself. It represented an ideal opportunity to create a pathway into the sport, possibly with fewer holes using alternate sets of tees alongside complementary facilities such as a course for kids or seniors and a mini-golf complex. Sadly the decision-makers could not get their heads around a non-18-hole entity, so voted on an 18-holer that’s 4,700 metres long. Sandringham will still be good, but what could have been a ‘test case’ to create a place that suits every golfer went begging. It feels like a lost opportunity.

The Future

OCM, or even the previous iteration of the company, certainly enjoyed a healthy run of top-notch sites, clubs to work with and courses to improve. But opportunities appear to be dwindling as they take on a more global perspective.

“I see our future overseas, to be honest,” Cocking concedes. “There are not a lot of big projects left in Australia where you can make a meaningful difference. So I think Asia and, for us, America is really the future. We have good long-term relationships with all our clubs and we do ongoing consulting so we’ll always be here, but ideally we would always have a project going in Asia or in America.”

The firm’s work at Shady Oaks Country Club in Texas has an expected completion date of April ahead of a September opening. “We’re certainly getting a bit of interest over there on the back of that. It’s the opposite to [the situation many other Australian-based architects are finding]. I can’t really complain! We’ve lost work to overseas architects here but we’ve basically done the same, with a job in China and work in America. So for us, what goes around comes around.”

When interviewed for the Shady Oaks job, Cocking says he sensed reluctance from the club at hiring a design company from the other side of the world in Melbourne. “But I made the point to them that Australia is a long way from anywhere, and it’s such a big country that doing a job in Dallas is not really any different from doing a job in Perth. You still go to the airport, it’s still a long flight – it’s certainly half the day that it wipes out. It’s just a little bit longer flight, but you approach the job the same way. So that put them at ease a bit. It’s no different doing a job in China or doing a job in Dallas as doing a job on the other side of Australia.”

For any course architect, after analysing any potential sites to work on, next come the questions over resources, costs and sustainability. For instance, bunker sand is becoming more difficult to obtain and is only going to become more expensive as a result, currently priced at about $100 per tonne. More clubs should be asking the question of every bunker: does it really need to be there?

“Are 80 bunkers on 18 holes the way to go? And struggling to maintain them and look after them?” Kruse asks. “Twenty years from now, where are we going to get bunker sand from?”

And the courses of the future may well be multi-use, either integrating golf with a walking track, cycling path or similar, or perhaps in a more radical plan, a green space that’s devoted to golf on certain days and other recreational pursuits on the rest. Remember that the Old Course at St Andrews is closed for golf every Sunday as the townspeople take over the fairways for picnics, walking and the like. Golf’s future might be to meld with other sports or adapt on occasion.

Make no mistake, the 2020s will in no way rival the 1920s for glorious golf-course architecture. But the decisions made in the next decade concerning golf courses are just as likely to have a century-long impact on the game in Australia.