In autumn 1992 I inspected the new Gungahlin area, 25 kilometres north of my Canberra home, planned as a growth centre for between 1,000 and a ceiling of 80,000 residents. The newly formed Gungahlin Drive overlooked the potential golf course site. The roundabout, a wedge shot away, was the end of the capital city. – Jamie Dawson
The land generally was degraded pasture below the 1:100-year flood level and unsuitable for housing. Five creeks, or urban floodways, converged on the site. The ACT Government wisely determined its best use as a golf course that could self-manage the water and landscape while offering a recreational and social focal point for the establishing community. The nearby Gungahlin/
Gundaroo Drive intersection (where the clubhouse now stands) would become the busiest intersection of the new town.
The view and potential of the site filled a budding course architect with optimism. I had prepared many golf course routing/ estate feasibility concepts in the eastern states and overseas; had numerous golf course landscape/vegetation management projects implemented; and some minor course remodeling built – but I was keen to step up to a new course design that became ‘in play’.
Tender process & Deed of Agreement obligations
The ACT Government wanted to ensure a quality course with good fundamentals of design and specification, suitable soils and depth, 100 megalitres (ML) water storage, 6000 trees, 25ha of irrigated fairways, avg. 500m² greens, 280 x 120m driving range, etc.
Also, the flood level inundation interval eg. greens (1:20-year), tees (1:10-year), bunkers (1:5-year) and fairways generally above 1:2-year interval guided potential earthworks volumes calculations. Over 250,000m³ of fill was required to build out of the ‘swamp’ or lowlands. Nearly half the fill came from the required 100ML of water storage, the balance from the estate. The course earthworks had to ensure flood levels did not rise into the proposed estate. The varied above-flood levels of course features ensured that the course wasn’t left flat. The rolling landform the designers later created was one example of the foresight that the Deed obligations offered.
The thorough Gungahlin Golf Course Deed of Agreement necessitated full compliance and was the government’s mechanism to deliver guaranteed outcomes. The Deed was prepared by the late Bob Green, a founder of the Society of Australian Golf Course Architects (SAGCA). The intent of the Deed was to ensure the course elements could be measured by Tenderers – including area, depth, number and volume – so a future developer could not shortcut their obligations to save costs.
I was asked to prepare a due-diligence Golf Course Master Plan concept with detailed costing for a local estate developer for whom my then firm had done many estate landscape designs. Tenderers basically offset the course construction cost by offering a comparable lower land purchase price for the associated 1,500-lot estate. They could gain a sales benefit from course views but not retain a long-term financial interest.
The first step for our client, if they were to be successful at the 1992 land sale Tender, was to achieve a realistic layout of merit that could be measured and priced.
The Master Plan design challenge was to achieve a championship-standard par-72 course on 70 hectares; which is usually not that difficult – except that at Gungahlin, added spatial constraints needed careful integration. The Deed offered little flexibility. The developer’s strong preference was that little or no golf course should extend into the above 1:100-year developable estate flood line. The course was generally flood plain, except near the 6th & 11th greens and 10th, 11th and 12th tees.
The key routing issues were:
Boundary interfaces: Five kilometres of estate boundary and two kilometres of arterial road interfaces with resultant safety considerations;
Bisecting corridors: The Gungahlin Drive arterial divides the course into two zones, plus two mandatory public path crossings are further divides;
Service easements: Two kilometres of 132Kv high voltage overhead power lines run through the western side of the course, plus more than four kilometres of existing trunk sewers; and
Waterways: Four kilometres of creeks impacted on options, but these and 100ML of constructed water storage lakes also offered strategic opportunity. Water occurs on 14 holes, although strategically critical on only half of these. Offline shots can also be punished by water if short or wide.
A deliberate design strategy, taking into account the seven kilometres of estate and arterial road interface, was to have almost all boundaries on the right-handed ‘hook’ side of the golf holes so as to assist safety outcomes. Only three shots have the boundary on the far more common ‘slice’ side being the opening hole drive zone (with a wider offset than usual to allow ‘loosening up’ drives); and the short par-4 9th which has boundaries on both sides of the final 200 metres of the corridor.
The site had only 23 trees, of which half were willows. No remnant eucalypts were removed. The Deed required 6,000 trees to be planted which as trees matured offered better amelioration of estate visual impact and safety.
Of the many course feasibility master plans I had prepared this was the most challenging in terms of spatial constraints, interfaces and bisecting non-golf elements. Twenty years later it still is! Others may have had more topographic challenges, but not spatially. The 1992 land sale tender Master Plan prepared for MBA Land was a 6,230-metre course.
Land sale Tender success & design engagement
MBA Land Pty Ltd was the successful developer in the estate/course Tender. The Deed also required engagement of a SAGCA member in the design team: Ted Parslow was engaged as a key team member to meet this compliance. This reciprocated Ted’s engagement of me two years prior to landscape design his delightful now The Villa course at Nerang, Queensland. I was very impressed with his design flexibility and his shaping style suited that which I imagined ideal at Gungahlin Lakes.
Our team was appointed in January 1993 after a competitive design and surveillance fee bid.
On engagement, Ted Parslow supported the earlier Master Plan routing and even the majority of the indicative bunker sitings. His recommendation to change holes 10 and 11 from par-3, then par-4 to the reverse order was supported. The final Master Plan and Deed compliance report was lodged with government in February 1993; approval took some months. Meanwhile, targeted designs and strategies progressed, including integration with The Golf Course Estate Stage One & Two designers.
Ted Parslow relocated to Malaysia in early 1993 but the team was able to deal with the competing client, agency, design and construction matters as I was locally based and also project leader. Ted focused on earthworks shaping, storm water and most of the greens designs. I was able to deal with shaping on any areas that needed modification due to flood modeling impacts or other changes; a few of the greens designs; topsoiling, grassing and landscape design; co-ordinate irrigation, access, budgeting and other consultants – also, by the latter half of the design phase, as construction had commenced, act as construction supervisor. Even successfully negotiating with the local electricity agency for pylons to be the newer thin-profile concrete poles in a dull olive green rather than the usual large shiny lattice towers was important for the long-term course appeal.
The key documentation phase from May to August 1993 focused on the western first nine. Our designs started with holes 4, 5, 8 and 9 which adjoined the Stage One estate. Bulk earthworks were permitted to be selectively undertaken on these first four holes to enable environmental management controls, economic use of client estate spoil, and works progress. The documentation for the Eastern Arm (holes 10 to 13) and the closing Lake zone (holes 14 to 18, plus finessing holes 1 to 3) was completed by November 1993. The bulk earthworks and shaping to holes 4, 5, 8 and 9 was largely complete by this time.
Construction ebbs and flows
The developer directed that five separate independent course contractor firms be engaged for their specialist skills. This ultimately may not have been to advantage; the contractors often had competing priorities and delays by one often impacted on the program of others. The benefit of a Head Contractor as one key point of contact/direction was not available. I needed strong project managing, plus record keeping, flexible program strategies and an encouraging environment to achieve a reasonable ‘team’ relationship. It did not help having to selectively ‘crack the whip’ when estate sales were dependent on a course-complete percentages; while at other times ‘pull in the reins’ was the order, as course progress was being delayed to limit expenditure. Selling mid-1990s land in Canberra was not easy, reflected by the median house prices falling for each year of the project.
The first 20 per cent course-complete milestone was achieved in early 1994 with the completion of holes 4, 5, 8 and 9. The Golf Course Estate Stage One land sales next to these holes could now commence. Most Canberrans had still not been to Gungahlin by this time, so MBA Land funded a well-advertised Gungahlin Fair in March 1994 next to the course and estate. Stalls, rides, display homes and even a large prize Hole-in-One competition ensured a good turnout. The project was beginning to take shape.
A push to achieve 50 per cent course construction as the next milestone permitted further land sales around mid-1994. After this the developer was keen to see a slowdown in course progress and costs until estate sales rejuvenated the cash flow.
A project team and guests’ first nine Golf Day was played in November 1995. Topsoiling and grassing of the second nine then became the prime push to ensure reasonable grass consolidation in autumn 1996. The course construction cost, excluding the clubhouse zone, approached $6 million with the earthworks being near to a third of the cost. Despite a protracted construction period, costs finished within three per cent of the thorough pre-Tender 1992 Master Plan cost estimate nearly four years before. Geoff Hurley who commenced with Margules near the beginning of construction was engaged as the Club’s first Superintendent.
The full 18-hole Gungahlin Lakes Golf Course opened July 1996. There was no clubhouse – just a caravan as the pro-shop. This was later upgraded with a ‘demountable’. A further demountable was added as a bar.
A larger-than-Deed-required 2,500 m² clubhouse was opened in 1998 after the engagement of the Ainslie Football and Social Club as the project partner. They offered stability, management and the resources that would hold the course in good stead long term.
Personally, I was thrilled with the course outcome and working with Ted. Over that three years I also designed eight new holes built at Belconnen GC; the landscape design of the Bruce Devlin Gold Creek CC; prepared the project order of costs and designed the tree landscape for the Royal Canberra TWP new nine; designed the chipping green built next to The Australian GC clubhouse; undertook a number of smaller remodeling projects in different states; and was also excited by preparing Vegetation Management Plans at The Australian and Kingston Heath. Weeks before the Gungahlin Lakes opening I cherished being accepted as a full member of SAGCA. It was a fulfilling time.
The Deed of Agreement impact long term
The Deed of Agreement was the project ‘bible’ strictly policed by Government officers. It became both a hindrance and a savior. Better design solutions or cost benefit swaps were not permitted if Deed non-compliant. It also ensured elements important to the designers for long-term course quality could not be directed to be cut out to save costs.
Importantly the Deed did not require for any course paths to be built; no course furniture and most critically only 60m² of bunkers each on the 9th & 18th holes. In reality this was probably fair as this new course was to be passed by the developer to Government to then ‘gift’ to an organisation or community group. Government wanted to ensure the basics of a good course, but allow the new Club to self-fund the finessing works such as bunkers, paths, non-tree landscape, etc.
12 years on…
Fast forward to 2008 and the golf course had consolidated, although near a decade of drought had taken its toll primarily on the rough and the trees. Gungahlin Lakes was proud that it consistently had the best fairways in Canberra with the Deed requirement of 100ML of water storage fed by multiple waterways and quality built soil profiles proving a godsend. Twice the course was down to only two or three weeks’ select watering (and that by hiring pumps to get out the ‘dregs’) before the heavens opened.
The club had largely in-house designed and built 18 bunkers to add to the original three bunkers. Close to fairway plantings were added to penalise the offline drive. Certainly some of these trees will require selective removal in the future as with maturity the openings will become too narrow to allow the shaped or fair shot. Most projects were undertaken by the ‘Dad’s Army’ volunteers, supported by course staff. The members had the passion and commitment that many a new course thrives on.
The course staff of around seven personnel over this decade (and still in 2012) includes the Superintendent and mechanic. Shane Dawson (no relation) took over from Geoff Hurley as Superintendent in 2004. The quality of the course condition relative to the resources continues to be outstanding.
Four extensions (the last in 2012) expanded the clubhouse by 250 per cent to over 6,000m². It was fulfilling the social hub that was envisaged years before. Clubhouse growth had absorbed much of the resources pre-2007 and again post-2010.
Course beautification and cart path focus 2007-2009
In late 2006 the course was targeted for a major beautification focus driven by Kevin Grace, the CEO of Ainslie F&SC, the larger organisation that operated the golf club. He wanted to lift the club’s standing to attract more corporate events and reward the members with a better golfing experience. The strategic interest and challenge of the course had never been questioned – just that it lacked the ‘polish’ of some of its competitors. Brian Dobson, General Manager of Gungahlin Lakes, stressed the importance of having the works designed by qualified reputable consultants and built by skilled contractors. The upgrade was beyond the time and resources of the club volunteers.
Enviro Links Design was delighted to be selected for the designs combining our course architect and landscape architect skills. It was fantastic to be given the opportunity to finesse and enhance the overall course and more fully complete the design I had begun 14 years before with the routing Master Plan and later new course documentation and surveillance roles. The club wanted a scale and quality of landscape upgrade focusing on cart paths, then tee landscaping, greater than Parslow/ Dawson could have hoped for in the original Deed driven 1993 designs. Good things come to those who wait! The 2007 Course Cart Path Master Plan led into tee, bunker and other course features being progressively added for an overall integrated 2008 Course Master Plan.
The 2007 landscape beautification works involved eight tee upgrades (stone walls, laser levelling, planter beds, stone bin wells, furniture, etc); a few of the green exits; and 2,885 linear metres of cart paths. The transformation on the sense of course ‘quality’ was dramatic. The members and visitors consistently remarked how fantastic the work was even when being disrupted by a shorter course and temporary tees. They were genuinely appreciative.
Subtle enhancements to safety were integrated, as only four tees on the course don’t have a potential boundary interface or building risk on their drive zone. On many of the tees, right-side concrete edges and stonework were strongly aligned in the desired direction of the shot (or even marginally further from the boundary) to aid a safer stance alignment.
The club was delighted with the outcome, so directed designs commence on another three tees; and a further 1,375 linear metres of cart paths, all built in 2008. Due to the shift to a bunkering focus only the 16th and 18th tees were built in the 2009 beautification program ensuring a quality closing holes experience. The club had therefore invested in 13 tee upgrades and over 4.5km in cart paths over a three-year period to mid-2009.
Strategic bunkering upgrading 2009
As a Golf Course Architect I was aware of the great landscape improvements made to the course – but realised that the current bunkering was a weakness in an otherwise very strategic layout. The club was persuaded to do a trial upgrade to two bunkers on the 2nd green in August 2008. It was built by MD Constructions from my photomontage sketch and site review. The result was excellent, as had the prior works shaped by Michael Donohue for me at three other clubs. His motto is ‘artists in dirt’. My intent if possible was to focus 2009 resources on bunkering upgrades.
The Parslow/Dawson 1993 course detail designs incorporated numerous hollows with stormwater pits to facilitate ease of later bunker construction without major drainage trenching. Many were also intended to remain grassy hollows. The Deed only required two bunkers on the then new course. Near greens, generally the 2009 bunker works were able to take advantage of this in place drainage foresight. At the drive zone, golf equipment technology advances since 1993 often meant the bunkers were placed up to 40 metres further from the tee. The 2009 fairway bunkers, if a safety focus, were at times targeted at the drive zones of the majority, rather than just the longest hitters – a variety that has added to overall strategic interest.
The club was delighted with the works on the 2nd; realised the potential so engaged Enviro Links Design to document a further 17 bunkers on the first nine based on our approved 2008 Course Master Plan. Only six of the bunkers were remodelling of existing bunkers, often with poor drainage, limited appeal or other issues. All were constructed by MD Constructions between March-July 2009.
As the bunkering to the first nine was nearing completion the club was so thrilled with the result they instructed me to design and document the 19 bunkers for the second nine in three weeks – and not let Michael Donohue and son leave the site! The shapers were keen to depart for two months to respond to their other clubs and also avoid more of the Canberra winter. On the second nine, more than half the 19-bunker program was remodelling of existing bunkers. The bunkers were constructed by MD September 2009 to January 2010. The support of the course staff (and members) throughout was fantastic.
The strategic golfing and course landscape enhancement works designed and constructed 2007-10 had provided the ‘finishing touches’ to much acclaim. I was thrilled to see the original 1992 visions for the course – largely built out of flat degraded pasture – now achieved after 18 years!
Gungahlin Lakes should, with the quality of its strategic challenges, many lakes, superb bunkers, flowing landform and maturing vegetation, attain recognition as one of Australia’s finest and most popular inland courses.