A struggling sugar cane farm near Port Douglas turned out to be the perfect site for a truly unique course
The Links golf course at Port Douglas owes its existence to a declining appreciation of the Mirage Golf Course in the early 1990s. With owner/ developer Christopher Skase long since having ‘flown the coop’ to his sanctuary on the Isle of Majorca, the Japanese inheritors of his splendid dream displayed a waning interest in their delightful seaside golf course, allowing this facility to run down to a point where a few regular devotees, including myself as the designer and builder, cried: “Enough!” – Michael Wolveridge
Port Douglas Reef Resorts (PDRR) was a resort development company comprised of several of the key players who had strongly assisted the Queensland Government during the early days of 1984-85 with their Design Brief for the initial establishment of an International Destination Resort for Port Douglas by the QTTC, later to become known under Christopher Skase as The Mirage Resort. It was to this Group whose singular interest was in putting Port Douglas on the international Tourist Map, who we turned to for help. Our tropical paradise was missing a first class golf course.
To the rescue came John Morris and PDRR, who after checking out several local sites, found a struggling cane farm at the Southern end of Port Douglas and close to Four Mile Beach. Comprised almost entirely of sandy soil and growing poor sugar cane as a consequence, this tract of 77 hectares was virtually cleared of trees, save a precious ribbon of riparian rainforest which inhabited a small flowing stream running through the entire property. A pristine and brilliant intrusion of the Wet Tropics into an otherwise rather barren and infertile site. Entering from the North, it ran for over a kilometre towards the Southern end of the property whereupon, embracing mangroves and estuarine life, it meandered gently into the Coral Sea. Our new site however, afforded ideal conditions for us to create a dramatic linksland and establish on hungry soil, the sort of turf grass best suited to a genuine golf links – the real thing!
My firm, Thomson Wolveridge & Perrett, were commissioned to produce a Master Plan which was accepted by PDRR in October 1996 and duly submitted to Council.
Located on the Eastern side of Old Port Road on the way out of town, PDRR settled the property and duly set up headquarters at the old farm house. This building suited our Conceptual Design as an ideal site for the clubhouse – being close to an already established infrastructure, allowing our Concept of having two loops of nine holes to start and finish in the vicinity of the building with room close by for an adequate golf practice range. Importantly it contained a suitable tract of land fronting Nautilus Street, sufficient upon which to establish some 62 golf villas which might be commenced in the short term and financially anchor the project whilst the golf course was being built. Gary Hunt and Partners designed this Residential Component and in due course, a friendly Douglas Shire Council embraced the entire Links Project.
During these early times, along with PDRR directors Tom Klinger, Don Morris and Managing Director John Morris, TWP began to prepare the Clubhouse site and explore ideas for the Clubhouse Design Brief. After some 30 years up to that time spent designing and building golf courses, neither Peter Thomson nor myself had yet to encounter a building architect who properly understood or would even listen to the specific needs of a functioning golf clubhouse, although it must be said in bringing architect, Ross Perrett into our team in 1993 to form Thomson Wolveridge & Perrett, the firm had recently produced a small masterpiece of a clubhouse as well as design and build for the new Capital Golf Course for Lloyd Williams and his high rollers to complement his Crown Casino in Melbourne.
I had always envisaged an idyllic clubhouse in the tropics to resemble a large school cricket pavilion, clock tower et al: open plan, large air-conditioned pro-shop, wide, shaded verandas, lots of comfortable chairs, cooled in summer by fans, replete with contented golfers sipping cool drinks following their latest joust with par! Such simplicity found favour with PDRR and met their budget. TWP were duly commissioned to commence detail design. A clever and sensitive architect with our firm for many years, Lindsay Calvert, was brought up to Port Douglas immediately.
During this period PDRR had engaged with an international group of golf club owners from the USA, known as Club Corporation of America – who were eventually to become the new operators. They dispatched their own man, Russell Matchem, to advise on all aspects of Clubhouse design and administration. He was knowledgeable and helpful. PDRR also engaged the services of specialist clubhouse Consultant and a long-time friend and associate, Phil Scott, to work with Tom Klinger on membership matters and with Lindsay on aspects of clubhouse design. Phil’s son Adam was already World Junior Champion and ably assisted me out on the paddocks by “hitting shots to order” as I set about the task of bunkering the new holes. Club Corp had decided that the golf course would be a cart-only course. Their contract with EZGO was arranged and Lindsay Calvert, by sensibly raising the clubhouse some four metres, had found room for 70 golf carts to be stored and serviced out of sight and air-conditioned beneath the building.
Even though the cane fields which covered the site inhabited fl at land, many years earlier this sandy tract had been an old reef, inhabited by the sea and covered with a deep layer of sand; it would most likely have been contoured after the patterns of the wind and waves as the sea receded. Wherever this type of land occurs naturally it is known as ‘linksland’ – no longer sea nor terra firma but instead the ground in between, forming a sort of ‘no-man’s land’ and belonging to everyone. Land utilised for centuries for grazing sheep and often cattle… for public use… and in Britain’s 1800s, for the convenient establishment of the steam railway. Golf was invented on such blessed acreage. Discovered originally in Scotland and subsequently popping up around the sea coasts of Britain and Ireland, this is where the majority of the greatest golf links of the world are to be found.
And here we are in the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland, beside the Coral Sea in a most idyllic setting, with at worst a very good year-round climate for playing golf. For this style of golf course to occur naturally in Port Douglas allows it to become one of a rare few tropical links, blessed in our case with a steady South East Trade wind blowing off the Coral Sea for most of the year.
With our design and specifications concluded and accepted, we were ready to start. Our golf course construction firm Greenmaw, under the excellent leadership of co-director Alan Maw, who had built some 30 courses for us since the early 1970s, including the Mirage golf course which was constructed for Christopher Skase during the mid-1980s, were awarded the specialist task. As I was comprehensively involved and enthused at the prospect of creating a fi ne links on this site, I virtually migrated to Port Douglas to take charge of the project. This would be “my baby”!
Whereas the enviable and rare opportunity to create a links over naturally formed land is really a test of one’s golfing imagination with an ambition to create an abundance of golfing choices for the players – choices which may vary according to weather influence and a player’s own abilities – the task of creating a traditional links-style course over our Port Douglas site was another matter, as the natural features had been destroyed in man’s quest to create useable land for farming. Natural features which may have existed must be recreated to assume a typical links profile. I was favoured with the general orientation of the site being North-South. This ensured that the dominant South East trade wind would give a fair share of holes played both into and with the wind. By a fortunate arrangement, from December the wind would go round to the North and thus for a period of a few summer months, the situation would be reversed; nor did the position of the rising and setting sun need to factor in the golf course layout.
In June 1997 we commenced construction with the first five holes and the golf practice range. As is often the way with the technique of fashioning a links, we started at the beginning with the 1st tees and practice putting greens adjacent to the Clubhouse site. We had gained important information concerning the annual water table levels to be expected during the past 18 months from observations of various test pits we had dug around the site and from helpful local advice from the cane farmer. With this information we reasoned that we could lower the majority of the site by up to 30cm yet still accord our golf course year-round, dry playable conditions above the normal summer water table. The removal of an overburden of cane debris and weeds would provide us with a large amount of suitable material for mounding and undulation – essential features we would locate outside the designated fairway areas, giving a seaside dune appearance to our sandy site and taking it back perhaps to its original state before the farmers got hold of it! In time the new mounds would settle slightly – a matter of little consequence – their chief role was to create a dune effect and infuse a links character. The clean sand which remained to become fairway was then gently contoured by our skilled shapers after the style of the myriad humps and hollows and designated swales and valleys which have inhabited traditional ‘links land’ for centuries and carefully blended into the new and dominating dunescape.
The prevailing trade winds proved to be ideal and I bunkered the holes accordingly, taking care always to leave a wide enough opening at the putting green approaches, for accurate shots to be bounced in, thus offering the prospect for golfers of all abilities and vintage of adapting their own particular brand of shotmaking to being rewarded when artfully construed. Ladies and some senior players, who might find hitting across greenside bunkers intimidating, often appreciate an opportunity to demonstrate accurate iron play where the ball may run onto the green and even up to the pin… such is the shared traditional joy of the best links golf. Hazards, usually depicted as bunkers are a key element in the design, often comprising small, deep pots set amongst sheltering mounds to allow the sand to be contained within against erosion by prevailing winds. They appear seemingly at random and sometimes in the centre of widened fairways offering challenges to players to go over or around them. They can be annoying and are usually parked where golf balls seem to end up… escape can be costly. Greens can be quite large according to the ‘created’ land form, following natural contours between level places where pin positions may be located and sited well above possible inundation. Traditional greens so formed over natural sand usually have large, firm aprons where long putting and chipping add to a typical links challenge. With the splendid exception of our riparian rainforest stream, there are no trees to define or limit the choices of club selection or define the fairways – trees do not thrive on true linksland. Instead in recognition of our tropical location, the golf course has been sensibly ‘littered’ with coconut trees… hard to hit, they offer a romantic reminder of where we are.
An essential condition for the golf course establishment on this site was a Council requirement to protect our meandering strip of riparian rainforest from being invaded by unwanted contamination from those chemicals and fertilisers which are needed for the proper care and maintenance of high quality turf grass. Newly formed fairway swales were directed to flow into some 29 purposely designed nutrient stripping ponds, most being placed strategically adjacent to our precious riparian rainforest stream which dominated the site. These ponds were bermed on the outside of the stream to retain the captured run-off, thus creating water basins which filled with pond life beneath our beautiful new water lilies. These ponds would be harvested annually or as required to remove any prospect of the nutrients from inhabiting and polluting the rainforest stream. This important process protected our rainforest and ensured that the outlet to the Coral Sea remained pristine. And how those plants prospered… by the end of our first wet season, we were in the water lily business!
Initially we had a par-72 course with the 14th hole being a par-5. PDRR required some more Real Estate to help balance the books and we thus shortened this hole to its current status of a par-4 allowing a further 6 Lots for residential development. As a par-4, it is one of our very best holes.
All through 1998 and 1999, the golf course construction progressed as funds became available. This is a process which may be seen as tedious, however in the case with the links, to ‘hasten slowly’ was to get it right and that we most certainly did for if ever there is a links course capable of taking large quantities of water and returning to almost instant playability, it is the links at Port Douglas. The course was duly completed and ready to open under the new banner of Club Corporation in June 2000. The Links at Port Douglas was to be their first true links among a collection of some 250 golf courses, mostly in the USA – a fine and welcome day indeed!
Traditionally this type of golf course is best walked carrying a small, light bag with about eight clubs, or as many as a gentleman might be expected to carry and sufficient to accommodate a late afternoon breeze. Wedge play to firm greens and aprons can be rather silly and was rarely adopted by ‘aficionados’ of the noble art, in preference for playing low-flying run-up shots with less lofted clubs. In earlier times of course, there was the Putting Cleek, a perfectly designed club similar to a putter with a small amount of loft to clear the ‘nap’ and stay close to ground when approaching from the green aprons and surrounds – safe, sure and rewarding, the best among them having hickory shafts.
Not unexpectedly, I lost a pleasant “battle” with Club Corporation over a plea that there be a period set aside for say, late afternoon when golfers who wished to do so, might plan to walk nine holes and enjoy the links as it was meant to be. For just as soon as we were getting on our feet, dear Mr Dedman, President of Club Corporation of America, was the terribly sad and horrified owner witnessing on live TV the ghastly spectacle of his very fi ne Restaurant at the top of the World Trade Centre in New York as it collapsed with his people still up there in. He announced emotionally to his vast empire of golf courses around the world, that he would be selling everything he owned outside of the United States forthwith… and so he did, including the Port Douglas Links.
Port Douglas Reef Resorts had it back on the books for a while before selling on to the Juniper Family, a Resort and Land Development company from the Queensland Sunshine Coast. They took over where Club Corp left off, adopting the ‘cart-only’ policy and allowing a fair and adequate golf course maintenance budget. They also built a very fi ne hotel/apartment complex alongside Four Mile Beach, calling it Sea Temple. No matter my protestations, they insisted on calling the links, Sea Temple Golf & Country Club, thereby in the name of branding, casting aside a brilliant marketing tool in the use of the word ‘links’. And so an entity which was gaining national fame and attention as a tropical links of note was cast aside in deference to being ‘branded’. It might easily have been a can of soup – its relevance in the Australian pantheon of golf courses was reduced accordingly. As a member for some 25 years on the international judging panel of ‘The Top 100 Golf Courses in the World’, an annual event promoted by US Golf magazine, I was saddened and disillusioned.
After several years of ownership, Junipers sold up to Clive Palmer and now we have Palmer Sea Reef Golf Course and of course, golf carts only. To their great credit, the new ownership has kept the same maintenance team and a fair budget, installing of late a popular and approachable young man, Ben Wood, as General Manager; Ben runs a happy ship, maintained in the best possible condition for its membership and visitors. Their golf course maintenance staff under Superintendent Alex Ross, has had the responsibility of care of the links for several years, indeed Alex as an original member of our Greenmaw turfgrass advisory staff, was instrumental in the procurement and installation of the selected turf grasses that are currently established on site. Alex and his excellent team have learned how a links course works in the Wet Tropics and maintain their turf grass accordingly, displaying a very fi ne balance and understanding of the art of golf course maintenance in this climate. Currently it is as good as it gets and has never been better!
Our architectural philosophies remain unchanged since the mid-1990s and the time when we came to design and construct this Links golf course for PDRR. However, golf equipment and golf ball performance most certainly has not stood still, especially when it comes to the performance of the modern champions who achieve average distances of 300 yards and more with their tee shots which also, thanks to clever arrangements concerning the dimple pattern on the golf ball, keep to a straighter line and trajectory than ever before. This is a very short-sighted state of affairs which could and should have been avoided through intervention long ago from those golfing authorities the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, who possess the ability between them to at least legislate on the velocity permitted for the golf ball. Their refusal to properly address this situation of late, has caused virtually each and every classical golf course of note around the world to become an “endangered species”.
Mercifully, rank-and-fi le club and handicap golfers are in no need of adapting as yet to these ‘improvements’, enjoying more than ever their regular joust with par as it is played out with a predictable ball, drivers easier to use, specially designed iron and rescue clubs with wide forgiving soles for getting the ball airborne, and in general playing over superbly conditioned golf courses. Happily in the Far North of Australia there is no need as yet of adapting the links at Port Douglas to the whim of modern technology; though their scoring is little improved, club golfers have never had it so good!