How the decline of a private golf course gave rise to a vibrant new ‘sculpture’ at Lilydale, north-east of Melbourne.
In May 2014 amongst a field of 237 golfers, fellow Pacific Coast Design Director Paul Reeves and I played 18 holes with the President and Treasurer of the Chirnside Country Club at the opening of the new Gardiners Run Golf Course. It was the culmination of nine years of work for PCD and when we reached the new clubhouse and were greeted with a sea of smiles, everything the team had been through to get to this point seemed to fade into the background. – Phil Ryan
This is a story in two halves: the first concerning the decline of a private golf club due to the changing nature of golf; and the second the rise of a new golf course on the bones of an open-cut mine site.
The Chirnside Country Club golf course had been created as part of a residential development in the late 1960s. The developer pushed the limits of safety for the day, with dual-row golf (to maximise perimeter) holes designed with residential to the right side of play and housing positioned at offsets, leaving little room for golfer error. Once the residential properties were sold the developer approached a group of golfer residents, who took over the course, club and facilities; hence the Chirnside Country Club commenced operations in 1974 as a private golf club.
As most in the golf industry know, equipment improvements in the nearly 20 years from 1980 to around 1998 saw golf balls increase from an average distance of 257 yards to around 290 yards (USGA Research & Testing Station / average drive on Tour) – with such performance coming with corresponding increases in errant golf ball impact zones. Something about a rain of golf balls going onto established housing tends to get people upset and it was not long before the complaints and insurance claims started coming in.
The Country Club took an active approach and tried several design changes but due to the limited land for alternatives, many of the golf holes over the years were reduced to par-3 options in response to the increasing insurance claims.
To add to the severity of the situation the original irrigation system for the golf course was based on Authority mains water supply (drinking water) which over the years became prohibitively expensive and even worse during regular drought weather conditions totally unavailable due to restrictions (no watering of fairways at all). Simply put, many summers saw the cool season fairways not being watered and this led to less-than-ideal turf conditions for golfers, with next-to-no grass on fairways.
A downward spiral started, with a reduction in the number of golfers (due to the golf layout diminishing and poor turf surfaces) leading to less revenue… leading to less money for regular maintenance and irrigation water… leading to less maintenance… leading to even fewer golfers, etc.
From a golf member base of more than a thousand, the club had thinned to just a few hundred members and looked set to close until a radical (for the day) solution was put in place by the committee and management. In 2002, the club approached the local authority and sought planning permission to move the golf course from its current position to a new nearby site, keeping the Country Club at the current location along with tennis, bowls and the function facilities, with the old golf course site being redeveloped as residential.
Pacific Coast Design (PCD) was one of several golf architecture firms contacted by the club and after a vetting process was selected to work with the club to achieve the desired outcomes as we (PCD) had already been involved in similar circumstances with other golf clubs. Our role involved extensive consultation with members, various Authorities responsible for the permits as well as the owners of the land selected for the new golf course site. This process took many years as there was local opposition from residents around the existing golf course who did not wish to see their “open space” moved and replaced by housing; unfortunately the alternative was for the golf course to close anyway, so such arguments did not eventually stand up to legislative review scrutiny.
The new site negotiated for the relocation of the 18-hole golf course was about 10 minutes away from the existing site, was 67.5 Ha of land (166 acres) and had no residential abutting the boundaries. The site had a creek along one boundary, farmland on two sides (possible future residential on parts of this), a memorial park (cemetery) on the final boundary and on the other side of the creek was a local authority effluent treatment plant, with treated effluent water available for use by the proposed golf course.
The owner of the site, a publicly listed Australian company with diverse interests, had been working the site as a strip mine for clay (used for roof tiles) for more than 30 years and needed to have it rehabilitated. The company entered into an arrangement with the club to pay for construction of a new golf course on the mine site. Once construction was commenced, nine holes of the existing course was closed and residential development begun, with the second nine holes closed once the new 18 holes were deemed playable. So members finished playing golf on the old course (nine-hole layout) on the Friday and commenced playing the new course (18-hole layout) on the Saturday.
As discussed, consultation with members, committee and management had been an ongoing process through the permit and site negotiation phases, with a clear picture of what the new golf course design outcomes should be. Above all the layout had to be enjoyable for all the members; they had to have fun playing and really want to come back the following week. Members did not wish to lose 10 golf balls during a round; they really did not care what score a signature golf pro had if he ever played the golf course, and they wanted options for differing levels of golf within the membership structure.
Now the second part of the story moved to the clay mine down the road, where mining activities over the years had seen the majority of the site disturbed, all trees (except a 20-metre-wide buffer/boundary and a single line across one third of the site) removed, and what was left of the original topsoil severely contaminated with clay. The lower one quarter of the site along the creek was flood plain and so any cut/fill work had to balance so that no additional load was placed on catchment flood potential. Another existing small lake along the northern boundary was required by authorities to be retained as a part of the catchment maintenance and this was incorporated into the practice fairway design as well as a secondary/back-up water supply for irrigation (maintenance zone, irrigation pump facility and effluent storage tanks were placed adjacent).
Mining activities were ongoing as a stockpile was required on adjacent unused land for supply of clay by the company for the next 20 years.
Not the most natural of sites for a golf architect team to work with – but the open cut sections of the mine offered some unique forms to engage with and being able to create a landscape from scratch gave us the chance to give the golf course a distinct feel. As many of the cuts had created a “valley” feeling we were able to utilise these as primary fairway zones on holes 1, 4, 8 and 9 on the front nine and most of the holes on the back nine. This gave a very welcoming design to the golf holes, with mounding to either side directing golf balls back into play as well as developing a very “private” sensation to a lot of the holes.
On every golf project budget is always a consideration when designing, so this approach assisted in minimising bulk earthwork quantities to around 248,000 cubic metres.
The site condition and size allowed us to maximise a north/south orientation for many of the holes and also fitted with seasonal winds, giving such holes a different degree of difficulty dependent on both time of day and time of year. The golf club was always envisaged as a smaller golf annex to the main country club and we positioned it south-facing, for views across the golf and nearby hills but at a level that would not have a focus on residential zones in the distance.
The club has great access to the driving range, chipping zone, practice bunker and putting complex as well as overlooking green 18, which is set into a lake. Tees 1 and 10 are nearby as is green 9, so this is very much a golf-centric club facility.
Three tees are on all holes except for hole 10, being the longest hole of the course (a par-5 of 518m from rear tee) having an additional tee to give greater options when two tee system start is operating. Bunkers are not overly deep with an average of 1.25m to 1.5m and sand was specifically selected by committee and top club golfers from a range supplied and tested at the old course. Bunker sand colour was never a priority but playability was and semi-fine light grey sand was eventually selected.
The nearby Yarra Ranges (hills) are forested and we had always seen the golf course with substantial tree-scape to blend and link with the vista across the valley as well as blocking any future residential that may develop in years to come. Eighteen thousand indigenous trees (tube stock) were planted along with 80,000 ornamental grasses, Casuarina/Yarra Gum and Blackwood being the predominant species and it will take a number of years for the landscape theme to fully develop.
Just like the golf, the decline of one course and the rise of another was a journey over the years and it is not yet finished as the new golf course has just opened and still has a bit of growing in to do.
As the topsoil was barely enough for the roughs, sand was sourced for the major portions of the fairways and sandy loam for the balance of fairway areas. The drainage approach for these differing zones needed to work with the infiltration rates and budget using surface flow catchment in combination with underground agricultural drain networks. Greens were perched water table/sand profile and tees sand profile.
Unlike the original golf course fairways, tees and roughs were planted to warm season Bermuda grass and greens to creeping bent. Roughs were over sown to carry through the winter months but the longer-term intention is to see these areas as warm season grass.
The two nines are equally balanced for distance at H1-9 (3,134m/3,427 yds) and H10-18 (3,167m/3,463 yds), each being par 36 but both have a very distinct atmosphere as the first nine predominantly winds along the creek on the valley floor and the back nine plays across more subtle vertical elevations.
Hole 1, a good slightly uphill dogleg par-4 of 366m, takes golfers to the creek edge, whilst holes 2 and 3 play along the creek edge where some early mornings the mist hangs over the water giving the valley an eerie feel. Hole 4 heads back up the hill and hole 5, a short par-4 of 342m, plays downhill where the green can be reached from the mid-tee by most good golfers who dare to take on the significant bunkering.
Hole 6 has water to either side on the drive with a second shot to the uphill green complex; the par-3 7th hole plays along the ridge line and anything left of the green is a hard comeback. Hole 8 is the shortest of the par-5s then finishing on the par-4, hole 9 at 375m in length.
Hole 10 starts leading uphill away from the clubhouse, then downhill through a dogleg to the green at the southern boundary. The par-3 hole 11 at 168m has already had a hole in one (as this article was being written), only a few weeks into its existence. Holes 12, 13, 14 and 15 are all par-4s although each is different in their own way with the shot into the green at 15 having a great view of the hills on the other side of the valley.
The par-3 hole 16 (150m) hits into the old converted loading pit (for clay extraction) with a split-level green. Hole 17 takes the golfer to the south, along a par-5 of 502m before reaching the 18th which has a drive to the top of a hill then a spectacular view down to the club sitting behind the green with water to two sides, a fitting finishing hole at 384m.
Just like the golf, the decline of one course and the rise of another was a journey over the years and it is not yet finished as the new golf course has just opened and still has a bit of growing in to do. The journey would not have been possible without committee, management and PCD coming together as a team to achieve the outcomes desired; I know we are all proud of our creation from clay