Ellerston look out – there’s a new Victorian course about to take the “most exclusive” title out of New South Wales. It’s called Cathedral Lodge and this uber-expensive Greg Norman designed layout has the Shark calling it his best design yet.
From an architectural perspective, many old churches around the world are lauded for their beauty. But there’s a new ‘Cathedral’ in town that will have golf lovers crying ‘holy moly’ more than any other.
Forget Notre Dame, Saint Basil’s or St. Paul’s, Cathedral Lodge – an 18-hole Greg Norman designed stunner – is more beautiful than all of them combined. At least to any serious golfer.
Situated at Thornton, about 130km north-east of Melbourne, Cathedral Lodge is a welcome addition to a region that was savaged by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
Officially opened in October by Norman, owners David and Sonya Evans and Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, Cathedral Lodge is Victoria’s answer to NSW’s Ellerston. Only, unlike the track Kerry Packer commissioned Norman to design, Cathedral Lodge has a greater focus on enjoyment rather than sheer brutality. And more than one set of tees.
That’s not to say Cathedral Lodge is a pushover by any means. Dense shrub, natural changes in elevation and creeks and hollows are all there to keep your concentration sharp, and offer a suitable challenge across the fascinating layout.
Inspired by a 1997 trip to the Masters in Augusta, Evans – a former Essendon Football Club chairman and son of former AFL chairman Ron Evans – dreamt of one day turning the large plot of Australian countryside he bought 14 years ago into a golf haven to rival the world’s best private courses, like Augusta National.
“Cathedral Lodge is very special to me as there is nothing else like it in Australia, or the world for that matter." Greg Norman.
But it wasn’t until a 2012 meeting with Norman at the family property near Lake Eildon that his dream started to gain serious momentum towards reality.
The Shark says he fell in love with the place from the outset, with the natural landscape and rolling hills overlooked by the Cathedral Range in the distance lending itself naturally to a spectacular golf course.
“This here is such a unique site and I am going to say with all sincerity that Australians don’t realise how lucky they have got it,” Norman said.
“People travel all over the world thinking they are going to see better sights, but you only have to travel an hour and a half out of Melbourne and you have this.”
The members and invited guests-only club is certainly at the exclusive end of the scale, with a $50,000 entrance investment and annual fees around the $10,000 mark. What members get for that outlay is a course to rival some of the greats. In fact, according to Norman, Cathedral Lodge could be “the best” of his 103 courses designed around the world.
THE STORY BEHIND CATHEDRAL LODGE
That’s a pretty big claim considering the aforementioned Ellerston, as well as Doonbeg, Trump National and a host of other highly-ranked gems bearing the Shark’s iconic signature. It’s clear Norman’s fondness for his country of birth resonates in that bold statement. At the opening of the course he spoke glowingly of Australia’s native flora and fauna found so abundantly at and around Cathedral Lodge, just as a brazen cockatoo in a gum overlooking the 3rd hole continually interrupted him, as if to hammer home the point.
“Cathedral Lodge is very special to me as there is nothing else like it in Australia, or the world for that matter,” Norman said.
From a layout perspective, the course has few challengers, with four par-5s and five par-3s scattered among the 18 holes. One of the fine achievements Norman has managed here is to seamlessly intermingle holes bearing the hallmark of links, tree-lined, country and tropical courses. It is a blend hardly – if ever – seen. In theory, it shouldn’t work, but at Cathedral Lodge, it just does. Magnificently.
Being such a new course, the fairways still need some time to grow in for the full aesthetics to be realised, but from a playability point of view they are superb, and Cathedral also has some of the finest greens in the nation – they’re mostly large, slick, pure and not overly penal yet with subtle breaks to test you just enough.
The exception to that rule would have to be the short par-4 5th, which plays directly uphill in a narrow basin surrounded by native gums towards a postage stamp-sized green. It’s an incredibly charismatic hole that tempts you with a driveable green, yet severely punishes even slightly wayward tee shots. The green is small, but if you can reach it from the tee, you’ll have a genuine chance at eagle with a relatively straight putt. What a hole. (Just don’t walk it unless you’re preparing to tackle Everest sometime soon.)
With stage one of Evans’ dream now complete, the investment banker says he could not be more pleased with the result. But that doesn’t mean he’s done with big ideas for his golfing oasis, revealing hopes of one day staging an Australian major at the venue. And that, according to Norman, is not out of the question: “If David wanted to have a PGA Tour event here, it wouldn’t be hard at all,” Norman said.
Logistical issues – including the remote location and capacity of local accommodation – has many admirers of the setup doubting whether that notion will ever eventuate. Yet with the uber-exclusive nature of the course, and a truly inspired design philosophy, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine golf fans in their droves taking the opportunity for a road trip to set foot on – and be welcomed at – an otherwise inaccessible layout for a major Australian tournament. Time will tell.
One talking point for Cathedral Lodge will certainly be the 6th and 7th holes, a par-5 and par-4 respectively that intersect heavily. There’s little doubt this will either be heralded as design genius, or denounced as a major flaw in the layout. Players will either love or hate the fact those approaching the 6th green need to give way to players on the 7th tee, with the fairway shared between the two groups.
Both would be strong standalone holes, especially the 7th, a hooping right-to-left dogleg that requires two cracking shots just to reach the green in regulation. That said, the delay in play is not likely to be a big deal for most golfers considering the course is unlikely to have heavy traffic. First world problems, huh?
In line with Norman’s design philosophy, there is no ‘signature hole’ as such, although it’s difficult not to fall in love with the closing stretch of four holes at Cathedral Lodge.
The 15th is such a loveable, short par-3. Teeing off under a canopy of native greenery, the hole plays downhill to an elongated green with cavernous, rocky trouble left and is sheltered by a large sloping mound to the right. It is sure to become a favourite with regulars.
You then start heading back towards the clubhouse alongside the road into Cathedral Lodge, via the par-4 16th, which is undoubtedly one of the finer short two-shotters on the course.
The par-3 17th, which plays downhill to a one-sided green with views of the 14th tee and 13th green in the background, has to be the most visually-inspiring point on the course. Quintessentially Australian, it’s one of those holes that just reminds you why you play
The final hole is a long, tough par-5 flanked by waist-high rough along a rocky left side, with ‘Ron’s Creek’ – a poetic tribute to Evans’ late father – bordering the right of the fairway. It turns and cuts across the fairway – reminiscent of the Swilcan Burn at St Andrews – roughly 200 metres from home and settles just short of the left side of the green. The significance of the creek and its familial meaning to Evans can be heard in his voice, which crackles slightly as he describes how it majestically flows down into the mighty Goulburn River. Its symbolism is not lost on members.
Ron’s Creek complements a stunning finishing hole looking up to the country homestead-inspired clubhouse, and it’s a sight that clearly pleases the younger Evans, as it will most golfers who experience it.
That family-forward sentiment is the ethos of the club, with members encouraged to bring along their families to the club and create a legacy of their own for “generations to come”. No wonder Norman described Cathedral Lodge at its opening as a “benchmark” for future courses.
You can take those wise words as gospel.