New owners with a new direction have been the saviour for Curlewis Golf Club, which is now fulfilling the potential it had promised for more than four decades.
Long-time Kingston Heath course superintendent and acclaimed architect Vern Morcom was at the height of his design career in the years after World War II when he was commissioned to create an 18-hole layout for the Curlewis Golf Club, which was on the move from its original home 15 minutes’ drive away in Drysdale.
Rolling, predominantly sandy terrain with picturesque views to nearby Corio Bay greeted Morcom and he crafted a superb open layout of wide fairways with big undulating greens to take into account the wind that is such a strong influence on all courses of the Bellarine.
The first nine holes were ready for play by 1949 but the failure to extract water from a bore on the site and, with no alternative water supply available, the course development was closed and the land leased for grazing. It lay dormant for nearly 20 years until a new water source was proposed. The course was prepared to be re-opened, which it did in 1971.
Today, the Morcom touch of risk-and-reward design remains and will be familiar to those who have played golf on the Melbourne Sandbelt. This is especially true on the front nine where the routing and design is Morcom’s original work.
Water continued to be an issue for the club for many years.
The club relied on potable water to meet the majority of its extensive irrigation needs, while harvested stormwater was occasionally used to supplement supplies. This strategy served the club reasonably well until the two-year drought starting in 2006. The condition of the course went into steady decline, which saw members walk out and green fee players
The installation of a water reclamation plant in 2010 immediately elevated the course’s presentation but it pushed the club to the financial brink.
The biggest step in the revival of the course came in July 2015 when the members voted overwhelmingly to sell the course to local business owners David and Lyndsay Sharp for $3.7 million. On the sale, the couple – who own Flying Back Cider, Leura Park Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard – committed to spend a further $1 million to upgrade the layout.
It’s no coincidence that since the Sharp’s bought the course, Curlewis has undergone tweaks to its design, conditioning has improved further and the layout continues to rise on every ranking list in the country. The pleasing by-product of all of this is that memberships are up.
One of the first points of business after the sale was to retain the design services of Mike Clayton, who had been consulting to the club since 2001. His advice has been minimalist rather than heavy duty overhaul. Bunkers were added, some greens remodelled and some subtle tweaks including the realignment of some tees were made.
Clayton and course superintendent Rob Bradley have identified further changes, especially the removal of some introduced trees and scrub to widen the playing lines and views to the green on several holes.
A round at Curlewis is a story of two nines. The front nine covers undulating sandy terrain and looks like it was plucked straight out of the Melbourne Sandbelt, while most of the back nine is relatively flat and more heavily tree-lined.
The opening short par-5 and the two following short par-4s are typical Morcom and wouldn’t be out of place on any of the best courses on the Sandbelt.
Players get the chance to start their round in the best possible way – with a birdie – at the short par-5 1st hole. The rolling fairway of the 448-metre hole is laid out before you like a set of waves heading for the beach. The fairway then doglegs right before rising again on its climb to the slightly elevated green. Four bunkers – all short of the green but with two left and another two right – provide a narrow gateway to the putting surface. The key to the approach here, whether it’s from close or long range, is to get your club selection correct. If you land anywhere near the front edge of the putting surface chances are your next shot will be a pitch from the base of the hill short of the green.
For mine, the 308-metre 3rd hole is the best of Curlewis’ short par-4s. From the tee perched above the fairway, you can see the green as well as all the trouble that can be found en route. Big hitters will also note they can carry a massive fairway bunker on the right side of the fairway by taking an ‘as the crow flies’ route to the green. But any aggressive play from the tee is fraught with danger as an out-of-bounds fence is just metres from the left edge of the fairway. The best play here is actually to hug the left half of the fairway from tee, especially if the flag is in the right half of the green.
On the back nine, a realignment of tees on the 14th and 16th holes, the clearing of trees on the left side of the 16th fairway and removing artificial mounding left of the 16th green – replaced by a wide area of close mown fairway – has improved the quality of these holes.
The best offering on the inward half, however, remains its shortest hole – the 138-metre par-3 17th. There are bunkers short, long and left of the massive three-tiered putting surface, while out-of-bounds left will catch the wildest of mis-hits. What I love the most about this hole is the shorter the shot – that is when the pin is cut near the front of the green – the harder the hole plays. With the green sloping markedly from back to front, the last place you want to be for your first putt is above the hole.
Curlewis debuted at No.88 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Courses ranking in 2014, two years after not receiving a single vote. In 2016, the Bellarine course rose to No.78. Given the course is just two years into its five-year program of improvement, further ranking rises won’t surprise.
LOCATION: 1345 Portarlington Rd, Curlewis, Victoria, 3222.
CONTACT: (03) 5251 1111.
DESIGNER: Vern Morcom (1947), Kevin Hartley (1970s), Mike Clayton (2001 and ongoing).
SLOPE RATINGS: 126 (Blue tees), 125 (white), 110 (green men), 132 (Red) and 112 (green women).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass/Poa (greens), Santa Ana couch (tees), Common couch (fairways).
GREEN FEES: $43 (midweek, 18 holes), $55 (Saturday and public holidays), $50 (Sunday). Twilight and student rates available.
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Rob Bradley.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Steve Brodie.
MEMBERSHIPS: Curlewis has six membership categories including seven- and six-day memberships (open to men and women), a 19- to 30-year-old seven-day membership as well as a student and two junior categories.
The seven-day membership costs $1,420, six days is $1,193 while the 19-30 years membership is $950. At a time when many clubs won’t admit kids under 12, Curlewis offers Under 12 membership with full seven day membership playing rights for just $90.
RECIPROCAL CLUBS: Bribie Island (Qld), Coomealla (NSW), Darwin (NT), Flinders (Victoria), Goonawarra (Victoria), Horsham (Victoria), Howlong (NSW), Melville Glades (WA), Mornington (Victoria), Murray Downs (NSW), Neangar Park (Victoria), Rich River (NSW), Warrnambool (Victoria), Thurgoona (NSW), Riverside (SA), Shepparton (Victoria).
FURTHER DEVELOPMENT: The club has announced it will develop a state-of-the-art driving range, which will be located alongside the western boundary of the course. It will include golf simulators, 18 indoor/outdoor driving bays across two stories, practice greens, professional tuition and club fitting along with a café and restaurant.