The winds of change have been blowing strongly across this beautiful Bellarine Peninsula layout and the results are impressive.
Canadian author Louise Penny once wrote: “If you aren’t growing and evolving, you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead.”
While I didn’t see it, it wouldn’t have surprised this writer to see this quote etched into a plaque hanging over the bar at Curlewis Golf Club.
The Bellarine Peninsula club has been steadily evolving month on month, year on year since the members voted overwhelmingly to sell the course to local business owners David and Lyndsay Sharp for $3.7 million back in July, 2015. On the sale, the couple – who own local wineries including Leura Park Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard – committed to invest heavily in upgrading the layout.
True to their word, Curlewis has undergone design changes and the level of conditioning is now first class, which means Curlewis is no longer the hidden gem it once was as it continues to rise on every ranking list in the country.
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. Bunkers have been added, greens remodelled, overgrown trees removed and some tees realigned.
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 the original 18-hole layout.
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 on the Bellarine.
Water issues, however, saw the course lay dormant for nearly 20 years until a new water source was proposed. The course was prepared and re-opened in 1971.
“Curlewis is no longer the hidden gem it once was …”
Today, the Morcom touch of risk-and-reward design remains and will be familiar to those who have played golf in the Melbourne Sandbelt. This is especially true on the front nine where much of the routing and design is Morcom’s original work.
That said, he would undoubtedly be pleased with the direction the course has headed under Clayton’s guidance and hard work by course superintendent Rob Bradley and his team.
The most dramatic changes to the layout have taken place in the past two years and are clearly evident as you walk onto the 1st tee. What was a short dogleg right par-5 to start the round has been shortened to become a solid par-4 with slightly less turn in the fairway as the tee has been moved left of the old teeing ground.
Not only can you see the green from the tee, but there is a wide expanse of ground to hit your tee shot into as the fairway – shared with the 2nd fairway – turns right. Two scrubby trees that once stood left of the fairway have been removed and replaced by two fairway bunkers cut into a rise, the second of which lies unsighted on the far side of the crest.
RIGHT: The par-3 17th hole is Curlewis’ shortest and trickiest one-shotter. PHOTO: Brendan James.
The greenside bunkering has also been reworked, while there also appears to be more short grass leading away from the steep drop off through the back 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.
The newest addition to the Curlewis layout rounds out the front nine. While the length of the par-4 9th has not changed significantly, there is now more emphasis on good strategy. The green complex has been moved forward and right of the old 9th green and now occupies the elevated position of the old 1st tee. While the fairway still turns from right to left, the green is now set to the right of the fairway. Now, more than ever, players who hit their tee shots close to the fairway bunker on the left edge of the wide fairway are faced with a much easier approach into the putting surface, which is surrounded by five bunkers – two short right, one wide left and two cut into a hill through the back. If you take the conservative route down the right half of the fairway, you are faced with a far more difficult second shot over sand as well as long gum tree that shadows the right quarter of the green.
The carefully selected removal of trees across the property has not only created a greater number of playing lines from tees and into greens on many holes, but it has exposed vast tracts of visually impressive sandy wasteland areas.
This is no more evident than what you will see lying between the 10th and 11th fairways. The second half of the short par-4 10th used to be heavily tree-lined to the right of the fairway, creating a thick vegetative curtain. All but a few of these trees have been removed and the area is now a sprawling sea of sand separating the holes. Meanwhile, on the left side of the fairway, a crop of three bunkers have been removed to widen the avenue between tee and 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.
“Curlewis debuted at No.88 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Courses ranking in 2014, which surprised some who had never heard of the layout.”
The best one-shotter at Curlewis is also the shortest – the 138-metre par-3 17th. There are bunkers short and left of the massive three-tiered putting surface, while out-of-bounds left will catch the wildest of mis-hits. The penultimate hole has also seen some change with the removal of a bunker long and right of the putting surface, which has been returned to a more natural downslope from the nearby 12th tee. 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, which surprised some who had never heard of the layout. Two years later it rose to No.78 and in 2018 it had crept to a new high at No.68. When the 2020 ranking is published in our next edition, it will have climbed higher yet again as it continues to grow and evolve … clearly avoiding standing still.
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: Men: 130 (Blue tees), 128 (white), 111 (green). Women: 133 (Red) and 118 (green).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass/Poa (greens), Santa Ana couch (tees), Common couch (fairways).
GREEN FEES: $45 (midweek, 18 holes), $55 (weekends and public holidays), $50 (Sunday).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Rob Bradley.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Steve Brodie and Tom Jefferies.
MEMBERSHIPS: Curlewis has six membership categories including seven- and six-day memberships (open to men and women), an 18- to 29-year-old seven-day membership as well as a student and two junior categories.
OTHER FACILITIES: The club has developed a state-of-the-art driving range, which is located alongside the western boundary of the course. It includes golf simulators, 18 indoor/outdoor driving bays across two storeys with automated tees, practice greens, professional tuition and club fitting along with a café and restaurant.
RECIPROCAL CLUBS: Victoria: Flinders, Horsham, Korumburra, Mornington, Neangar Park, Shepparton; QLD: Bribie Island; NSW: Coomealla, Howlong, Murray Downs, Rich River, Thurgoona; SA: Riverside; WA: Melville Glades (WA); NT: Darwin.