This iconic Sydney course has a rich history dating back 92 years – but it is only in recent times that its fame and reputation has soared as a big tournament venue and a wonderful place to play.
I remember it as if it was yesterday – the first time I walked onto the grounds of The Lakes Golf Club was on November 15, 1980 to watch the second round of the Australian Open. The first shot I saw played was a ripping drive down the opening hole. The player … Seve Ballesteros.
For a 12-year-old boy who had quickly become obsessed by golf, this was far better than anything I was going to learn at school that Friday. It was a typical hot and steamy Sydney summer’s day, but I hardly noticed as my dad and I followed Seve, who was playing alongside the entertaining Chi Chi Rodriguez and the then reigning Australian Amateur champion, Roger Mackay.
The fun really began on the back nine when a southerly bluster with gale force winds hit the course. Not even the great shot-making skills of Seve could help him avoid dropping shots across The Lakes’ memorable closing stretch. The US Masters Champion signed for a hard fought 71. It could have been 81, I wouldn’t have cared less. To see him think his way across the challenging, beautiful course, and then execute amazing shots in trying conditions left a huge impression on this wide-eyed lad.
They’re great memories that remain vivid 40 years later. I relive that day every time I get back to The Lakes.
I’ve seen every Australian Open played there since. There’s been five of them, with a host of great players – Steve Elkington (1992), Geoff Ogilvy (2010), Greg Chalmers (2011), Peter Senior (2012) and Abraham Ancer (2018) – raising the Stonehaven Cup on The Lakes’ par-3 18th green. And before them, of course, Norman was the victor in 1980, by one stroke over Brian Jones, and 16 years before him, the greatest golfer of the 20th century, Jack Nicklaus, won the championship in a play-off over local favourite Bruce Devlin.
Having gained fame as hosting the game’s best players as a fantastic venue for major championships, The Lakes has gained a reputation as one of Sydney’s iconic courses.
In fact, one could argue strongly that 92 years after the club was established, the course has never been better.
From the time the original 1928 Eric Apperly-crafted course was forced into a redesign in the late 1960s, there was constant tinkering with many holes looking for something better. It wasn’t until the latest redesign was completed in 2009 when that search ended.
RIGHT: The uphill par-3 7th hole was dramatically improved by the Mike Clayton redesign. PHOTO: Brendan James.
The original course was bisected in 1968 by the airport freeway and American architect Robert Von Hagge, in partnership with Bruce Devlin, created a new course with holes laid out on either side of the freeway. It was an almost treeless site, which was exposed to the wind. The new holes, especially those on the back nine, played dramatically around and across some huge lakes that were a significant part of the character of both the old and the new courses.
Over the ensuing years the course, and its character, changed dramatically with hundreds of non-native trees being planted. These trees – predominantly pines – grew to frame the fairways and robbed The Lakes of its original open, links-like character.
Having had a series of designers make their mark on the course during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the club commissioned Mike Clayton in 2006 to return the course to its original look and feel.
“The open sandy wastelands of the original course disappeared under the trees and whilst it could never have been described as a parkland course it was closer to a park than ever before,” Clayton said.
“The open sandy wastelands of the original course disappeared under the trees and whilst it could never have been described as a parkland course it was closer to a park than ever before.” – Mike Clayton
The clearing of the land is the most visual change that has occurred. Clayton opened up vast tracts of the course that were hidden by trees and scrub for decades. Now, you can even see the Sydney city skyline from some tees. This clearing program also widened the playing lines as mis-hits are no longer gobbled up by scrub forcing a penalty on the player. Instead, the player must now fashion a recovery from an uneven, sandy lie or from rough.
“The policy of wider fairways should be allied with a program of green redesign that emphasises greens reward play from a particular side of the fairway,” Clayton wrote in his masterplan for the course.
“We have no affection for greens surrounded by long rough because it does not promote the use of a variety of shots around the green. The thicker the grass the greater the inevitability that all the shots are played with a lofted wedge and whilst that is the way of televised golf in America, it is not that way the play around the greens is organised on the best British and Australian courses.”
Clayton’s work – completed in 2009 – brought a new lease of life to The Lakes, especially to the front nine holes, which were always criticised for not being anywhere near as good as the spectacular back nine. The gap between the two nines had closed significantly and Clayton’s incarnation elevated The Lakes to a new level. In the years since, The Lakes has been ranked in the nation’s 20 best courses.
This year, The Lakes was ranked No.16 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses, with judges enthusing about Clayton’s design and superb playing surfaces.
“The incredible presentation of the kikuyu fairways by course superintendent, Anthony Mills, and his team lets Clayton’s design sing,” judge Scott Warren noted.
Fellow judge Adrian Logue observed: “It took Clayton’s renovation of The Lakes to peel back decades of over-grassing and tree planting to remind everyone that Sydney has its own tremendous sand-based precinct for championship golf. The back nine featuring the titular lakes provides possibly the most fun sequence of holes in Australian golf.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Having seen and played the course long before and after Clayton’s work, my definite preference is for the layout that presents today.
As mentioned, the most dramatic changes were made to the front nine, which features seven holes reached via a tunnel, under the Eastern Distributor motorway, from near the 1st green to the 2nd tee.
When you reach this area of the course, you are left without any doubt of what lies beneath the well-manicured fairways and greens. There’s sand and more sand.
“It’s a lovely sandy site … sand as deep as you can go,” Clayton says. “The routing of the holes under the bridge was brilliant in a relatively small space and, now, I think those holes are probably the best run of holes on the course.”
The most striking change, for the good, came at the 2nd. It has been shortened and changed from a par-5 back to a par-4 of 400 metres from the tips. Now, longer hitters will be able to hit their drives up the rise and earn a clear view of the surface of the green as well as the flag.
“The back nine featuring the titular lakes provides possibly the most fun sequence of holes in Australian golf.” – Top-100 ranking judge, Adrian Logue
The fairway has been widened (it’s almost impossible to miss the fairway left). Those players who position themselves well away from the wasteland flanking the right edge of the short grass, will be faced with a longer shot to the green but they will be approaching on a good angle as the green sits diagonally from left-to-right. A deep swale short of the putting surface protects the right half of the green – the narrowest and most difficult part of the green to access.
Clearing extraneous vegetation also gave rise to a wonderful par-3, which is now rated one of the best in the country. The 160-metre 7th hole was once surrounded by various trees and lomandra plants, especially around the tee, isolating it from its golfing surrounds. Clayton felt the hole needed to be open and uncluttered and in exposing the sandy waste and dunes between tee and green, while creating a green with interesting slopes and pin positions, turned a rock into a diamond.
There are many highlights of the back nine, starting with the short par-4 10th, which can be played so many ways depending on the wind direction.
Then there are the three par-5s – the 528-metre 11th, the 502-metre 14th and the 454-metre 17th. All three offer the chance of a birdie, or even an eagle, in the right conditions and by taking a risk from the tee. The drives on all three must skirt a hazard to shorten the hole and bring the green in range for the second shot. It is a huge risk as some of the world’s best players have found a 10, 11, or 12 can be just as easily scored on these holes as a birdie or par. This is fairly typical of many holes on the new Clayton-designed Lakes layout.
If you hadn’t guessed it by now, I love The Lakes. The memories of witnessing great players tread its fairways are vivid. And the days spent trying desperately to emulate their shots and strategies are always good ones.
LOCATION: Cnr King St and Vernon Ave, Eastlakes, NSW, 2018.
CONTACT: (02) 9669 1311.
DESIGNERS: Eric Apperly & Tom Howard (1928); Bruce Devlin & Robert Von Hagge (1970); Mike Clayton Golf Design (2009).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass (greens), kikuyu (fairways).
GENERAL MANAGER: Andrew Kirkman.
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Anthony Mills.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Paul Sainsbury (Director of Golf); Charles Kares (teaching professional).
GREEN FEES: The Lakes is a private member’s club. But some Mondays and Thursdays the club has one tee time each day for a non-member to have a game. $250 if you are a member of an Australian golf club, $400 if you are not. For bookings email the club:
MEMBERSHIPS: The Lakes has a diverse membership with more than a quarter of the membership being aged under 40. There is a relaxed and progressive culture at the club, which now has a growing waiting list for memberships.
FACILITIES: The Lakes offers a world-class golfing experience in a relaxed and friendly environment. The Golf Academy at The Lakes boasts one of the premier indoor teaching studios and practice precincts in Australia. Situated at the footstep of the clubhouse, the $550,000 state-of-the art facility boasts cutting-edge technology.
The teaching facility features an indoor putting studio, as well as two identical hitting bays where students can hit from indoors out on to a full-length driving range.
The Lakes recently completed a $650,000 redevelopment of the practice precinct, ensuring members are provided with the best practice facilities available. The Lakes is a ‘golfers’ golf club and testing your game day-in and day-out on a championship course requires preparation and practice.
The practice precinct has been built with a design concept that mirrors that of the golf course, and therefore enables members and guests to get a feel for the challenges that the course will present to them before they hit the 1st tee. The practice precinct features a 270-metre practice fairway, short-game chipping area and practice bunker as well as a huge putting green.