Little more than 18 months ago this Townsville golf course was on its last legs. But a new owner, new name, hard work and a vision to make the layout one of North Queensland’s finest has it heading in the right direction once more.
PGA Professional Matthew Duke couldn’t believe what he was seeing when he returned to The Willows Golf Course late last year.
Having worked at the Townsville club for five years from 2006, he had seen the layout at its very best.
In January 2010, the course made its first appearance in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses ranking, debuting at No.94. It was a regular venue for Tour events during the 2000s, having hosted the PGA Tour of Australasia’s Queensland Masters and then the Legends Tour, with the likes of Peter Senior, Rodger Davis, Bob Shearer and Wayne Grady all teeing it up.
But after nearly seven years of the ownership changing hands twice and administrators being involved, the course had hit rock bottom by mid-2017.
Bunkers were left to grow over with weeds and eventually disappeared completely. The greens, once some of the best putting surfaces to be found in North Queensland, were reduced to patches of grass among vast areas of dirt and weeds. The fairways were even worse, while the rough was just left to grow, across many parts of the property, out of the control. Areas around the clubhouse and out on the course, were littered with rubbish and building materials. Golfers, understandably, abandoned The Willows in droves.
“It was heartbreaking. The place had descended into rubble,” Duke said. “It was hard to believe how far it had declined. It was on its knees.”
Thankfully, all that turmoil is now in the past with the course now moving forward under a new owner and a new name – Tropics Golf Club.
Sydney-based developer James Chrisofidellis bought the course in June 2017 and his team spent the next five months working on a plan to revive the layout. In January this year, that plan was put into action with the owner firstly securing two million litres of recycled effluent water every day for the next 10 years.
Then the clean-up began.
Extensive flood mitigation work was carried out. The irrigation was repaired and every bunker on the course was reclaimed, rebuilt with new drainage and new sand. The five greens in the worst condition were resurfaced with Bermuda TifEagle, and the remaining 13 greens will soon undergo a conversion from Tifdwarf to TifEagle.
This month marks the next stage of what promises to be an exciting future for Tropics. Graham Marsh Golf Design was commissioned earlier this year to come up with a masterplan for the property. Chief designer David Ireland has visited the course twice recently and work is set to start on putting the masterplan into play.
Overseeing much of the work will be an experienced ground staff led by course superintendent Brett Barsby, who has previously worked at Royal Queensland Golf Club and the world-famous Pinehurst Resort in the United States, and Malcolm Ollard, who joins the team after being the superintendent at Cairns’ Paradise Palms.
Since taking over ownership, Chrisofidellis has injected $1.5 million into the resurrection of the course and facilities with results, in such a short period of time, that are astounding.
“Chrisofidellis has injected $1.5 million into the resurrection of the course and facilities with results, in such a short period of time, that are astounding.”
I visited Tropics last month to compile this story and after viewing photos of what had become of the layout, I ventured out onto the course and was impressed with how far the layout has come since January. The greens and fairways looked healthy and the renovated bunkering was excellent. Dozens of varieties of birdlife – including pelicans and red-tailed black cockatoos – have returned to enjoy the now cleared waterways.
With the exception of the four par-3s, Tropics does not have any straight holes, which makes it a challenge for the longer hitter who is forced into thinking strategically instead of blindly bombing away with the driver. Doglegs left and right feature throughout, with water and bunkers tightening the driving lines on several holes, and offer tremendous variety to players of all abilities so no round is ever boring.
For mine, the back nine offers the most enjoyable holes. The 343-metre dogleg left par-4 10th offers a taste of what lies ahead on the inward half. The tee shot must avoid three fairway bunkers to the right, while a lake flanking the left edge of the fairway is very much in play for any golfer who tries to shorten the hole with a drive skirting the water.
Arguably the most demanding holes at Tropics is the quartet of holes that close out the round.
The 315-metre par-4 15th is a gem that could entice longer hitters into risking all with their driver as they try and carry a meandering creek that cuts the fairway in two about 70 metres short of the putting surface. For the rest of us mere mortals a mid- or long-iron and wedge into the green is the recommended play.
Water also comes well into play on the next three holes. The 388-metre par-4 16th doglegs right and features out-of-bounds left so the preferred driving line is to skirt the water to the right. That said, it is a wide fairway – common to most of the par-4s and 5s at Tropics – threading between the trouble spots.
Even the bail out area on the next hole is generous in size. The 187-metre par-3 17th hole demands a tee shot to carry water all the way to the green that lies on the edge of the lake. A bunker long of the putting surface is there to catch the player who takes too much club to get over the water, so club selection here needs to be spot on.
The 470-metre par-5 18th hole is a very good finishing hole and always presents a dramatic end to a round. Long hitters can certainly reach the water-flanked green in two blows but it is still no guarantee of making a birdie on the subtle-sloping green.
How the Graham Marsh masterplan will change Tropics is yet to be revealed but the bones of a very good course – in terms of improving condition and enjoyable design – are already there.
LOCATION: 16 Nineteenth Ave, Kirwan, Townsville, Queensland.
CONTACT: (07) 4773 4777.
DESIGNERS: Original designer unknown (1981), Graham Papworth (2005), Graham Marsh Golf Design (ongoing).
SLOPE RATINGS: MEN: 130 (blue tees), 127 (white), 115 (yellow). WOMEN: 123 (red and yellow tees).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bermuda (fairways). Five greens have recently been replaced with Bermuda TifEagle, the remaining 13 greens are Bermuda Tifdwarf, soon to be replaced with TifEagle.
GREEN FEES: $28 (18 holes, Sunday-Friday); $32 (Saturday). Weekday special – unlimited golf with a twin share cart $32.50 per player.
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Brett Barsby.
PGA PROFESSIONALS: Matthew Duke, Stephen P. Oliver and looking for two more PGA professionals to grow with the team at Tropics Golf Club
MEMBERSHIP: Membership at Tropics Golf Club is limited to five- and seven-day memberships. For further information, email the club on email@example.com
LICENSED BAR & CAFÉ: Open seven days a week.
FUNCTION CENTRE: The club boasts a 140-seat function centre with elevated views of the golf course and is available seven days a week together with bar and commercial kitchen.
DRIVING RANGE: Over 350 metre long driving range together with practice chipping and putting facility.
GOLF ACADEMY: Multiple Australian PGA Professionals conducting golf lessons, clinics and on-course evaluations.