Years of tinkering saw this Melbourne Sandbelt gem lose much of its original spirit. Here’s how Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf Design restored the iconic Alex Russell layout to its former glory.
I will never forget my father’s midlife crisis. One day his run-of-the-mill Holden Commodore was parked in the driveway – and then it was gone, replaced by an ivory green 1966 Ford Mustang GT Coupe that was well past its glory days. The passenger door was badly dented, its interior smelt like cigarettes and the engine made an awful rattling sound. But he was smiling from ear-to-ear and was quick to explain the car was a classic. It just needed someone to help it rediscover its spirit.
I have developed a passion for restorations of all kinds ever since – from musical instruments to houses – so to receive an invitation to experience the refurbished course at Yarra Yarra Golf Club was, of course, an exciting prospect.
Yarra Yarra was founded more than 120 years ago in 1898. But its first 13 years were spent in Eaglemont and it was therefore named accordingly. It then moved to Rosanna in 1911 where it received its current title, before relocating 25 kilometres south to Bentleigh East in 1928.
The man commissioned to design the new course was Alex Russell, who was born in Geelong in 1892, studied at Cambridge and received the Military Cross in 1922. Two years later he won the Australian Open as an amateur. When world-acclaimed course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie visited Melbourne in 1926, Russell worked alongside the ‘Good Doctor’ in creating the West Course at Royal Melbourne before going on to design the East Course at the Black Rock club in 1932.
Russell’s design at Yarra Yarra – which was his first solo project – opened to glowing reviews in February 1929. Its fairways were wide, its greens large, and its bunkers blended naturally into the landscape. The holes flowed beautifully to create one of the best strategic challenges on the Sandbelt, and it stayed that way for decades. But more and more tweaks to the design by well-meaning committee members and overgrown vegetation eventually robbed the course of its unique identity.
Enter Tom Doak and the team at Renaissance Golf Design.
Yarra Yarra’s committee decided in October 2014 there were four key issues it needed to address: the course’s condition; maintaining and attracting new members; the course’s position in national rankings; and the development of a new masterplan after Martin Hawtree’s had been voted down.
The club’s committee – led by then-president David Blake – believed each of the aforementioned issues could be addressed by going back to the strategic intent of the original course Russell had gifted the club.
After a survey of members was conducted, the club put together a brief stating its intentions to restore the course and released an expression of interest before receiving around a dozen responses from different course architects.
“The thing that was really satisfying in the presentations from the short-listed architects is that all three of them – OCCM, Crafter + Mogford Golf Strategies and Renaissance – were telling us exactly the same thing,” Blake told Golf Australia magazine.
RIGHT: The long par-4 2nd has its original playing lines and tactical qualities restored. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.
“I think in a lot of ways, had we appointed any one of those three groups, we would’ve ended up with something that is substantially like what we now have. Whilst an important part of the restoration was to return the course to its proper standing, it was also about making the playing of golf, on our golf course, both challenging and fun.
“We wanted the members – and their guests – to enjoy the game and move away from this notion that the game needs to be penal. That was the key.”
Doak and design associate Brian Slawnik of Renaissance were eventually selected to complete the restoration and got to work in January 2018. The project lasted more than 24 months and was finished right before Victoria declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are some things that Brian Slawnik said that still resonate with me,” Blake explained when asked why Renaissance had earned the job over its well-respected competitors.
“One of them was: ‘I’m going to lift the covers off what you’ve got’. I’m not sure we really understood what that meant. But when he started in early 2018, he began with wholesale tree removal. What was most obvious was that you could see the land and it was like, ‘wow, I didn’t know that was there’.
“It’s all about seeing the rise and fall of the land and we’ve now got 50 percent more mown areas than we had prior to the renovation.”
All of that becomes immediately apparent as you walk from the iconic Spanish-style clubhouse to the 1st tee, which, after a reconfiguration of the opening six holes, is the old 6th hole.
“Slawnik’s idea to reconfigure the opening stretch of holes has proven to be a stroke of genius.”
The first thing any returning visitor will notice – apart from the obvious re-routing, which has moved the 6th and 5th holes to the start of the round – is the amount of trees that have been removed. There is now the feeling each hole is connected, while Russell’s magnificent bunkers and green complexes are highlighted so much better.
Slawnik’s idea to reconfigure the opening stretch of holes has proven to be a stroke of genius. The American reportedly ran the concept past Doak during the drafting stage, who responded by saying: “If you do that, you will probably have the best 2nd hole in the world.”
Doak was referring to what was originally the par-4 5th hole, which is, indeed, truly special. The 402-metre challenge begins with a blind, uphill tee shot, before moving past a memorable collection of bunkers in the shape of a four-leaf clover to a green with the clubhouse as a backdrop. Renaissance has removed stands of trees and thickets of ti-tree that bordered the fairway, effectively restoring original playing lines and reinstating the tactical qualities of the hole.
The first of Yarra Yarra’s quartet of terrific par-3s is now played as the 3rd hole – rather than the opener – and measures 203 metres from the tips. The hole remains relatively untouched from its days prior to the Renaissance renovation, however the bunkers short of the green have been moved back to their original site on the left and its new position in the routing allows it to shine in a different light.
While Slawnik was onsite throughout the duration of the restoration, Doak ensured he remained in constant contact and was there for the construction of five new greens, the first of which comes at the straightaway par-4 5th hole, which was originally the 3rd hole.
“The biggest changes are the five new greens Renaissance built – 5, 8, 10, 12 and the new 19th – they had the greatest impact. Prior to the renovation, those greens in particular had been tinkered with the most and lost much of the Russell identity,” Yarra Yarra Course Superintendent, Clint Raven, said.
“It’s mainly been about stripping everything back, clearing vegetation, highlighting the wonderful topography, letting the views speak for themselves and now having the clubhouse as a feature. But the major impact was those greens – and I think they nailed it.”
In addition to the new greens, Renaissance has clearly focussed on improving the walk-off areas between putting surfaces and tees, which have been significantly enhanced and help rounds develop an enjoyable rhythm.
This becomes apparent early in the round. But it is especially noticeable as you leave the undulating 5th green and approach the teeing area at the par-3 6th hole, which was formerly the 4th hole and at 121 metres is the shortest offering at Yarra Yarra.
The wide tee box allows the uphill one-shotter to play differently on a day-to-day basis – and despite being ranked the easiest hole on the card, it can quickly bare its teeth should you find one of the six bunkers surrounding the green.
While we’re on the topic of greens … Yarra Yarra has resisted the urge to convert its putting surfaces to Bentgrass like the majority of its Sandbelt siblings. Instead, Poa annua remains the turf of choice and continues to be presented in an exceptional manner.
The new multi-tiered green built at the par-5 8th hole almost resembles a fortune cookie with its slightly raised wings and elevated back section. You will need good fortune, too, in order to find the correct part of the putting surface and avoid hard-breaking knee tremblers. Like many of the greens at Yarra Yarra – and especially the newly built ones – you could enjoy hours of chipping and putting around this green site, which will likely herald its fair share of eagles, birdies, bogies and unmentionables.
The back nine features some truly special holes that have been showcased over the years at events like the Victorian Open (1959, 1967, 1973, 1977, 1985 and 1986) and Women’s Australian Open (1995 – 2002). But before we arrive at those gems, let’s focus on one of the more divisive holes of the layout.
The downhill par-4 10th isn’t the shortest two-shotter on the card at 305 metres – but it certainly plays that way and is driveable for longer hitters. Finding the correct part of the sloping fairway is crucial to avoid having a hanging lie into one of the newly built greens, one that has been described by members as an upturned saucepan.
The green, because of its size and shape, is certainly challenging to hit. But depending on the location of your second shot, you have the option of playing a full shot, knocking down a short iron or even putting between the valley and up the slope. Golf, at its core, should test the mind as much as anything else and the approach shot into 10, for mine, is an excellent example of that.
There is a genuine sense of excitement and anticipation as you move towards the superb par-3 11th hole. The great Peter Thomson once described the signature one-shotter as a “national treasure” – and rightly so. Very few alterations have been made here, although bunker edges have been reworked to mirror their original state after years of sand spray build-up.
Some of the key themes of the restoration process were to declutter the entire site, open gaps between the vegetation lining the holes and adjust mowing lines to fully engage with bunkers.
“I can imagine a few other clubs, who have seen the results here, going down the same path, making sure the vegetation is not the feature of their course. The land and the architecture of the course should always be the feature,” Raven explained.
Those principles are evident throughout the round at Yarra Yarra – but they were especially noticeable to me during the final six holes, including the par-4 13th. The hardest hole on the card is lengthy at 420 metres and requires two solid blows to find the sloping green in regulation, especially if a northerly wind is blowing.
The final par-3 deserves its place alongside the 2nd and 11th holes in terms of the best offerings at Yarra Yarra. The 15th, at 146 metres from the tips, completes an exceptional collection of one-shotters that vary in distance and demand. Its two-tiered green is guarded by five deep bunkers and the prevailing southerly winds place a premium on club choice. No matter what you score here, you will remember this hole.
In fact, that sentiment can probably be applied to any round of golf played at Yarra Yarra, which has recaptured much of its original spirit thanks to its Renaissance restoration.
LOCATION: Warrigal Road, Bentleigh East, Victoria.
CONTACT: (03) 9575 0595 (Pro Shop); (03) 9575 0575 (Clubhouse).
DESIGNERS: Alex Russell (1928); Martin Hawtree (2011); Tom Doak (ongoing).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Clint Raven.
PGA PROFESSIONALS: Andrew Bertram (Head Professional); Travis Carpenter; Jasmine Hobb.
PLAYING SURFACES: Couch/Santa Ana (fairways); Poa annua (greens).
GREEN FEES: Yarra Yarra Golf Club is a private members’ club. Members may invite guests to play on most days throughout the year. Members of reciprocal clubs have the ability to experience Yarra Yarra in accordance with agreements and playing rights.
Interstate and international guests are welcome at Yarra Yarra during select times throughout the year and may enquire directly with the club’s pro shop.
MEMBERSHIPS: Yarra Yarra is currently open for new members. Full membership gives you access to every aspect of the club. Adult, Young and Corporate membership options are also available. Details and fees can be found on the club’s website (listed above).
ACCOLADES: Yarra Yarra ranked No.32 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses in Australia in 2018. It was not considered in the 2020 ranking during its restoration.