It was a chilly autumn evening in 2015, yet there was a strange, aggressive heat in the air.
An inquisitive crowd of nervous Curlewis Golf Club members packed the Geelong West Town Hall as the fate of their beloved course hung in the balance.
The water recycling plant that had once seemed the club’s saviour, had become a financial millstone around the membership’s collective neck.
Without resolution, this little piece of golfing heaven on the Bellarine Peninsula had only days remaining before the bank padlocked its gates.
There were rumours swirling, including one of a last-minute pitch from nearby 13th Beach Golf Links, but the only defined option outside closure was an offer from Lyndsay and David Sharp to take over the course and its debts.
This wife-and-husband team – behind a growing and successful hospitality empire headlined by Jack Rabbit Vineyard – had preached the importance of a range of entertainment options as the key to the Bellarine’s prosperity as a holiday destination.
The club, they said, was to be a key plank in those plans.
Yet doubters remained.
Many in the crowd were once members of the fallen Geelong Golf Club. Geelong had its long history spectacularly destroyed by the combination of a controversial deal that ended with more than half the original course sold off as housing lots, then later a fire that gutted its vast memorabilia stocks.
That club’s ex-members had deep-seated fears of a repeat and no amount of logic, nor promises, would dissuade them.
Not even when the Sharps gave an ironclad guarantee the land would remain a golf course for a minimum of 10 years was the naysayers’ needle moved.
Most, including yours truly, took them at their word; besides, the alternatives were a mixture of bleak and none.
Several nights later, 78 percent of us – a bare three percent more than the minimum required by club constitution – voted to accept the Sharps’ offer.
“Lyndsay and I feel truly honoured and humbled by the faith Curlewis Golf Club members have shown in us to become the custodians of this very special course and club. We will not let you down,” David Sharp said after the ballot.
“We have made a sincere, serious commitment to Curlewis members and
the local community and we intend to ensure that this wonderful amenity is retained and enhanced as a premier 18-hole golf course now and into an energising and long-term future.”
History should now show that, in the intervening six years, truer words have rarely been uttered.
Sure, there were casualties.
A few old Geelong members shuffled off, unable to swallow their pride.
It was their loss.
The Sharps implemented new menus in the clubhouse, a funky new logo and new PR campaigns boasting “hip, green fun”. Critically, they dismissed the old-fashioned committee-run power bases.
Again, this was too much for some traditionalists who moved on as change gathered pace.
It was their loss, too.
Because that’s when things really started happening. Small items such as drainage improvements and uniformly rustic wooden course furniture soon became medium things such as employing Mike Clayton to establish a course master plan and a short game practice area.
These morphed into large things such as turning a tired and parched rivulet right of the par-5 14th hole into an attractive little lake with the removal of trees that gobbled water and threw so much shade that the right half of the fairway went from couch to rolled mud each winter.
Then, such seemingly large investments gave way to one of the great game-changers, not only for the club, but golf more broadly on the Bellarine.
The Range at Curlewis took a glorified paddock – a drive up a gravel road and fetch your own balls operation – and made it one of the most dynamic and visited golf centres in the land.
A two-tiered mini-golf course, a simulator, a conference room and a “baby” pro shop are just the beginning at The Range, also home to the region’s revolutionary Paragolfer, used by people with high-level spinal cord injuries, or anyone with mobility or stability issues to help them stay vertical to swing.
Curlewis’ resident professional Steve Brodie holds court in another short-game practice area and has access to 18 covered outdoor hitting bays, each with their own top-tracer screen to challenge yourself or track your progress as you fire at specific targets or through some footy goalposts.
But it’s the bar and restaurant that are the icing on an already sweet cake.
The Range has become a “go-to” destination on the Bellarine. It’s rare to be able to walk into a bay without a booking and absolutely common place for groups of work colleagues to take their first step towards golf together in these bays.
Most pleasing, though, is the strong female presence the facility has garnered; again it’s not uncommon for groups of beginner women to share the moment – not to mention a few bubbles – in bays akin to the seats around lanes at a bowling alley.
But don’t for a second think this meant a halt to improvements next door at the course proper. On the contrary, they’ve actually accelerated.
With an eye on opening up vistas between holes – and removal of water-sapping foliage – there have been major works on the right side of both the 10th and 12th fairways to create sandy waste areas that have sped up play appreciably.
Swales left of the 16th green and right of the 5th green have been removed in favour of smooth couch runoffs to the next tees, with both holes more playable as a result.
The par-4 5th hole also had some horrendously penal bracken removed in favour of an enormous bunker complex that’s a twist on the famous Church Pews of Oakmont Country Club in the United States.
The par-5 6th, long a point of contention for its length into the prevailing wind, had a new tee built to enable the second shot of most to be knocked further around the dogleg. But in the length’s stead – and in killing a potential future problem around drainage off a new road to the east – a new signature landmark for the 6th hole was created.
The mighty “Serpent” is a burn of sorts that winds its way from the high point left to the dam on the opposite side. Not only does it provide function and a visual break on a long hole, but at approximately 230 metres off the tee, it demands a tactical choice for bombers into the wind and decent knockers when they have a helping hand.
The next series of enormous changes are interwoven and have already been a couple of years in the making.
The plateau right of the driveway entrance – the location of the old 1st tee for those long-ago visitors – has been closed to golf and will soon become the base for a 60-room hotel complex and cart shed.
This has necessitated a reshaping of the 9th hole to a new green approximately 80 metres shorter than its forerunner, tucked up on to the hill that once would have been under the flight zone of drives off the 1st tee.
The 1st tee has moved further to the north, shortening the opening hole by approximately 100 metres and making it a testing par-4.
The former practice green area in front of the old clubhouse has been consumed by the new project and will ultimately move across the driveway overlooking the lake right of the 10th tee.
And yes, I wrote “old clubhouse” because that, too, has been bulldozed in favour of the Sharps’ biggest investment yet – a new facility that will house a restaurant and other state-of-the-art facilities and offer sweeping views of nearby Corio Bay and the You Yangs beyond.
Lyndsay Sharp – whose company also owns the adjacent Leura Park, along with nearby Jack Rabbit and Yes said the Seal wineries and the Flying Brick Cider Company – said the golf and hotel complex had become an important, even if unexpected, part of their plans
“We weren’t ever planning to purchase a golf course, but we did,” she said recently.
“But once we settled in to being its custodians, the concept of building accommodation was a logical, lateral progression.
“Golf is a popular sport and there is definitely demand for stay and play – as
well as to wine, dine and explore the region – on a number of levels and appealing to a broad demographic.”
She hoped providing accommodation would help attract and retain visitors to
“The accommodation is eco-friendly, contemporary, 4.5 star and designed for those seeking a more lux experience without smashing their budget … it’s for corporates, conferences, golf enthusiasts and those people seeking really nice, centrally located accommodation when visiting the region.”
It’s all more than enough to keep general manager Jamie Brigden extremely busy.
Brigden began within a week of The Range opening in early 2018 and has barely had time to scratch himself since.
“I’m certainly proud of what has been accomplished,” he said modestly.
“When I started, David and Lyndsay talked to me about grand plans and it can sometimes be hard to imagine everything (in concept phase).
“But now it’s there for all to see. Not only The Range and accommodation and clubhouse, but all the work around the course … it has just kept going.
“Now it’s all starting to come together, it’s a pretty serious investment they’ve made – not only in the club, but the whole region.
“It’s turned it into a destination, not only for Curlewis, but for all clubs on the Bellarine.
“We’ve really started to rival other destinations in Victoria as a package.”
A surge in membership has forced the club to cap its 7-day membership category as they became due this year.
It’s almost as if the Sharps have in mind their commitment to those long-term members, made long ago in Geelong West.
“With all the decisions, it’s always been at the forefront of our minds that members still come first,” Brigden said.
“We want to welcome as many visitors as we can, but we’ve made that call to guarantee access for our members to ensure they can play on Saturday, or whenever they want to.”
It has definitely been our gain.
LOCATION: 1345 Portarlington Rd, Curlewis, Victoria, 3222.
CONTACT: (03) 5251 1111.
DESIGNERS: Vern Morcom (1947), Kevin Hartley (1970s), Mike Clayton (2001 and ongoing).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass/Poa (greens), Santa Ana couch (tees), Common couch (fairways).
GREEN FEES: $60 (18 holes, weekdays), $70 (weekends).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Rob Bradley.
PGA PROFESSIONALS: Steve Brodie and Tom Jefferies.
MEMBERSHIPS: Curlewis has put seven- and six-day memberships (open to men and women) on hold to avoid oversubscription. Five-day and junior member categories remain open.
OTHER FACILITIES: The club has developed a state-of-the-art driving range, The 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.
A new clubhouse and accommodation overlooking the course is under construction and is due to open in March 2022.
ACCOLADES: Curlewis was ranked No.25 in Golf Australia magazine's Top-100 Public Access Courses for 2021 and No.49 in Golf Australia magazine's Top-100 Courses for 2022.