It seems that every time Marc Leishman plays his way into contention in a tournament, his home town of Warrnambool, on Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast about three hours’ drive west of Melbourne, rates some kind of mention.
It’s safe to say the six-time PGA Tour winner has been the seaside town’s finest ambassador for the best part of a decade.
And, at the heart of it, is Warrnambool Golf Club, which is no longer the hidden gem it was 15 years ago when Leishman was just starting out in his professional career. Prior to that, of course, he was just the super-talented local kid who was always at the golf course, beating balls or playing holes with his dad, Paul. In fact, it was while playing alongside his father that Leishman won his first club championship, aged just 13.
It’s no exaggeration that he is Warrnambool Golf Club’s favourite son. Whenever he travels home from the States, he spends time with the members and always has some memorabilia to add to the club’s collection. It’s no wonder the club named the driveway to the clubhouse, Marc Leishman Drive.
While the Marc Leishman display in the clubhouse adds to any visit to Warrnambool, it is the course that will entertain and excite some 95 years after it was laid out.
Scotsman George Lowe Jnr came from a golfing family. His father – who was also a golf professional, clubmaker, greenkeeper and course architect – laid out the original course at Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St Annes. Lowe and his family emigrated to Australia before World War I and he later took up a position with Barwon Heads Golf Club where he assisted designer Victor East in creating the original layout there.
A handful of years later, Lowe found himself in deep conversation with some keen golfers from Warrnambool, who revealed their club had acquired some land and needed someone to design and build the new course.
RIGHT: The heart of Shipwreck Bend – the short par-4 5th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.
Lowe Jnr inspected the site in late 1926 and, on witnessing the rolling sandy terrain behind towering beachside dunes, he keenly accepted the task. Six holes were completed by the end of 1927, and a further three holes were added the following year. Another 30 years passed before Lowe’s plan for 18 holes on the site was realised.
In the late 1980s, Peter Thomson and Mike Wolveridge were commissioned to oversee design changes at Warrnambool, and that association with the firm, now known as TP Golf, remains. In recent years, they have advised on a raft of changes implemented by the course maintenance team and construction experts McMahons Services. All of which have significantly improved on Lowe’s original design.
"The work to clear scrub from sand dunes beside holes like the 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th has definitely enhanced the golfing experience here." – Top-100 judge, John Blackwell.
Easily the most visible change in recent years has been the clearing of vegetation to expose sandy wasteland on holes that were bound by thick seaside scrub and trees. A tree removal program has been successful in not only improving turf conditioning, it has opened up the playing lines and enhanced the playing experience.
These changes have played a major role in Warrnambool rising to No.40 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Public Access Courses in Australia ranking in 2021. A dozen years ago it was unranked and largely unknown for its quality outside Victoria.
“Warrnambool was the greatest eye-opener for me in the past two years of looking at courses,” Top-100 judge Phil Nicholls commented. “The setting is beautiful, the fairways and greens are immaculate, and Mother Nature absolutely guarantees no two rounds you play on this layout are ever going to be the same.”
Fellow Top-100 judge John Blackwell added: “The work to clear scrub from sand dunes beside holes like the 4th, 5th, 6th and 14th has definitely enhanced the golfing experience here. The exposed dunes not only look great, but you get a better view of your destination from the fairway.”
The reconstruction of some green complexes has also played its part in Warrnambool’s rise in the rankings. For example, the new green on the par-5 10th – completed five years ago – is like chalk and cheese compared with what it replaced. The new putting surface is almost double the size of the old one, which sloped dramatically from back to front and offered few usable pin positions. The new green is undulating but its size guarantees a greater variety of pin placements and changes the way you approach the green from one round to the next.
But it is the trio of holes starting at the short par-4 4th – known as Shipwreck Bend – that reign as arguably the finest to be found at Warrnambool.
Walking to the 4th tee you are greeted by an anchor (on loan from the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village) and a sign that reads: “Shipwreck Bend is a run of three very testing holes. Holes 4, 5 and 6 have wrecked many a good round of golf over the years.”
The first time I played Warrnambool in the early 2000s – before any of the course improvement programs had been set in place – I set out for my round in wind that would have blown the biggest of dogs of a chain. When I reached the 4th tee, the wind was howling hard off the right and slightly into my face, turning the 311-metre journey into a longer trek. But it was a much tighter hole back then, with trees and scrub encroaching down a dune almost to the edge of the fairway, and blocking out a view of the green from the right half of the fairway. I hit my blind 7-iron approach over the scrub towards the green, knowing full well I’d be lucky to see my ball again and I didn’t. Today, with much of the vegetation on the dune cleared away to expose a sandy wasteland, you can see the green from the tee and the hole is a much fairer proposition without being any less challenging.
The same can also be said for the 327-metre downhill par-4 5th. Some vegetation has been cleared and the fairway here is a little wider than it once was, but a dense wall of ti-tree can still be found by mis-hits right of the fairway. But you’re not really thinking about the ti-tree as you stand on the tee here, it’s more about taking in the ocean view beyond the bunkerless green and snaking fairway.
Shipwreck Bend’s final test is its longest. If you have played the previous two holes into the wind, you will play this 345-metre uphill dogleg right par-4 downwind, which presents a club selection challenge on the tee. The temptation here can be to hit driver over the edge of the partly-cleared dune on the right and chase your tee shot up close to the green. But you can run out of fairway to the left if you’re not precise with your execution.
RIGHT: Arguably Warrnambool's toughest test – the long dogleg left par-4 14th hole. PHOTO: Brendan James.
Shipwreck Bend is a wonderful stretch of holes. They’re fun, testing and completely different from one round to another. Here, you can grab a clutch of birdies one day and easily rack up some horrible numbers the next.
The first class on course experience will soon be enhanced off the course, with the club recently learning it would receive $2 million Federal Government funding towards its proposed clubhouse redevelopment.
Club Manager, Ashlee Scott, said the new clubhouse would be an integrated, purpose-built community space to be used by members, visitors and the community all year round.
“We believe that this project not only offers great benefit for our members and its visitors but it will increase the profile of our beautiful region and establishes a sustainable and bright future for our club,” she said.
“There is no doubt that the current clubhouse is well over due for an upgrade. But most importantly, it no longer serves the priorities of our growing club and fails to meet visitor and community expectations. Our community deserves amazing facilities and the new clubhouse will be a fantastic asset in attracting and retaining members, hosting events and celebrations and increasing golf tourism.”
The new clubhouse will have an open plan layout and include a golf shop,
lounge area, memorabilia display, multi-purpose room, community meeting room, change rooms and lockers, accessible toilets, parent facilities and provisions for a future virtual golf tuition area and cart storage facilities.
George Lowe Jnr could hardly have imagined what he was starting back nearly a century ago.
LOCATION: Younger Street, Warrnambool, Victoria, 3280.
CONTACT: (03) 5562 2108 (Clubhouse); (03) 5562 8528 (Pro Shop).
DESIGNERS: George Lowe Jnr (1928); TP Golf (ongoing).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Brenton Clarke.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Trent Wieland.
PLAYING SURFACES: Kikuyu, couch, fescue and ryegrass (fairways and tees); Bentgrass/Poa annua (greens).
GREEN FEES: $49 (18 holes); $30 (9 holes). $15 (juniors under 18).
MEMBERSHIPS: Full seven-day memberships cost $1,048 and provide playing rights seven days per week. Six-day memberships are $852. For full membership categories, and their prices, visit the club’s website.
STAY & PLAY: The club has stay and play partnerships with several leading hotels, apartments and holiday parks in Warrnambool.
ACCOLADES: Ranked No.40 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Public Access Courses for 2021; Ranked No.82 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses for 2022.