In a pocket of Sydney that’s dominated by private clubs and short courses, North Ryde punches well above its weight, writes Steve Keipert.
WORDS: STEVE KEIPERT PHOTOGRAPHY: BRENDAN JAMES
A lot can happen to a golf course in 8,550 days. This writer’s only previous tour of North Ryde Golf Club came in a humiliating junior pennants match played on a rainy day in November 1992 that resulted in a 7&5 flogging. That lopsided scoreline not only did nothing for our team, it also prevented me from playing the last five holes.
The fact it took me nearly 23-and-a-half years to return can’t be explained by lack of opportunity, for there’s no earthly reason for Sydneysiders to not play at least the occasional 18 holes at North Ryde. Even in a metropolis as sprawling as the harbour city, this public layout is accessible to all in every sense. Ryde is a central hub within the city and North Ryde Golf Club sits only a few minutes’ drive away. Even in a place so often mired in traffic snarls, Sydney’s major arterial roads all point there in some fashion.
They also point to a course and club that knows its own identity. A solid Group 2 course on a compact site, North Ryde is a diminutive 5,307-metre, par-69 layout (4,960 metres, par-70 for women) that won’t attract much fanfare when it comes to golf course rankings but it will when it comes to consistency, popularity and delivering an experience that keeps drawing golfers back. Despite sitting on a 30-hectare site hemmed in by a main road, a school and a hospital, North Ryde is a scenic sanctuary amid the hustle and bustle of modern life.
And the place is looking better than ever. Redesign work carried out by local course architect James Wilcher between 2013 and 2015 saw the reconstruction of four greens (at the 1st, 4th, 9th and 17th holes) plus their greenside bunkers. Simultaneously, the expansion of three dams and the addition of another took place to not only bring these water hazards more into play but to also provide valuable water storage. Meanwhile, the fill created allowed the club to soften the depth of the gully that cuts through the course. About 200 trees were removed but as many as four times that number were planted. Indeed, North Ryde is a veritable arboretum where shots are constantly shaped around and turned between stands of magnificent flourishing trees.
One tree is famously no longer there. The old 1st hole used to feature an enormous gum tree that stood 45 metres tall and broad like a burly security guard protecting half of the green. Such was its scale, tee shots positioned in the middle of the fairway often yielded no direct line to some flags. That tree is gone but the new 1st is just as intriguing. It’s not often you can say this about a 345-metre par-4: it might be a 6-iron off the tee, it might be a driver – or it could be anything in between. The reason for the dispersion of options is the way one of the new dams pinches into the left-side of the fairway to create an incredibly narrow landing zone for longer clubs. You can challenge the water but must be highly accurate; the better play might be to start the round with a mid- to long iron even if that means another is required to find the green.
More redesign work will take place in the coming years and, based on the first four holes, will serve to strengthen the total layout when it does happen. All of which boosts the golf offering in an enclave of private clubs and short courses. Oddly, despite its central location, there are no other full-scale, public-access golf courses near North Ryde. Private clubs Killara, Concord, Avondale and Ryde-Parramatta aren’t far away, as is the par-3-dominated Chatswood Golf Club and several other short courses, but for a full-length public layout, Strathfield Golf Club is more than 11 kilometres away across the Parramatta River.
The bulk of the challenge lies on North Ryde’s front nine, which is 169 metres longer than the back yet the par is a stroke lower. A quartet of tough par-4s defines the opening half: the aforementioned 1st hole with its new water hazard, plus the 4th, 5th and 7th holes. The 4th descends a steep hill but is narrow with a tee set obliquely to the straight fairway. Water sits left of the green, which partially wraps around the pond. The 371-metre 5th plays longer as it climbs the same hillside and is best attacked from the right side of the fairway. The granddaddy of them all is the index-1 7th, which stretches 416 metres and has busy Lane Cove Rd along the left side. It plays downhill towards a water hazard designed to catch the second shots of those who miss the fairway before rising to a green benched into the sloping ground. It’s difficult to imagine any golfer making par there and walking away unsatisfied.
The serpentine par-5 9th, with its rebuilt green complex, concludes the front nine before the shorter, tighter second side unfolds. Several holes have changed direction through the years but the inward half is still characterised by short par-4s (including three measuring less than 300 metres), a trio of short- to mid-length par-3s and two tempting par-5s. Aside from the par-3s, almost all the back-nine holes bend at least once around tall timber and beckon big hitters into cutting off distance with some daring drives over or around corners. You get the feeling the design intention is to ask golfers to hang on for the first eight holes then unleash over the last ten.
The course is compact and you feel a sense of the small space via the closely set fairways and the proximity of neighbouring greens and tees. However, the design is shrewd and cleverly utilises every useable piece of the property. It also plays longer than its yardage partly due to the number of drives that land on upslopes and minimise roll. The bunkering is far from overdone and all are craftily positioned to the point that every pot plays a strategic role. One oddity to North Ryde is the retention of two grass types in the fairways. On most holes, kikuyu dominates before couch takes over nearer the green surrounds, although how far out that transition occurs varies from hole to hole. It’s a simple adjustment but one that many golfers might not be used to making from shot to shot.
Armed with a fleet of 35 carts that cater for golf days of up to 70 players, North Ryde is a haven for social clubs and corporate golf events alike. It’s perfectly located for Sydney’s various business districts and offers a course that novice players find user-friendly while expert golfers see it as anything but a pushover. Social players in particular rave about the golf course and the total package, yet members retain access to the course for part of each day. The result is a busy place with a thriving energy that golfers clearly enjoy.
Oh, and as for those last five holes I missed playing in ’92? Well, here’s a challenge for you next time you tackle North Ryde. On my return trip I played alongside the club’s trainee professional, Alex Emmerson, who birdied the last eight holes in a row in astonishing fashion. A finish like that would surely have dug me out of a deep matchplay hole all those years ago.
LOCATION: Twin Rd, North Ryde, Sydney NSW.
CONTACT: (02) 9887 4422.
DESIGNERS: Unknown (1949); James Wilcher (2015).
SLOPE RATINGS: Men: 129/122/118; women: 124/122.
PLAYING SURFACES: Bentgrass (greens), couch (tees), kikuyu and couch (fairways and rough).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Ron Duffy.
PGA PROFESSIONAL: Martin Lyne.
GREEN FEES: $40 (weekdays), $50 (weekends and public holidays).
MEMBERSHIP: A handful of full memberships are currently available, with a joining fee of $1,650 and annual dues of $1,850 (inclusive of a $200 bar levy). Other categories include ‘Restricted’, for 25- to 44-year-old men and women, colt, junior and cadet, plus family and partner memberships. Visit the website for more details.
RECIPROCAL CLUBS: Belmont, Cowra (NSW) and Box Hill (Victoria).
FACILITIES: The club is a popular function venue, catering for weddings, dinners, wakes, business seminars and more. The modern, stylish clubhouse includes a bistro, restaurant, bar, auditorium and three function rooms.
CORPORATE GOLF: North Ryde hosts numerous corporate golf days annually for a range of clientele and fields of up to 120 players. The club has the staff to run the day entirely or simply help manage it. Optional extras include clinics and the club’s professionals joining groups as they play. See the website for additional information.