One of Australian golf’s highest-profile (but most-needed) redesigns is now complete for professionals and amateurs alike to savour, writes Steve Keipert
WORDS: STEVE KEIPERT PHOTOGRAPHY: BRENDAN JAMES
It’s been a mighty transformation for the championship course at RACV Royal Pines Resort these past couple of years, a nine-by-nine renovation of a golf course that was formerly little more than a pleasant walk on a flat, parkland site next to the Nerang River and in the shadows of an enviable resort complex.
The resort is still just as desirable, however now the 27-hole golf course is equally so, as witnessed at the Australian PGA Championship last December and, more recently, the RACV Ladies Masters last month. What was previously a course characterised by large, flat and relatively open greens – with bunkers to match – now has more firepower and architectural nuances. Graham Marsh undertook the job, one of the more high-responsibility projects in Australian golf in recent years given that the elite male and female professionals would compete on his course, and elevated what was a straightforward and largely uninteresting layout into one of the premier resort courses in the land.
And it was no easy task. The timeframe was tight, with work only able to begin once the girls had left town in February and needing to be complete by the time the boys lobbed in December. Both years of the redevelopment – 2014 for the front nine and last year for the inward half – saw the construction phase take place through the autumn and early part of winter before a growing-in period from late winter and throughout spring. The just-completed Gold nine was not played until the first players arrived for the PGA Championship practice rounds.
This split approach to the project also allowed Royal Pines to always have 18 holes open, the unworked nine pairing with the resort’s third nine across the road to give everyday golfers a full menu. But now the work is done and the place is flourishing in full once more, with a fully revitalised main course and sneaky-good third nine that ought to be played just as much as the tournament layout.
Royal Pines began life as a 27-hole resort in 1990 with the original course designed by Japanese course architect Tomojiro Maruyama. Six years later, a fourth nine was added to complete what became known as the West course. A further six years on and the West was closed, shrinking to nine holes again. Marsh’s design firm was engaged to pen that new nine on the western side of Ross St, which saw the three nines renamed as Aroona, Binnowee and Wangara. RACV purchased the resort in 2008 with a return to the Gold, Green and Blue names, the tournament layout comprising the Green and Gold nines.
Given his history with Royal Pines and his proven ability to transform less-than stellar sites into thriving courses, Marsh was a logical choice to perform the re-do, despite a wide net being cast across the golf-architecture fraternity. He openly stated a desire to “craft a design that would bring more of the field into contention” during the resort’s two annual professional tournaments, while retaining the inherent playability for the remaining 50 weeks of the year.
“Prior to construction commencing in 2013, my evaluation of the old Royal Pines layout was that it offered far too much advantage for the long hitters and precious little opportunity for the more competent ball-strikers to exhibit their skills,” Marsh said. “Quality shots were not rewarded and power hitting was being given a free pass. The excessive out-of-play shallow bunkering was the main culprit. Previously the course devoted 2.2 hectares to bunkers; the redesign reflects only 0.9ha of space to sand. Less than half, yet far more challenging for the skilled golfer.
“There is no denying in most sports that a talented, powerful person will always have the drop over one of equal talent but less power,” Marsh added. “In the modern world of professional golf this can translate into a distance advantage of upward of 50 metres on the tee ball alone. The Royal Pines redesign is an attempt to level the playing field.
“The redesign is by no means an attempt to take the long hitters out of the game. It is simply putting them on notice that to score well on Royal Pines they must show far more aptitude than in the past. They will always have an advantage but it will not be dictated by length alone.”
Certain elements of the original Green/Gold course Marsh could not alter. The site is still almost pancake-flat and the flow of the waterways within the course means there was little if any opportunity to re-route fairways. So instead the man who displayed savviness as a player drew upon that same quality once again as a designer, giving shape and far greater definition to the existing canvas and better utilising the natural features of the site. For instance, holes bordering the lakes now place the water more in play, such as the short par-4 8th, which presents far more options than its previous iteration did. Elsewhere, it’s the contours of the bunkers, the greens or both that trouble golfers’ grey matter. There are now as many humps and bumps as a classic links scape. In short, without drastically overhauling the routing, Marsh has allowed Royal Pines to flourish by reimagining its flat, featureless targets to reveal far more character.
Three holes on the Gold nine received special attention. The redesigned 13th (as it plays in tournaments) has a new back tee on the long par-4 that creates a far more awkward driving angle across the lake dominating the tee shot. Numerous players at the Australian PGA Championship rinsed their drives (some more than once), but it’s a tee that will see only occasional use as everyday golfers will usually be confined to the original tees, which are set closer to the adjoining houses to limit any impact on them.
The short 16th is a gem of a par-3 with a pond short and left of a green characterised by a tier that splits the high right side from the low left half. It is perhaps the prime example of the flair Marsh exposed from Royal Pines. The 18th was another hole to turn heads at the PGA. Fresh off a seven-hole play-off at the 2014 championship that dragged the outcome towards irrelevance due to the lacklustre green complex, competitors last December were instead greeted by a raised green with plenty of depth but little width, plus run-offs and sunken bunkers lurking beside it. For a 426-metre par-4, it is an ominous target whether there’s a professional trophy or merely a few dollars in side bets among resort golfers on the line.
However some restrictions remain, largely due to the dimensions and nature of the site. One example is the way the four par-5s all run across the same, central part of the property – the 3rd and 12th heading north and the 9th and 15th running south in four parallel, treelined green ribbons. Yet when you consider the original layout and the limitations Marsh faced, the renovated version is a sparkling design achievement – by all involved with the project.
“The past two years has been an unbelievable experience,” Royal Pines’ course superintendent Lincoln Coombes told the Australian Golf Course Superintendents Association ahead of the Australian PGA. “When you look at what’s happened here – a full 18-hole redevelopment and hosting two major PGA tournaments – it’s pretty special. It has been great to be a part of.”
And now we all get to be part of it, too.
LOCATION: Ross St, Benowa, Queensland.
CONTACT: 1800 886 880; (07) 5597 8700.
DESIGNERS: Tomojiro Maruyama (1990); Graham Marsh (2015).
SLOPE RATINGS: Men: 141/132/126/123; women: 133/124 (for Green/Gold course combination).
PLAYING SURFACES: Bermuda 328 (greens), Wintergreen couch (tees and fairways), Greenlees Park couch (rough).
COURSE SUPERINTENDENT: Lincoln Coombes.
PGA PROFESSIONALS: David Hogben, Mark Gibson, Loic Truet, Nancy Harvey and David Merriman.
GREEN FEES: $150. Discounts are offered to RACV auto club members ($87) and in-house guests ($98), as well as for the public after 1pm ($83) and after 2pm ($73).
MEMBERSHIPS: RACV Royal Pines Resort offers five- and seven-day unlimited golf memberships. Five-day memberships are $2,960, or $2,200 for Auto Club members; the seven-day fees are $3,700 and $2,775, respectively. Fees include the compulsory cart hire.
ACCOMMODATION: The five-star RACV Royal Pines Resort includes 333 rooms, plus award-winning restaurants and bars, a day spa, gymnasium, tennis courts, children’s playground, swimming pools plus conference and event spaces. Shuttle buses are available for guests five times daily to Broadbeach and Surfers Paradise.
CORPORATE GOLF: Royal Pines operates numerous corporate golf events throughout the year. Contact the resort for full details.
PACKAGES: The resort offers a wide range of options, including the Stay & Play package, which starts from $369 per night for two people and includes buffet breakfasts and 18 holes of golf.