THE WANDERING GOLFER: BRENDAN MOLONEY
IT WAS probably no coincidence Melbourne recently lost its title of the “world’s most liveable city” to Vienna as another golf course closed.
For someone who has lived in this town for the best part of 70 years, I regarded this dubious tag with deep suspicion because what was a marvellous town in the 1950s, when it hosted the Olympic Games, has gone steadily downhill since.
The public course in question is Elsternwick, about eight kilometres south of the CBD, which was shut down by the Bayside City Council on June 30. Rather than lament the loss of a layout, which has provided enjoyment and healthy exercise since 1909, the city fathers (possibly some mothers as well) celebrated it with a public sausage sizzle.
Then they followed up with this breath-taking statement: “Late 2018/19 – master planning process commences to develop concept plans for a passive open space/environmentallyfocussed reserve in the area of Elsternwick Park North.” In a city where the nett immigration gain annually is put at 100,000 or more, they have removed a course without having a clue what they are going to do with the land, or when.
Among the many things that got Melbourne its “liveable” rating, with Sydney and Adelaide also in the top 10, was the profusion and variety of its golf courses. Public tracks like Elsternwick aren’t as appreciated as those on the Sandbelt but they have contributed greatly to the development of the game and the reputation of our players around the world.
In Melbourne, the Royal Park course was where the late and great Peter Thomson learnt to play and Wattle Park was the golfing nursery of David Graham. Between them they won seven major championships. Such courses, where anyone can play, are precious and should be protected, not shut down to provide places where people take their dogs to defecate.
One can only hope that the Bayside Council will at least recognise the history that it erased, although this is likely wishful thinking. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that Melbourne councils are anti-golf and eager to aid speculators rezone land for lucrative housing and commercial developments.
Central Park in suburban Malvern East contains part of the original 1891 Royal Melbourne course, home of Australian golf. It has a plaque to Herb Elliott who used to train there when setting world records for running the mile in the 1950s but efforts to get golf recognised as well by the council have fallen on deaf ears.
A plaque at Elsternwick could inform visitors that the club was formed on May 16, 1909, by a group of golfers in the pub which has stood next door since 1854. After the sad experience of photographing a dead golf course, I retired there for lunch and because of my advanced years was able to enjoy the “seniors special” of a bowl of hearty soup, bread roll and a chicken parmigiana for the bargain price of $12. One of the early publicans was Henry Figsby Young, who purchased the famous nude painting of Chloe by Jules Joseph Lefebvre which now graces Young & Jackson’s pub in the city.
These early golfers got out in 1925 when they were again shafted, to use an old golfing term, by the council which raised the rent from 30 to 100 pounds for the 40 hectare site. These members formed the Kingston Heath Golf Club and the suburb of Cheltenham got one of the world’s great courses. In researching its centenary history, the Heath managed to track down an eyewitness to these events.
He was Ted Oakley, who played at both Elsternwick and Cheltenham, the son of Percy Oakley, a club member and architect who designed the original clubhouse in 1909.
“I used to caddie for my father and started playing at Elsternwick at the age of nine,” recalled the man who was 10 at the time of the move. “My father was a good player, about a 10 to 12 handicap. Elsternwick was 18 holes in those days. It played across what we used to call a creek but it was really a drain. It was a good course with a nice little weatherboard clubhouse that my father built for them.
“When they moved from there to here, there was a lot of contention among the club members who wanted a great big brick clubhouse. Dutton Green, a solicitor, my father, the architect, and Sloan Morpeth (former New Zealand Open champion and noted golf administrator) said they were going to keep their original clubhouse and they won. They put it on a dray pulled by horses and brought it here. I saw them doing it. I actually saw it leave the property and head off down the road. They only needed two horses to pull the dray. It was not a big building, only three rooms. And it was timber, so it was light. It was an exciting thing for a boy. My father came down with it to supervise the unloading.”
The Bayside Council – and their counterparts in the Vienna Rathaus – should dwell on this when Kingston Heath hosts the Australian Open again in 2020.