Date: February 14, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

THE HOST: Kooyonga back on world stage

Kooyonga is preening herself this week, for the first time in ages.

The dear, old gem of the Adelaide sandbelt has always been a national golfing treasure, host of five men’s Australian Opens and the club of the late Sir Donald Bradman, no less. The Don lived on the other side of town but played his golf at Kooyonga for years, winning four pennant titles with the club.

But it has not hosted a national Open for more than 40 years, since 1972, and after the SA Open died a sorry death a few years ago, no big tournament of any description has made its way here.

As tends to happen, people forget how good the golf course actually is.

Which is a big part of what this week is about for the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open.

“It showcases us,’’ said club general manager Brett Lewis. “We haven’t had a major event for a long while. We were starved of major events. We felt like we had a really great golf course that was underutilised on the national stage.’’

Kooyonga dates to 1923 and a gentleman named HC (Cargie) Rymill, who was passing the land on a tram enroute to Henley Beach, saw a ‘for sale’ sign, and bought the land with the intent of building a golf course.

Nine holes were opened in 1923 and by 1924 the full 18 were in play on swampy, sandy land with scarcely any trees. Rymill named the club ‘Kooyonga’ after his home on the beach front, but apparently under the mistaken belief that its meaning in indigenous language was ‘plenty of sand and water’.

Regardless, the course and club is held in much affection in the golfing community as it approaches its centenary year. In the most recent ‘Golf Digest’ ranking of Australian courses it came in at No. 26; after this week, it will almost certainly shoot up those ladders, problematic as they are.

Kooyonga is a par-72, and Golf Australia’s championships director Trevor Herden has pushed the tees back from the usual women’s tee boxes so as to test the professionals here for the Open at 6034 metres. The signature hole is probably the eighth, a 363-metre par-four that rolls uphill and turns left, played back into the prevailing south-easterly wind. But there are some beautiful holes, not least the par-four 18th with its severely undulating green.

Although the routing is the same as Rymill created, the course has been tweaked over the years, most recently by the well-known architect Neil Crafter, who has a strong family history at Kooyonga. Crafter’s father Brian was an assistant pro at Kooyonga before he went on into television commentary. Neil Crafter himself is a lifelong member who represented the club in competition, and his sister Jane, a longtime professional and current television commentator, has also been a member since her teens.

There is a burn running through the course, Scottish style, and a pond beside the 17th green, but not a lot of water to negotiate. One quirk of the layout is the double fairway on the fourth and eighth holes, a la the Old Course at St Andrews. The whole course is built on rolling sand dunes, magnificent golf land.

The fairways are pristine, right up with what you would see at Melbourne’s famously well-conditioned Metropolitan Golf Club, for instance. “A lot of people say that,’’ said Lewis. “Metro’s a reciprocal club of ours, a lot of members travel over there, and it’s always been a benchmark for us. We’re always looking at how they present the course and we try to lift to the same standard. We think we’ve got something equal to that.’’

Neil Crafter reshaped some of the greens and cleared out the vegetation that was starting to encroach on the course; the result is the Mackenzie-like feeling that you can blast away from the tee but you need to find the right angle to attack the greens, a little like Royal Melbourne … or Augusta National. “It’s a second-shot golf course,’’ said Jane Crafter, who is in Adelaide this week commentating for ABC television’s coverage of the Open. “I love this place and I just feel so proud of it. I’m so glad that the changes Neil has made have been bedded down now, the members understand what he was doing and accept it, and everyone’s going to see the benefits now.’’

Kooyonga is the third of the big Adelaide clubs to host the Open since Golf Australia cut its deal with the South Australian Government in 2016. Aside from putting itself on the world stage, the club felt that hosting a women’s Open would help with another pressing problem: the decline in female membership.

“We’ve seen a decline over the past 10 years, not to a concerning level, but to a level where if we didn’t keep reinventing we would find ourselves to be well below the national standards of, say, 25 percent,’’ said Lewis. “We’re 22 percent at the moment and we don’t want that to dip any further.’’

Kooyonga’s staff are inundated with work this week, but scarcely complaining. “It’s exciting,’’ said Lewis, who previously ran Mt Lawley in Perth and before that worked at The Grange, down the road. “That’s part of the reason we got involved. It gets you to challenge your own team and not just present the course but an event.

“We’ve usually got 50 people employed but this week we’ll have around 100. Senior management will be working 12 and 15-hour days. But they’re doing it with smiles on their faces because they want to be involved. It gives them a buzz, and the volunteers are the same.’’