All was tracking nicely for Townsville Golf Club at the start of 2019. It was the club’s 125th anniversary, five new Bob Harrison-designed holes were weeks away from opening and the club’s finances were looking up for the first time in a long while. Then came the floods…
Townsville Golf Club superintendent Jason Foster isn’t the sort of chap who minces words. He tells it like it is.
Take the post on his Facebook page from 2 February 2019, at the height of the devastating floods which were ripping through Townsville at the time. The post shows photos of Army personnel carriers and vehicles parked outside the front of his house in the suburb of Rosslea, rain pelting down and flood waters starting to inundate his street, one of the higher points in the area. Accompany the photos is Foster’s rather succinct assessment of the situation – “S**t is getting real now!”
Up until that point, Foster, along with the rest of Townsville’s 170,000-plus population, had watched on helplessly as the Ross River had slowly consumed the suburbs. Fed by record-breaking rains that had drenched the river’s 760 square kilometre catchment (nearly 1400mm over a 13-day period, including a single-day high of 216mm on 1 February), authorities had no choice but to open the spill gates at the Ross River Dam on the town’s outskirts.
At its peak, the height of the Ross River at the dam was 42.99 metres, smashing the previous record of 40.73m set in late March 2012. The dam reached a capacity of 244 per cent and when the spill gates were fully open around 1900 cubic metres of water a second was sent spewing downstream towards the city.
Townsville Golf Club, literally just 100m metres away from Foster’s back yard, and located right on a bend in the river, had started going under a few days earlier. No stranger to flood events – the course had been inundated in 2012 – Foster and his crew did what they could to prepare for it and then waited it out. But as soon as his house started to come under threat and the Army moved into his street, Foster knew this was no ordinary flood event.
Indeed, his ex-wife Cas and their kids Jacob and Ollie, who lived on the other side of the river, had already been evacuated, ferried to safety in the back of a dump truck that had to be towed out by a grader due to its high engine mount. Then news came through that workmate and course mechanic Craig Drennan had lost everything after a metre of water had gone through his house.
Foster started making preparations at his own place, putting things up high and waiting for the inevitable. Flood waters would cover his front and back yards, while the bottom two bedrooms had a small amount of water through them. Compared to many others around him Foster had dodged a bullet, but the same couldn’t be said for the golf course.
The start of 2019 was a period of great excitement and anticipation for Townsville Golf Club, its members and for Foster and his team. Recognised as the oldest in Queensland and the fourth oldest in the country, the club was celebrating its 125th anniversary. The club was also midway through a major course redevelopment under the auspices of course architect Bob Harrison.
Originally a 27-hole layout, the club had sold off nine holes for residential development to not only alleviate some financial hardship but to fund the revitalised 18-hole masterplan. The course redevelopment was planned over three stages – eight holes in the first stage and then two stages comprising five holes. The first stage was opened in February 2016 and throughout 2018 Sydney-based construction company Flemming Golf had returned to the site to complete new holes 1, 2, 9, 10, 18 as well as the practice fairway. Agonisingly, the club was just two weeks away from having those holes handed over when the floods hit.
Not surprisingly, those holes, which were nearest the river, were the worst affected. The 2nd green (see photo bottom of page 16) was completely washed away, prompting Foster to post on Facebook, “If anyone finds the 2nd green please return it to Townsville Golf Club”. Two other new greens – 1 and 10 – also suffered a similar fate, washed out down to the sub-base, as was the tee on the future 3rd hole which jutted out into the salt marshes. The two greens that weren’t washed away had silt deposits up to 30mm thick.
The lake beside the new 10th green almost tripled in size from the washout and water travelling through the area, while the fairway was reduced to an expanse of rock and sand. Strips of turf up to five metres long and two metres wide were rolled up like mattresses and deposited randomly about the place, while irrigation pipework and sprinklers across all the new holes were left high and dry out of the ground.
“Watching the flood waters gradually cover the course, there was little we could do,” recalls Foster, superintendent at the club since 2011. “We had plenty of warning, so we carried out our cyclone prep and then just watched on as the water levels rose higher and higher and higher. I’ve seen floods before up here and when I worked on the Gold Coast, but nothing like this.
“It was devastating to see. What made it harder to stomach was the course was in great condition before the floods. We were so close to having a full 18-hole layout back in play and the future was looking bright off course too.
“I’ve never seen greens and bunkers washed away like that before. The grass on those new holes wasn’t established well enough, so it had no chance of holding. We just shook our heads and knew we would have to start those holes all over again, but we couldn’t worry about them at the time. Our immediate priority was getting the other holes back in play, cleaning the greens off and clearing what debris we could. The club is such a big community asset. It employs 20-odd people and has over 1000 members, so it was important to get it back open as quickly as possible and to restore a bit of normality.”
Photos: Brett Robinson/Jason Foster
Originally published in Volume 21.6 (Nov-Dec 2019) Australian Turfgrass Management Journal.