In September 2013, Peninsula CGC and Kingswood GC became the first private golf clubs in Australia to merge. It was bold move on many fronts and the resultant course redevelopment of the Peninsula site’s North and South courses even more so. Across a series of five main articles and numerous breakouts, ATM takes an in-depth look behind the $12 million course redevelopment and the many facets which have gone into the rise of Peninsula Kingswood Country Golf Club.
Glenn Stuart can clearly recall when he ‘knew’. He was eight-years-old, divotting tees during the school holidays at Leongatha Golf Club in Gippsland, Victoria. He was hooked. He was intrigued and fascinated by the golf course and its surrounds – the turf, the vegetation and everything that went into presenting it.
Fast forward four years and Stuart’s family had relocated to Kingston Beach just south of Hobart, Tasmania. Stuart’s passion had only continued to grow and even in his early teenage years he was cutting the greens at Kingston Beach Golf Club with triplex mowers and doing other course maintenance tasks that a lad his age probably shouldn’t be doing – spreading fertiliser, renovating greens, cutting roughs. He did it for nix and loved it.
A few more years passed, by which time the family had returned to Melbourne. It was the start of 1984 and Stuart, now 17 and itching for a golf course apprenticeship, took on a six-month role at Kingswood Golf Club offered by then superintendent John Sloan moving fairway sprinklers and support for greens night-watering programmes. He rode his bike to and from work in Dingley every day from Glen Waverley and would pull hoses and sprinklers around the course from 7pm to 3am.
Then one day came the moment he had waited for – he was called in by then superintendent Nick Rennison and offered an apprenticeship. Rennison proved an amazing mentor for the young Stuart who would go on to spend five-and-a-half-years at Kingswood, which at the time had some of the best conditioned playing surfaces in Melbourne. It was one of the first courses to start the process of converting cool-season mix fairways across to warm-season couchgrass and Stuart fondly recalls sitting atop the sprigging machine watching on enthralled. The course also was leading a charge to manage pure bentgrass greens as well.
A few more years on and Stuart struck gold – his first superintendent role. Only 22 at the time, he was initially offered the assistant’s role at Long Island Country Club, with the plan to take over from retiring superintendent Bill Lunney after 12 months. That turned in to just two weeks after Lunney had a blazing row with the committee and his retirement was, well, fast-tracked. As superintendent, Stuart would work closely with the club’s turf consultant John Sloan who he credits with taking his skills to the next level.
All of a sudden Stuart’s career started to fly. Eight years in charge at Long Island was followed by 14 very successful years at Woodlands. Then, in 2009, when Richard Forsyth was announced as the new superintendent of Royal Melbourne, vacating a long and storied tenure at Metropolitan, Stuart headed an elite field and got the nod as Forsyth’s successor.
Metro was a dream job and one Stuart could see himself in for a long time. It was an extremely professional and progressive club that supported their employees and Stuart would help play a role in strategic planning for future course improvement plan works as well as hosting the 2014 Australian Masters to great acclaim. But after seven years there, while on a boat cruise with the family in Noumea shortly after that tournament, a role would materialise that would change everything again.
In September 2013 Peninsula Country Golf Club and Kingswood Golf Club bit the bullet and announced they would become the first two private golf clubs in Australia to merge. It was huge news for the industry and raised a multitude of questions about how it would actually transpire. The plan was to sell off the Kingswood site for residential development, which would be used to fund the redevelopment of Peninsula’s 36-hole facility. The big question mark was how do you marry two clubs, their cultures and their people?
It was in early 2015 that the newly created ‘Peninsula Kingswood Country Golf Club’ (PKCGC) placed an ad for a ‘director of courses’ on the AGCSA website. Knowing what was happening with the merger and intrigued by the opportunities that it afforded, Stuart found himself entertaining the thought of ‘what if’ after an approach was made. While extremely happy at Metropolitan, the more he did his due diligence on the PKCGC role, the more he saw it as one of the biggest opportunities of his career and in fact a real career defining superintendent role. And he took it.
Given his background as an apprentice at Kingswood and his time spent over the fence at Long Island, Stuart’s arrival at PKCGC in July 2015 was a homecoming of sorts. Yet when he walked through the PKCGC gates that winter, not even he could have ever envisaged what would eventually unfold over the next four years.
What was initially a project to improve playing conditions, upgrade an antiquated irrigation system and essentially complete a masterplan the club started 12 years earlier, turned into perhaps the biggest golf course redevelopment project in Australia’s history. Every green, bunker and tee across the North and South courses would be redesigned or rebuilt, fairways reshaped and re-grassed, creeks and water bodies added, a state-of-the-art irrigation system installed, cart paths built, drainage installed, extensive revegetation carried out and a new maintenance facility erected… the list runs to pages.
At times it has been overwhelming, relentless and challenging, but after four years, Stuart’s dream and that of all at the club and those involved in the project, has finally been realised. In the first week of September 2019, almost six years after the merger decision was announced, the very last PKCGC green – 10 South – was opened for play, signalling the end of a mammoth construction phase. It was a watershed moment for Stuart and his team (see more on the crew, page 18), and the whole club, and it signalled the start of a new chapter in the club’s young but already lively history.
“I knew it was going to be a big project, but I don’t think anyone quite realised how big it would turn out,” reflects Stuart. “If people saw what I walked into here, a lot would have walked straight back out. The project was three months along at that point and a lot of work had been done on drainage, rough shaping and vegetation. The site was raw, it was wet, the soil not what you expect on a Sandbelt site and the magnitude of the job just smacked you in the face straight away.
“And it only got bigger as we went along. It was such a multi-faceted project. It was overwhelming and unrelenting on so many different levels. There was one deadline after another and it was all-encompassing for everyone involved. Many things challenged us along the way – staff, equipment, ground conditions, the ever-changing nature and evolution of the project – but I look at what is out there now and what we have achieved and I think how fortunate am I to have been involved in such a project.
“From a young age I had always dreamed or wanted to be superintendent of Royal Melbourne Golf Club. That was my dream job, but I reckon this project has arguably given me more than what a Royal Melbourne could have offered. It has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
The decision taken by Peninsula and Kingswood to merge was extremely bold. The process was by no means seamless and it required some very hard decisions to be made. As anyone who has been intimately involved with the project will tell you, it has been an emotionally-charged atmosphere at times and Stuart has been one of those who has had to make some very hard but necessary calls. It has also required a lot of thinking outside the box, taking some calculated risks and challenging conventions.
Perhaps the boldest decision of many that Stuart has made as part of the project, came within the few months of him arriving. In addition to the not so insignificant tasks of getting his head around managing two sites, formulating a team and redesigning a maintenance facility, grassing strategies for the new North and South courses had to be determined. The project was already three months in and greens were soon to be shaped.
The existing greens were a mix of A4 bentgrass and Poa annua. The fairways on the South were 70 per cent Wintergreen and 30 per cent a mix of Santa Ana and common couch, while the North Course was Legend or common couchgrass. The fairways were a relatively straightforward decision – Wintergreen couchgrass – but with the greens there was a mindset of persisting with A4. Given that it hadn’t lived up to expectations in the past, Stuart was quick to question the strategy.
“I thought to myself, the club has been really bold to merge and bold to select the architects quickly to get the project underway, is there an opportunity here to be bold in how we grass the property as well,” explains Stuart. “We sat down as a collective and came up with what we thought would be the best way forward – Wintergreen couchgrass across all fairways and go to another level of bentgrass on the greens. Everyone agreed so we started to pursue other options.”
At that time, two new bentgrasses had pricked the attention of Stuart – Pure Distinction (Tee-2-Green) and Tyee (Seed Research of Oregon). In April 2014, consultant John Neylan embarked on some trials funded by Heritage Seeds (see more on these trials page 34) looking at the performance of some of their newer varieties, among them Pure Distinction. Through discussions with Stuart, Neylan was asked to provide a report on Pure Distinction as a potential option. Referencing both the independent and commercial trials conducted at Keysborough, in addition to researching NTEP data and anecdotal evidence from US superintendents, Neylan presented his report in August 2015. The verdict… it ticked a lot of boxes, but it was untried in Australia.
Stuart too did his own investigations. He visited the Keysborough site and pulled plugs to examine parameters such as organic matter accumulation, density and susceptibility to Poa annua and fungal pathogen diseases. Some of the other plots had Poa through them, but not Pure Distinction. He also took a trip to Royal Canberra Golf Club which at that time was midway through its redevelopment and had chosen Pure Distinction for its greens. Jumping off the plane in Canberra in the middle of winter, it was -7oC degrees and Royal Canberra was covered in frost. Despite that, upon inspecting the onsite Pure Distinction nursery he was blown away by the quality. More boxes ticked.
From that visit Stuart had a square metre of Pure Distinction nursery turf transported to Melbourne and together with Tyee, which was still in the discussion at this stage, put plugs of each on the best and worst areas of the North Course greens (1 and 17) and beside some of the best examples of the existing A4 to see how they’d perform. The Pure Distinction outperformed the others in all situations and Stuart started telling himself “it seemed the perfect solution”.
Once confident in his own mind that it was something that could handle all sorts of conditions, Stuart was back on a plane up to Royal Canberra to look at the grass, which by this time had been maturing well across their greens. It looked impressive. He revisited the nursery green again, in the ground since 2013, and it too had only gotten better.
Stuart continued to pour over data from the US-based NTEP trials, in particular those sites that had similar climatic conditions to Melbourne. He also spoke with multiple US superintendents that had been managing Pure Distinction. Despite trying to find faults, it was at the top of the chart for just about everything he desired – wear tolerance, recovery, winter growth, leaf fineness, density and drought tolerance. The only thing that was concerning was its susceptibility to dollar spot, but it was the only negative in a long list of positives. He also learned of an incident at the Keysborough trial site where the irrigation had failed for two nights and the plots had dried out substantially; the first grass to bounce back after a lick of water… Pure Distinction.
With his mind effectively made up, Stuart took the plugs out of the North greens, put them in a box and took them with him to a committee meeting in August. At that meeting Stuart made his recommendation to move away from A4 and go with Pure Distinction and backed that up with the mountain of evidence he had accumulated and that was available to him at the time. But before he asked the committee to make their decision, he recommended that the club’s CEO and committee visit Royal Canberra with him and the course architects to see it for themselves. They did and they were sold too.
“All the jigsaw pieces just came together,” says Stuart. “I couldn’t find enough fault not to go with Pure Distinction. It’s lime green colour can divide some people and I did ‘um and ah’ a bit early, but it has worked in our favour and provides a great contrast with the Wintergreen fairways and is well suited as a Sandbelt greens appearance.
“The final piece that got me over the line was speaking to the breeders in the US about its parentage and US superintendents who had had it in the ground for more than five years. One of the things they had experienced was its performance with minimal inputs, improvement with age and ability to tolerate herbicide applications. That on top of all its other qualities. It had everything we were looking for.
“The only thing we risked was what it would do once it had been in the ground under our maintenance and in Melbourne’s climate and how it would perform under traffic. But it came back to being bold – the club was bold to merge, bold with its design intent, bold with its overall improvement approach. But if you really look at it, given that it ticked all the boxes, it really was quite a conservative decision in the end.”
At the same time as the discussion around bentgrass varieties was happening, a lot of work was also being conducted on the best greens profile. Between Stuart, Neylan and OCCM lead architect Mike Cocking, there was a desire to move away from USGA-spec greens and have a profile that would mimic the qualities of the native push-up sands famed on the Melbourne Sandbelt. Extensive research and investigation were undertaken (see page 30) and ultimately a modified Californian profile using a manufactured sand was used with the Pure Distinction on top.
In November 2015, the first greens on the South Course – 11, 16 and 17 were seeded with Pure Distinction at 1kg/100m2. A pre-seeder was added in with the seed and within 5-6 days the first shoots of germination started to appear. With a three-month window to get them into play, Stuart and his team pushed them hard, applying organic and synthetic-based fertilisers to help grow that grass as it started to mature. On day 19 the greens received their first mow and with favourable weather conditions persisting, they could have been in play within eight weeks according to Stuart, such was the growth rate.
Because they had been pushed hard to meet a deadline, they became quite puffy, so Stuart had to start a pretty heavy topdressing programme. First lesson learnt – the grass doesn’t need to be pushed that hard, it’s aggressive enough in its own right. From there they dropped all the synthetic type fertilisers and transferred across to natural products like fish emulsions, seaweed extract and compost teas, which have continued to be staples of the nutrition programme. (As an aside, Stuart has forged close relationships with some key plant pathologists and soil biologists over the past decade and was keen to incorporate soil biological and biodynamic inputs into the PKCGC green profiles as part of an environmentally sustainable approach).
“Quite often with these grasses you think they are too aggressive and get too thatchy,” comments Stuart. “As time has gone on, we have been able to manipulate our way through that and got to the point now where those things aren’t a concern at all. In fact, those concerns have been turned into a positive for us.
“We were dusting every green at about week three just to make sure that we began immediate dilution of any organic matter accumulation if it was to occur and that really helped the surface firmness as well. We found ourselves not really growing that much OM at all. We didn’t touch growth regulators at this point and just let the greens tick over on their own as we had to move on to other areas of the redevelopment.
“One thing we didn’t know was how they were going to cope. I mean, they just looked so different from the older style bents due to that lime green colour and you questioned yourself, ‘Are they healthy?’ One thing that we did like right from the get go was that you could manage them being quite dry. If the greens did dry out that bit more you could put a splash of water on them and they responded really quickly. We learnt very quickly that you can back right off on the inputs. They can handle a lot less water – the less the better – and the more they mature the better they are becoming.
“Nearly four years on now there’s a minimal level of water or nutrition that goes on the greens which is an amazing result and one we had really hoped for when we selected this grass and greens profile. We wanted greens that were hard and fast and symbolic of the Melbourne Sandbelt. We’ve got a bentgrass that has minimal inputs with an amazing surface, that recovers really well from wear and tear and has good heat and cold tolerance. Everything we looked at in those trials has come to fruition. It seems to suit the environment and our management style well, as well as the profile which was a critical part of the project.
“The response we have got from the members has been incredible too, but what is exciting for us as a team is now that all the construction has finished, we can start to really fine-tune them. I’m looking forward to a regular dusting and growth regulator programme to see what level we can get the Pure Distinction to. We regularly test for soil deficiencies, moisture, speed and firmness as well as check clippings levels after every cut. These facts and extracted detail will form part of our strategic and deliberate approach to future maintenance regimes. It’s been an amazing grass so far and certainly one of the better decisions we’ve made during this project.”
The grassing is just one of many aspects which makes the PKCGC redevelopment so fascinating to track now and in the years to come. Certainly from a golf course construction, management and agronomic perspective, it has been intensely watched on by the industry and has created widespread discussion. Stuart acknowledges the level of interest has been high and that many question whether what has been created at PKCGC can be sustained into the future.
His counter to that is simple – come down and have a look. Look at what has gone on at PKCGC, understand the rigorous processes that have been undertaken to get to this point and the many lessons that have been learned – both good and bad – along the way. Stuart is under no illusions that time will ultimately tell whether it all pans out, but he is extremely confident he knows what will happen.
“It will be an amazing facility for years to come,” assures Stuart. “It’s a very unique project and I’m sure it has opened up a lot of eyes to the possibilities that come with doing things a little differently. It shows what can be done if you are bold, look at things holistically and embrace change.
“I have been involved in so many new things at PK during this project that were all new experiences and many that I had limited experience in. And the areas that I did have experience with, I’ve been able to use that to make an impact with this project. A lot of people have been involved in this project and what has been really satisfying to see is the amazing experience and skills they have got out of it. I think our industry will only be wealthier for the experience that these guys have been exposed to here.
“I feel so privileged to have been chosen for my role here. I clearly recall the initial meeting between myself and the club’s employment consultant and thereafter at the time with the then two general managers Heath Wilson and Gary Richardson. ‘We have a little redevelopment project down the road that we would like you to consider assisting us with’ was their wording at the time. I’m not sure where they ever thought it was little project. Then a meeting with the presidents Peter Sweeney and Jerry Ryan whose continued support throughout this very challenging project has been nothing short of exceptional. Those gentlemen have been so instrumental in the success of this ‘large not small’ project.
“Current day CEO Heath and I share a strong healthy relationship and often shake our head as to how many really tough challenges we faced throughout the project. Above all though, the greatest satisfaction is now seeing the enjoyment of the members. Some were very torn and emotionally challenged by the merger and there was a heartache across the two sites to come together. Now they can proudly say they’re a member of Peninsula Kingswood. We promised them a lot and we had to deliver the vision that the club had. And I think what we have delivered has exceeded that in our members eyes which makes you very proud.”
Words: Brett Robinson
Photos: PKCGC/Gary Lisbon
Originally published in Volume 21.5 (Sept-Oct 2019) Australian Turfgrass Management Journal. To subscribe to the journal click here.