Mike Cocking, OCCM lead architect for the Peninsula Kingswood redevelopment, looks at some of the key design elements that have transformed the North and South courses into some of the best on hte Melbourne Sandbelt.
Few cities in the world can boast a greater concentration of world-class golf than Melbourne. More specifically, the little pocket of land in the southeast we know as the Sandbelt. This gently undulating sandy strip of ground is the perfect environment for great golf and at the southern tip of this region lies Peninsula Kingswood. Peninsula Kingswood is the first of its kind in Australia – the merger of two proud, established golf clubs, Peninsula Country Golf Club and Kingswood Golf Club, each a century old.
The two clubs started discussions around a possible merger a few years prior to formally announcing it in September 2013. Cleverly, both clubs were able to recognise the pattern moving forward – slowly dwindling memberships, increasing maintenance costs and, in the case of Kingswood, several boundary problems. All of this in a highly competitive environment where other Sandbelt clubs had significantly higher operational costs which allowed for better course conditions. As difficult as the decision was, the two clubs felt a secure future lay in a merger.
My first meeting with the club and talks around a possible redevelopment started back in 2013 with a coffee and Peter Sweeney, Kingswood’s then president. At that point the works were really only focusing on a new irrigation system and possibly a handful of tees, but the more often we met and talked, the more we realised this wasn’t really going to get the job done.
My own history with Peninsula started back in 1992 when I joined as a 15-year-old. Coming from a simple clay-based country course where water was in short supply, fairways were a mixed bag of grasses and there were only a scattering of bunkers, Peninsula felt like Augusta National at the time.
While both North and South courses were very good, neither had quite lived up to their potential. The land the courses are laid out over rivals the best on the Sandbelt so why couldn’t the courses be in same conversation too? Fundamentally there was also an issue in that the course at Kingswood was consistently in better condition than either course at Peninsula, so when the concept of all golfers from both clubs coming to the Frankston was mooted it meant the course conditioning needed to improve.
The primary aim was to create a true Sandbelt experience. Tight firm fairway turf and, most importantly, firm and fast greens and this became the main focus of the early phase of the redevelopment. Of course, as we worked through the process it became clear there were other areas requiring improvement and by this stage the merger had been approved and a good budget was available for the development. From there the scope continued to morph and rather than just focusing on improving conditioning, as we moved into construction the club had less attachment to what had previously existed and instead started to ponder what was possible.
I clearly remember a Board inspection we had about six months into the project to look at progress on holes 11 to 17 on the South, which were tackled first. To that point we’d been pretty faithful to the original masterplan. But the second the group saw the new greens and bunkers, the more open landscape and, in particular, the putting surfaces, the gloves came off. Their comment was, “Just make it as good as it can be… we’re not coming back for a second go!” So from that point onwards each hole was looked at with fresh eyes and the question asked if there was anything we could do to improve it? In most cases there was.
This wasn’t to say we were trying to change the style of the course. Instead, it was about making the very best version of Peninsula Kingswood. We wanted the courses to be in the same conversation as Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria and Metropolitan. Not unique, so much as taking the best parts of all those courses and adapting them to the Frankston site.
Sandbelt golf is known the world over for its fabulous bunkering, the quality of the green complexes and the timeless strategy of the holes. Fairways are wide and easy to hit, but greens are well bunkered and angled to favour play from a specific part of the fairway. Usually right where you need to play from there is a bunker, so to gain the best angle you need to play close to trouble. Play away from the hazard and the shot to the green becomes more difficult.
When the greens are firm and fast, the rewards for being in the right position (and the penalty for being in the wrong position) are amplified. This simple strategy is at the heart of most of our best holes around Melbourne and is clearly evident on the new North and South courses.
The greens on the Peninsula courses had never quite performed to the same standard as those closer to Melbourne, or, even next door for that matter at Long Island, who week-in week-out had some of the best putting surfaces going around.
The Peninsula greens had been constructed using a mixture of techniques and were of varying ages… old push ups, new push ups, old USGA style greens and 10-15-year-old USGA greens. Despite several attempts to create a pure bentgrass surface, all had become a mixture of Poa annua and bentgrass and generally incapable of providing the firm, lightening quick surfaces we were hoping for.
An old antiquated irrigation system and use of treated effluent water significantly hindered the greens performance. So as part of the redevelopment a new state-of-the-art irrigation system was installed on both courses along with a separate, cleaner water supply to the greens.
Working closely with agronomic consultant John Neylan, we explored using a different construction technique to that which had been predominately used around Melbourne as a way of getting a firmer surface. For many years we, along with a number of course superintendents who we work with, had become disillusioned by the USGA construction method and wanted to get back to something more closely resembling a push up green and using the finer native type soils.
While the process was complex and required importing sand due to the quantities required, we essentially created a modified California method, which worked on attaining at least one-metre of sand under each green – 500mm native and 500mm imported. While unlikely to regularly run water, we also installed sub-surface drainage as a precautionary measure. The result has been a set of greens capable of providing greens as firm as any course in the country, creating that wooden-like thud when the putter or ball hits the surface.
As the project was gaining momentum and construction was looming, Glenn Stuart joined the team as director of courses and we started to explore options for grasses. He was particularly impressed by Pure Distinction which we had used a few years prior at Royal Canberra and we also liked how it played and how it looked, with the lighter colour and fine texture a nice contrast to the Wintergreen fairways. It has been an impressive grass and most first-time visitors it’s the main talking point, but few understand that it’s the combination of the grass and construction technique which is proving to be so successful (see John Neylan’s article for more on the science behind the greens profile and grass selection).
While the original plan didn’t include a complete rework of tees, it’s a great example of extra works being added ‘while the hood’s up’. The original plan had just a few extra tees built here and there to add some variety, but once the project was in full swing we quickly realised that it would be easier and ensure a better product if every tee was reconstructed.
We have always liked free-form style tees, with Kingston Heath having some of the best examples, so this meant we had a chance to create a consistent look across the two courses. We have also often championed the use of short grass to link tees into the previous fairway or green surround to create a seamless link between holes and rebuilding the tees meant we could achieve this.
While there was a mixture of bunker styles across the property and a few fundamental issues such as not enough sand, poor drainage and accessibility difficulties, one of the biggest issues was their scale. My OCCM colleague Ashley Mead and I had looked closely at the size and shape of the bunkers and compared them to the best examples of bunkers on the Sandbelt – Kingston Heath, Royal Melbourne, Victoria, Metropolitan and Woodlands. Not only were they inferior from a shaping point of view, but the scale was all wrong.
One of the great illusions at Royal Melbourne is the relationship between the greens and bunkers. Most (incorrectly) think that Royal Melbourne has enormous greens, but they’re actually all pretty standard in size. The illusion comes with the expansive surrounds, particularly the bunkering which helps give the greens their incredible scale. This was something we were keen to replicate with the redesign, to the point where we filled our construction office with aerials from all the best green complexes around Melbourne.
As mentioned earlier, once the project was underway and holes were closed, the Board were less fussed about retaining them in their current state and simply wanted the best possible result. This meant we were able to review not just the size or shape of bunkers, but their strategic influence and where they were positioned.
So basically, we could start with a blank canvas and build the best version of each hole that we could. Whether it changed a lot from was previously there didn’t matter anymore. This was a key moment with the project which gave us as designers total freedom and ultimately has led to a far more successful outcome than if we’d been hamstrung by what the plan indicated.
An old plan of the original 18-hole course shows a number of creek lines running through the property. Almost every hollow or low point was at some point a stream, but over the proceeding 80 years they had almost all been piped and filled. While there were a few creeks running through the South course, they weren’t in great condition and had become difficult to maintain, impossible to play out of and at times resembled a more of a drain.
How the creeks evolved and helped give the South Course its look and feel is really a good example of how the creative process worked with the club and the license they gave us to expand on the original concept.
We were talking with a local stonemason about an idea we had to make the creeks look like they were older, more rugged, almost like an old ruin and at the same time help structurally retain their sides. All this came from a photo of the 13th at Augusta National, where rockwork helps retain the banks just in front of the green. It’s a view that no-one ever sees on the TV broadcast, but an obscure photo became the basis for the creek concept at PKCGC.
The first section of rockwork was used on the 12th South tee complex, one of the first holes to be built. The steep ground suggested a retaining wall of sorts would help maximise tee space and the beautiful stonework was an instant hit with the Board. The stonemasons loved the work too as the rugged character we were after was totally different to their work in the residential market where straight lines were more important.
From this sprang the idea of a new creek just in front of the tee, uncovering one of the original creeks and this too became a hit with the club. As the project grew, more and more opportunities presented themselves to expand on the creek concept beyond what we had originally designed – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10 South and even a touch on 17 North.
The Frankston site is a big property to look after. At almost 350 acres, it’s two-and-a-half times the size of Kingston Heath, yet for many years was maintained with roughly the same number of staff. Over the years the areas off the fairways became neglected and while there are some fantastic examples of remnant vegetation, they didn’t have the time or resources to manage anything not directly in the line of play. As a result, weeds and introduced plants had taken over in many places.
As a general rule we try and stay faithful to the indigenous vegetation on the site. Not only do the plants and trees tend to do their best in an environment they’ve adapted to over thousands of years, but by remaining faithful to local flora it helps give a golf course a better sense of place and ensures they have a unique look and feel.
Early on we were keen to try and return as much of the site to its original state as possible, almost taking the vegetation back to the way it must have looked prior to the course being built. This meant removing a lot of the non-indigenous trees and shrubs plus some large-scale slashing and burning of weed infested areas.
To offset the removal, we also planned some fairly significant revegetation – particularly on the South course where we wanted to create more of a Sandbelt experience than a parkland one. This meant propagating and planting many hundreds of thousands of indigenous grasses and heathland plants.
After completing our overall vegetation plan, we engaged the services of Jeff Yugovic who is one of the most knowledge ecologists in the country when it comes to Sandbelt vegetation. With the use of geological and historical vegetation mapping and many hours in the field, we established the original 11 EVCs (Ecological Vegetation Classes) which exist on the site. This became the blueprint for our revegetation and by overlaying our plans on his we could establish exactly what should be planted where and to what densities.
While the intention was never to create two distinctly different designs, the nature of the site suggested that the North would always feel a little different to the South. The North, playing over sandier and more undulating ground, with perhaps the best examples of heathland vegetation of any course in Melbourne, was always intended to be a pure Sandbelt experience. Firm and fast, with tilted greens, expansive bunkers, wide fairways and roughs featuring that distinctive combination of sand, native grasses and heathland vegetation that the region is known for.
Since the original Peninsula course was developed into a 36-hole facility in the late 1960s, the South course was always regarded as the longer, more difficult test. Built over flatter ground than the North, its open, more manicured look often had it labelled (incorrectly) as a parkland.
The new design looks to capture its Sandbelt origins. Greens and bunkers were built in a style and scale which closer matched its more famous neighbours, reworked bunkering and green design putting more of a premium on positioning from the tee. Vegetation was removed to open up views across the course and many thousands of plants and grasses added to complement bunkers and tee carries. Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the new design, has been opening up of the original creek lines, which proliferated the site and now form a key part of the design on at least half a dozen holes.
We’re often asked about the opportunities for a Composite Course and there are some really good possibilities. Perhaps, though, there are too many, with up to 20 different possibilities at last count! My favourite includes a finish around the clubhouse with the 18S, 1S, 17N and 18N as the finish. The difficulty of course is that you can’t cherry pick the best holes on the property and turn them into a cohesive 18-hole layout so there are always some compromises.
The Melbourne Sandbelt hasn’t seen a project of this scale since the 1920s and, quite probably, we’re unlikely to ever again. In some ways we’ve put into four years what many other clubs have had decades to implement and refine.
Given the scale of the works, we ended up with a very large team involved with the project including our own staff, plus contractors and ground staff. This included our own shapers (Jason McCarthy and Nick Henry), project manager (Rob Swift) and up to seven PKCGC groundstaff who worked under OCCM to assist with the construction works. On top of this core group we had consultants John Neylan (agronomy), Paul Jones and Alister Mackie (irrigation) and Jeff Yugovic (ecology), plus contractors including Creteprint (cart paths), Superior Green (irrigation), Earthworks (SJM and DWE) and stonemasons Brad Bannan and Cam Freeden.
At the very start of the project we discussed what the goal should be for the redevelopment. Everyone had their own idea of what success would look like – is it a high ranking, financial success, member desirability? I guess I thought that rather than focusing on specific numbers, long-term success would come if, at the end of the day, the two courses were in the same conversation as the best on the Sandbelt. Whether one is better than the other is almost irrelevant. Everyone will have their favourite, but at least if you’re in the conversation I thought everything else should fall into place. So far that seems to be the case.
While the results thus far have been very satisfying, there are still improvements to be made. It’s important to always be looking to improve the product and we’re part of the long-term plan to continually refine and improve all facets of the courses. This is perhaps the most exciting part for us. While it’s lovely to hear the compliments now, we’re excited to think just how good the product could be with a few growing seasons under the belt.
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.