CLUB OF THE MONTH: Southern Golf Club – the quiet achiever – Inside Golf
Course Reviews · Victoria
NESTLED in the heart of the famous sandbelt, Southern Golf Club’s general manager, Brad Robb, understands the club is surrounded by a very competitive region of golf courses.
“We have 15 other courses within 10 kilometres of us as the crow flies and if you increase that to 15 kilometres, the number increases to 21. And three of those have 36 holes,” Brad says.
“That’s a lot of golf courses.”
So Southern is happy to fly under the radar and be the quiet achiever while others in the area battle it out for bragging rights.
“We try and not get too involved with what’s going on around us,” Robb added. “You can get easily distracted with what everyone else is doing and take your eyes off what you need to do. It isn’t that hard.
“Members want a golf course that is in excellent condition that they can play on as much as possible, a happy and vibrant club and good value for money.
“Golf is an expensive sport but in comparison to the rest of the world, we know it’s well priced in Australia. But we can’t benchmark our facilities off courses in America or Singapore or even Sydney for that matter. We are in the south-east of Melbourne with a lot of other clubs around us.”
Without putting too fine a point on it, Southern does not want to get caught up in what its astute GM refers to as “an arms race in the region”.
“Clubs are spending big money on their courses to enhance them and try to improve their ranking. The reality is, once we all do it, not much will actually change from a ranking point of view. We will all end up back in the same position on the list.”
That’s not to say that Southern is not a club always striving to be the best it can. But it refuses to get sucked down an unnecessary and impractical vortex by trying to compete with its neighbours.
The club has a brilliant masterplan in place by leading architects Ogilvy, Cocking, Mead (OCM) and will continue to chip away at it within its budgetary parameters.
“You certainly need a plan for the future and to continually invest in course improvements. But whether or not we are going to make massive changes in a short space of time remains to be seen. I think not,” Robb says.
Membership at Southern is thriving and time sheets are busy. Put simply, members just love playing golf at Southern.
“So that would suggest that the product is working and you don’t need to make big changes just because everyone else is,” Robb says.
“I joked with someone recently that we could turn the place upside down and embark on a huge restoration of the course and we will shift up significantly in the Australia wide rankings.
“But in terms of what is around us, we might move up one or two spots. We have world-class golf courses within a stone’s throw – Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan, Yarra Yarra, Commonwealth, the list goes on.
“It will be hard to get ahead of such amazing courses that have such strong architecture and rich history. Just look at Peninsula-Kingswood, I think it is the best facility in Australia, hands down. Both courses are world class but they weren’t able to get ahead of Royal Melbourne in the rankings. It’s all subjective anyway. We will just keep doing what we are doing.”
Mind you, Southern has hardly been sitting on its hands.
The club has come a long way in the past 15 years. Robb started there in 2007 as assistant manager and at the time it had huge challenges.
“We were in debt up to our eyeballs, interest rates were high and golf was going through a downturn,” he said. “It was a challenging time. We had an annual interest bill on the clubhouse loan of $350,000.
“We had a golf course that was tired and the fairways and greens weren’t in great condition. Then we had the drought years in 2007-’08 which made everything worse.
“The club was in a precarious position. It was a real fork in the road moment.”
Some bold decisions were made in the latter part of that decade.
The club bought a verti-drain and a new tractor and cored and sanded every fairway. It had wanted to scarify them but too much thatch had built up on them.
“We needed to get some roots down into the profile before we were able to scarify them.
“That was a massive project … coring and sanding over 16 hectares of fairways in-house took a lot of time. But it turned them around. Our fairways are now as good as you will see anywhere,” Robb says with pride.
“Santa Ana is such a great grass. I know there are some other blends being used at the moment. But I don’t know why club’s move away from Santa Ana. It is like carpet at its best. It’s easy to manage and can handle drought. We now scarify nine holes each year and punch solid holes into the other nine at the same time to open them up. It works well.
“We had a superintendent come and visit us a few years ago – I won’t name the club – but it was a well-known tier one club not far from here. He wanted to pick our brain and look at our renovation practices and said these were the best fairways in Melbourne. We thought that was pretty cool.”
The fairways weren’t the only issue at Southern.
Older greens had been starved of proper renovation for years and they got that bad that the club cored them 12 days before hosting Division 1 pennant. The GM says he remembers it as an extremely low point for the club.
“It was rock bottom for us,” he said.
But rather than wallow in self-pity, another bold call was made to prevent the greens deteriorating even further.
“We had no choice. We couldn’t wait another day, the greens were going backwards before our eyes,” Robb says recalling Southern’s nadir.
“Those years were tough. We had to do two big renovations a year, coring, verti-draining and a heavy top dress. The members weren’t happy but we had no choice.”
Southern’s management was almost at the point of digging up the putting surfaces and starting again from scratch. But the club just didn’t have the finances to do it.
Finally, the club is back to one full renovation a year complemented by monthly dusting, grooming and keeping the soil chemistry right.
But while the course improved dramatically, a new set of challenges was emerging. The financial pressures of the early 2000s came back to bite Southern.
“We had a ‘new’ clubhouse in 2003 but by 2012 things were starting to get tired, assets were breaking down and needed replacing, we still had debt in excess of $3 million and finding spare cash to fix things was a challenge,” Robb explains.
“We also needed to spend money on our maintenance facility. It was third world type of stuff down there. We didn’t own anything. We rented the lunchroom, the office and toilet block and even the locker room. We leased all our machinery, and it wasn’t kept in great condition, we just kept it going.
“I think all we owned was chainsaw, a few whipper-snippers and a tractor – that was it. Everything else was on a long term machinery lease and those are very hard to move away from once you are in them.”
To add to the woes, the place flooded every time it rained.
“We had to keep our walk behind greens mowers two inches off the ground in case it rained. I recall getting two new fairway mowers as part of our machinery lease. We loved them, brand-new, shiny Toro units. But we couldn’t store them inside because they didn’t fit under the roofline. It was just so bad.”
But how different things are at Southern these days!
The club finished its new maintenance facility in 2018. It now owns all its machinery and employs its own mechanic.
“The team is doing a great job, we have the best Superintendent in Melbourne, and he loves working for the club, I can’t speak more highly of Shaun Taylor and his team.”
The future is looking bright for Southern, but the club does not suffer from delusions of grandeur.
“We know what type of club we are, and I think that is really important, not getting ahead of yourself and knowing exactly what the members want,” Robb adds.
Southern is proudly debt free having cleared its final commitment early this year.
“Being debt free helps. That was a massive burden on our club and we were able to pay that debt off earlier this year, a few years sooner than planned. It’s ironic, but a worldwide pandemic probably helped our club, we consolidated, made sure the members were looked after and put all our spare cash into the clubhouse debt and were able to pay it off.
“I don’t think there would be too many clubs in Melbourne that can say they haven’t increased their annual fees since 2019, but we can.
“It was another way of giving back to all our members who stuck with us through Covid. We won’t ever forget that support. Without the members you don’t have a club. So you need to look after them and I think our club and our board of directors did an amazing job of it.”
The club was proud to announce mid-year that they obtained the hosting rights to the Australian Master of the Amateurs for the next three years. “That’s huge news for our club. We are hosting this event in January 2023, 2024 and 2025 and couldn’t be more excited.
“It is an unbelievable tournament when you look at its history. It’s the biggest Amateur golf tournament in Australia – bigger than the Australian Amateur Championship and Riversdale Cup.”
“While some of the names won’t be household names at the moment, they will be in years to come. You have players like Rickie Fowler, Cameron Smith, Jason Day, Will Zalatoris, Marc Leishman, Sahith Theegala, Bryson DeChambeau, Tommy Fleetwood and Jason Day who have played in this tournament.
“We are so excited. We know it’s not the Presidents Cup, but it’s our ‘Presidents Cup’. We are treating it like it’s the Presidents Cup.”
“We are excited to show off our course, our members are excited, our staff are excited and it will be a lot of hard work but the team is so engaged and looking forward to the challenge of hosting a major event.”
For now, Robb and the team at Southern will continue to move forward.
“Things are working, we have a great club and an amazing golf course that is easy to join and great value for money.
“I love this place. Every day is a challenge when you turn up at work. We have some exciting things happening and I am proud to be part of it.”
Southern Golf Club
Lower Dandenong Rd,
Keysborough VIC 3173
Phone: (03) 9798-3111
Editorial supplied by Southern Golf Club and edited by Inside Golf.
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Australia’s Most Read Golf Magazine, Inside Golf Magazine gives you in-depth coverage of Australian golf news, golf events, golf travel and holiday destinations, Australian and international golf course reviews, the hottest new golf gear and tips and drills to improve your golf game. Written by award-winning journalists, Inside Golf Magazine is Australia’s highest-circulating audited golf publication, and features interviews with Australia’s top professional golfers, the game’s rising stars, industry leaders and golf equipment manufacturers. You can even win great golf prizes and equipment. It’s all in Inside Golf Magazine. FREE at Australian golf courses, driving ranges and golf retailers across Australia.