By Michael Davis

ROYAL Park president, Bruce Sutherland, is a member of St Andrews in Scotland.

“Luckily, I am a ‘country’ member which makes it affordable. It’s very dear otherwise.”

But Bruce cherishes his membership at Royal Park just as dearly as he does that at the venerable home of the game of golf.

Like Royal Park, St Andrews is indeed a public course provided you can afford the green fees, which are considerably higher than the iconic Melbourne nine-holer which runs alongside the Melbourne Zoo. Golfers at Royal Park often stand over the driver or a crucial putt to a roar from the lions’ den or trumpet from the elephants’ enclosure.

All of this, according to Sutherland, adds to the charm of the place. But more than that, he believes nine-hole public courses in Australia are the lifeblood of the game.

He says he is honoured to be president of Royal Park and thrilled to celebrate the club turning 120 years old earlier this year.

It was probably men like Sutherland, who in 1903, soon after the federation of Australia, who formed the Royal Park Golf Club on their own initiative. 

Victoria Golf League president Peter Ross (second left) with prize winners Liam Collins, Barbara Allen, Greg Collins and Mark Patrick.

“They leased the land, built and maintained the course with their own resources, time and physical work in Royal Park on the edge of the heart of the city. This park, at 170 hectares, is the largest green space in Melbourne. It now includes fields and facilities for a wide range of sports, the zoo, wetlands and a range of public facilities,” Sutherland says.

“The pace is steeped in history,” he adds proudly. “The area was originally a ceremonial area for people of the Eastern Kulin nation. From the outset, the first tee was next to the cairn where Bourke and Wills began their ill-fated expedition.” 

One of Royal Park’s many beautiful quirks is that it is the only course in the world which has both a tram and train lines running through it.

The course began as 18 holes but over the years as the park developed it was moved to a variety of positions in Royal Park. After being mowed by one-man mowers, a horse drawn mower was introduced in 1929. 

The club endured many highs and lows over the years in terms of membership numbers and financial security. In the 1960s the club held monthly dances. It is now a public, nine-hole, undulating, tree-lined golf course in the north east section of the park. It has survived the effects of two World Wars (during the second of which thousands of soldiers were accommodated in the park), densification of the neighbouring suburbs, the burning down of the clubhouse, as well as the effect of the Covid pandemic, when the local dogs thought they had found a new heaven on the fairways.

The club has been a nursery for hundreds, maybe thousands, of golfers. 

The most prestigious of which is five-time Open champion, Peter Thomson, widely regarded as Australia’s best ever golfer. Peter discovered the game of golf as a young lad when his uncle ran his greyhound on the fairways. Living close to the fourth hole, with only a single club, the boy began hitting the white ball in 1941 when no one was around. Once his talent was spotted, he was greatly encouraged by some members of Royal Park Golf Club. 

In 1942, he became a member when the club lowered its entry age to 13 to accommodate him. He won its championship in 1945. A plaque at the first hole commemorates his relationship to the club.

John Trevorrow, Kim Hastie (Australian Golf Society president), Grant McKay and Andrew Thomson dress for the occasion.

On Sunday, March 19, more than 90 players, (juniors, women, men and veterans) gathered at the club to celebrate its longevity. The festive day started with a shotgun –18 holes played in the morning followed by lunch, light-hearted speeches (including one by Peter Thomson’s son, Andrew) and a prize giving by Peter Ross, president of the Victoria Golf League. 

In the afternoon there was an ambrose nine-hole competition with many of the golfers playing with old hickory clubs and some even donning their plus-fours for the occasion. 

“The golfers were aware of their indebtedness to the founders of the club, acknowledging all the efforts and commitment of those who followed them, to foster the game of golf at Royal Park that so many enjoy,” Sutherland said. “It was a wonderful day of golf camaraderie with both old acquaintances being rekindled and new friendships made.

“This club is an example of the great value of public golf courses. It succeeds via the cooperation of its various stakeholders, the Melbourne City Council, Serco who maintain it, Greenspace and the YMCA who manage the clubhouse and bookings and the various clubs that use it. 

“In line with our history, Royal Park Golf Club will continue to offer very attractive membership rates for all classes of golfers, making golf accessible for many, encouraging the growth of the sport. 

“We are committed to broaden the range of people playing golf and keep their fees reasonable to ensure they don’t act as a barrier to membership. And we pride ourselves on fostering the social aspect of the game, welcoming visitors and new members,” he says proudly.

The veterans play on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, the women, who began playing at the club in 1906, on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the RPGC on Sundays. 

May it continue for another 120 delight-filled years. 

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