Keysborough Centenary History 1899 - 1999

The following celebrates the Centenary of the Keysborough Golf Club in 1999.

Although there were times when it looked like it would not last, in 1999 Keysborough Golf Club celebrated its centenary and reflects on the role it has played in the sporting and social life of Melbourne.

Its story is an inspiring account of dedication, sacrifice and determination to succeed against the odds. It all started beside Queens Road in South Melbourne, where successful businessman James MacGregor Gillespie moved with his family in 1897. Although Australian born and educated, his father, Robert, came from Crammond, near St Andrews in Scotland, and obviously passed on his love of the game.

Gillespie started playing with friends in the park across the road on a course they improvised as they went and formed the Albert Park Golf Club in 1899 as the popularity of the game grew. They were able to lease 50 acres of the park for two guineas a year and built six holes with square greens fenced to keep out cattle and horses, which gives an indication of how different life was 100 years ago. Cows were kept to provide milk within sight of the city skyline, such as it was, and the horsepower of the traffic along Queens Road was easily established by counting the horses.

By 1901 the APGC felt confident enough about its future to lease land beside the present Albert Cricket Ground and build a small clubhouse from which players strolled across Queens Road to the first tee. The game was played enthusiastically, although a military camp on the second fairway during World War I and the necessity to be clear of the third tee by 2.30pm on Saturday afternoons so nine cricket pitches on the course could be used were minor irritations.

In 1932 an extra 30 acres was leased from the Albert Park Trust to extend the course to 18 holes and four years later a grand, two-storey clubhouse replaced the original. This building cost £10,000, a figure that can be put into perspective by the two shillings charged for a three-course dinner in honour of James Gillespie.

World War II was followed by more upheaval for the club when the state Labour government decided that the lease would not be renewed after 1946 and the course would be turned over to the public. Such was the spirit of the club after nearly 50 years that members decided to start again from scratch. It was a brave move, spearheaded by captain Max Gyngell, and the search for a new site took in Patterson River, Latrobe, Ivanhoe, Mentone, Kew and Kingswood before 220 acres originally farmed by George Keys, who arrived from Ireland in 1841, was purchased for £11,000.

While the club had rejected a plan by Alex Russell, designer of Royal Melbourne's East Course, for its Albert Park layout, it chose wisely at Keysborough. Sam Berrimnan, who had already designed the Huntingdale and Southern courses, was given the job and recommended that Horrie Brown, a former member of the Riversdale ground staff, oversee the work.

Brown, who was course superintendent from 1948 to 1981, and the members who volunteered for working bees did an incredible job on a piece of land that, with hindsight, was not suited to building a quality course. Water was a problem because there was either too much or too little of it and a bore they put down was too salty. Parts that weren't swampy were snake infested, much of the soil was poor, grass was hard to grow and bushfires were a problem.

The clubhouse was a second-hand Nissan hut, which was very basic, and a fibro-cement shed built by volunteers in 1952 added a dining room that seated 12. The present clubhouse was built at a cost of $132,000 - a far cry from the £78 spent on the original building at Albert Park - and opened in April 1972.

The first professionals at Keysborough were Jack Harris and Colin Campbell whose assistant was Bob Spencer. Campbell moved on after a couple of months but Harris stayed for 17 years and in 1961 his intimate knowledge of the course was helpful when he successfully defended his Victorian PGA Championship against dual Australian Open champion Frank Phillips. When Harris left in 1964 Spencer, who was the pro at Elsternwick, returned and remained until his retirement in 1997.

The club hosted the Victorian PGA from 1989 until 1997 and the course's reputation was enhanced by the comments of the Tour pros and the large galleries who had not experienced Keysborough dressed up for a 72-hole championship. Among the players providing excitement were Mike Harwood, Craig Parry and David Ecob who produced superb rounds of 67 against par of 73 to share the course record. Perhaps the view of the pros is best summed up by the great South African, Gary Player, who played an exhibition match in 1972 and told club captain Jack Arnold: "Captain Arnold, you have a mighty fine golf course here."

Another accolade came from noted writer Tom Ramsey in his book 'Discover Australia's Golf Courses': "Sam Berriman's influence on Victorian golf is sometimes overlooked but the man had his own brand of genius and the golf courses he left behind are monuments to his skill. Keysborough, with its wonderful variety of holes, is one of his best and... exudes a character hard to emulate."

The club suffered another serious setback in the early 1990s when an ambitious driving range project coupled with high interest rates forced it to the brink of bankruptcy with a debt of $5 million. But its members rallied like they did in 1946, dug deep and managed to come up with the money necessary for survival a second time.

A century, in terms of world history, is not a long time but it is a significant milestone in Australian golf. Keysborough joins a select handful of clubs that have survived 100 tumultuous years in which the world has gone to war twice and man has walked on the moon. Creating and maintaining a club over this period is a remarkable achievement and a fine tribute both to the game itself and the successive generations of players who have fallen under its spell and made it flourish.

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