The Kooyonga Golf Club was founded when a 1922 train strike forced South Australian golf pioneer H.L. 'Cargie' Rymill, to take a tram to his home club at Royal Adelaide. During the fateful trip he noticed a stretch of undulating swampland and sandhills, known as May's Paddock, was for sale. Inspecting the site and realising its potential for great gold, Rymill conceived the Kooyonga Club and immediately acquired the land. Within a few months the first nine holes were open and by June 1924 a full 18, designed by Rymill himself, were ready for play.
Not formally trained as a golf designer, Rymill was a MacKenzie disciple and carried a copy of his bible, the MacKenzie guide to golf architecture, throughout the Kooyonga project. During the 1990s this precious relic was returned to the club, complete with highlighted passages and legible Rymill inscriptions on the strategy of his holes as well as the odd snide remark about Royal Adelaide colleagues.
Though raw sandhills dominated the site Rymill first discovered, his design incorporated grand plantings of native and imported trees which have grown to now dominate the landscape. His initial routing remains essentially unchanged, with the most intriguing aspect being the configuration of holes to include back-to-back opening par fives and consecutive par threes on the back nine. He was clearly a man who believed great design could be unconventional.
More conventional is the use of the land's natural elevation change, the course testing all aspects of your game thanks largely to the sloping, tight tree-lines fairways and small, firm greens. The highlights of the design include the par five 2nd, shorter par threes at the 7th and 14th, and fine par fours like the 8th and 12th with plenty of natural fairway movement. Notable alterations through the years included a pond added to the front of the 17th green during the 1980s and the lengthening of the par three 15th some years later when an adjacent property was acquired to allow them to stretch the hole.
Worryingly, the Kooyonga Golf Club appears in the midst of a program that risks altering the nature and character of this ageless golf course, having recently employed Martin Hawtree to provide them with some design direction. Hawtree's first work was to rebuild the short par four 5th, which is now a poor hole thanks to added fairway moguls and heavy putting contours that are out of context with the rest of the layout. The fairway shapes have already been softened, and there is a chance the entire hole will need to be rebuilt down the track. Other changes like the shaving of the driving hill on the 4th hole, the new greenside traps on the 13th and fairway bunkers on the 6th have been, marginally, better handled. Dr. Hawtree also designed an additional par three between the 2nd fairway and the 11th tee, which is a nice hole and presumably now gives the club the opportunity to take others out of play and upgrade/redesign them in the new Hawtree style.
There are certainly problem spots here, but the core of this course is still very good and we hope that a club of such proud history and tradition can resist the urge to tinker unnecessarily with their layout too much further. Sometimes a golf club needs to accept its limitations and just be comfortable in its own skin. Kooyonga will never be the best course in Adelaide simply because it lacks the space, scale and contour of Royal Adelaide, but it has been a clear number two for years now and risks losing that tag and sliding out of Australia's Top 30 if it desecrates the original Rymill design.
Kooyonga has a long and storied championship tradition, and keeping pace with the modern game is probably at the root of its current design issues. Firstly though, the club needs to decide what the Kooyonga golf course is going to look like moving forward and agree on a consistent and uniform bunker style. The new greenside trap on the 13th gives an idea of which direction the current board wishes to go. Greens are also an issue, the older targets had more subtle, gentle shapes and the Hawtree green on the 5th is so riotous that it feels completely out of place on a track like this. Perhaps in the years to come it will fit right in, as the club navigates further toward this style of design and away from its original style.
We sincerely hope someone at the club has been taking lots of pictures and documenting what is being lost here, because it's possible in the years ahead they will need to put it all back.
Kooyonga was the long-time host club of a dual-sanctioned Nationwide Tour-Australasian PGA Tour event and has also hosted the Australian Open on three occasions, including in 1965 when Gary Player destroyed par by shooting 264 for the four rounds.