Like most of the major Melbourne Sandbelt clubs Yarra Yarra was born
many miles away from the fertile golfing ground it currently calls
home. Originally the Eaglemont Golf Club the name Yarra Yarra was
adopted when a move to Rosanna, along the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra
River, was made in 1898.
In the 1920’s, with the increasing popularity of the southern Sandbelt region, came the realisation that if the club wanted to retain members and receive championship credentials it would have to move where the sand was plentiful and the game was booming. An emergency meeting of members, convened toward the end of 1926, endorsed the committee’s decision to seek a new home close to the recently relocated, and thriving, Commonwealth Golf Club.
They picked a great location and an opportune time to move with the Alister MacKenzie trained Alex Russell able to design the layout and oversee its construction, for a nominal fee, as part of his architectural education. Russell believed the land at Yarra was superior to that at Metropolitan, Commonwealth and Kingston Heath and told members that it would be possible to make ‘the finest golfing course you could ever see on the land’. Dr MacKenzie, who had never seen the site, apparently used surveyor’s plans of the property to assist with the design by sending rudimentary sketches and ideas for Russell to implement. Little evidence of this input remains however and it would be unfair to deny Russell the credit for the finished product.
The superb greens and bunkers are the highlight at Yarra and as good as many of MacKenzie’s own creations. Typically large, fast and undulating, the greens feature some of the slickest slopes in Melbourne while the bunkers are constructed to blend naturally with their surrounds and are intrinsic to the strategy of each hole. Throughout Victoria, the best bunkers and greens remain those either designed by MacKenzie or built by the men he trained and Yarra’s are up there with the very best.
The par threes are world-renowned with the incredible 11th hole among the top few short holes in the country. Its notorious target is heavily bunkered and tilted across you from the tee with two tiers, four shelves and a heavy slope from the back. Any two-putt from above this hole is worthy of wild celebration. The natural subtleties of the land are also used to great effect with a number of outstanding driving holes, the best example being the par four 5th with its crested fairway dipping and rising again toward a large sloping green visible from the tee. The bunkering of the last third of this hole is quite brilliant.
Though the design of each hole has evolved through the generations much of the
routing has remained essentially untouched. Early committee’s made the
most significant changes when they planted rows of Pines, Wattles, Gums
and Eucalypts to line fairways and define the holes. In more recent
times, structural changes were needed to protect neighbouring properties
while a few greens, most noticeably the 4th and 8th, have been
reshaped. Among the more interesting on the course, the steep slopes on
these two greens were sadly softened to allow the club additional pin
positions. More worrying were the changes made by English architect Martin Hawtree in 2010 and 2011 to the 4th, 7th, 10th and short par four 3rd holes. The 3rd, in particular, is poor and while improving safety along the northern boundary, the changes have done little to repair what had long been a problematic area.
Right now the greatest concern at Yarra Yarra is tree and bunker management, as well as the fact that a variety of design styles are apparent across the layout. Unlike Metropolitan, which also has many trees, Yarra is really cramped and sixteen holes run in a North/South direction. In its favour is the tremendous variety of design on offer around the greens, and the fact that world-class holes like the 5th and 11th are complimented by other classic Sandbelt gems such as the short par three 15th and the long par four 13th. The risk/reward par five’s are also memorable with the tight 9th fairway slanted toward a series of bunkers and requiring two brave shots to reach the green while the delicate 16th is easily reachable for the modern golfer but protected by menacing cross bunkers.
A course badly affected by housing encroachments and forced redesigns, Yarra Yarra did itself a serious disservice when it softened the stunning 8th green and allowed gems like the short 4th to be altered beyond recognition.
Right now the biggest issue at Yarra is too many trees and a bunkering scheme that is all over the place, the mix of classic Sandbelt style shapes and the more modern resort look has not worked at all. The modern bunkers are most peculiar. For a club with such fine pedigree, the fact they were allowed in the first place is surprising but now on the ground there should be an outcry from members at the manner in which they have been constructed. Balls headed to bunker edges should not feed into the fairway but should be swallowed by sand, otherwise where is the strategy in aiming for the sides of the fairways?
Yarra Yarra has had issues for years now with its boundary and the need to pinch golf inwards away from homes, but the original design was very strong and there are too many outstanding holes for this not to be a 1 or 2-Flag rated course.
Yarra Yarra’s biggest claim to fame is that it was the course where Gary Player won his first professional golf tournament of note, the 1956 Ampol Tournament – the prize money helping Gary Player return to South Africa, marry his wife, and launch what became a hugely successful professional career.
Others to have played at Yarra Yarra include Walter Hagen, "Babe" Didrickson, Joe Kirkwood, Peter Thomson, Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, Ian Baker-Finch, Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam and Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby who were both members here in their Amateur days.