A unique overview of the Victoria Golf Club History
The Victoria Golf Club gave architect Alister MacKenzie the perfect opportunity to create the finishing touches to a course of outstanding quality. The greatest players in the game have always been attracted to the famed Sandbelt layout to test their skills across a palate of indigenous rolling topography. Since the early founders, the course and its members have weaved a rich tapestry of history. The history and feel of Victoria is one that is unique and certainly one that is to be experienced and understood.
The Victoria Golf Club Life Member and five-time Open Champion Peter Thomson said, “some clubs have a special character that sets them apart. It is not necessarily the quality of the course, or the accommodations of the buildings that distinguishes them. It is more essentially the membership, past, and present, and the file of achievements over such a period of decades that creates such a tradition. Victoria Golf Club is such a Club”.
The Club has a remarkable history evolving over more than 100 years and the following key topics comprise this rich tapestry –
There is a unique quality about the Victoria Golf Club which is unmatched by any other in the world. And in case the reader detects a parochial connotation in that statement, they should be assured that it is backed by any objective analysis or detailed comparison that can be applied.
Friday March 6, 1903, was the date the Victoria Golf Club was born. On the initiative of Billy Meader, a group of influential Melbourne businessmen gathered in the evening for the express purpose of forming a “good” golf club to play over leased links land at Fisherman’s Bend in Port Melbourne. Meader, a stocky dour character, is widely regarded as the ‘father of Victorian golf’ and although the threads of time are thinning, nobody will question the accolade.
Two years before he founded Victoria Golf Club, and in the same hotel where the club had its original roots, Meader was one of a small group of golf devotees who set up the Victorian Golf Association. He was the VGA’s first Treasurer and was later appointed Secretary in 1907 until 1932. He controlled the VGA initially from the Fisherman’s Bend site. Meader’s tireless contribution to golf in this state cannot be over emphasised.
The original course at Fisherman’s Bend was relocated in 1926 to its present 128 acre site in bayside Cheltenham, on the now world renowned Melbourne ‘sandbelt’. The course was ideally positioned just a short walk from Cheltenham railway station which was a great convenience for many members as few owned cars in those early days.
Famed golf course architect Alister MacKenzie was commissioned during his 1926 Australian visit to the neighboring Royal Melbourne Golf Club to add to the unfinished aspects of Billy Meader and Club Captain, Oscar Damman’s design. Kingston Heath Golf Club also used MacKenzie’s services in a similar way. Club curator Frank Lennox built the initial aspects of the course to which MacKenzie commented that “Little more is required to make this a magnificent golf course”.
The course opened for play on the 14th of May 1927 when the Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Bruce, struck the opening ball in front of a 1000 strong crowd that included Club President and former leader of the Victorian Legislative Council, William Lawrence Baillieu. Lord Bruce, who later became the first Australian Captain of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, hit an excellent tee shot into a howling gale on the first hole. His straight drive was overlooked by the magnificent historic clubhouse that majestically still stands today.
The clubhouse described by The Chairman of the Victorian Golf Association as “the most beautiful clubhouse in the Commonwealth” was conveniently sited on the west side of the course, nearer to Cheltenham, thus reserving the best land of Battery Point for golf and views from the most elevated position on the course. The views in those early days stretched well over Port Phillip Bay.
MacKenzie’s design suggestions were in fact incorporated into at least 9 holes on the new course. His plans dramatically created all the strategic bunkering lining the course, giving it the aesthetically distinctive character that is so stunning today. Royal Melbourne’s original green keepers Mick Morcom and his son Vern Morcom, skillfully implemented and built over 100 MacKenzie bunkers which are of some of the finest designs in the world of golf. These design constructions were essentially completed by 1935.
In the years that followed, a combination of cost reducing maintenance saw some of the bunkers deliberately filled in during the period between 1936 and 1945 with an overall decline of course bunkers in the following years. After this, no significant attempt was made to fully restore the lost features until architect Mike Clayton, with the assistance of a 1936 aerial photograph, faithfully restored the distinctive ‘Sandbelt’ bunkers to their original glory. The restoration, which commenced in 1996, endeavoured to bring back the native vegetation and other indigenous aspects of the area. The final stage of this process was completed in 2019 with the refinement of several holes and a comprehensive greens replacement program. Members today enjoy outstanding playing conditions across the course and impeccable Pure Distinction putting surfaces. The collaborative architectural success of Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking & Mead (OCCM) has solidified Victoria Golf Club’s reputation as one of the World’s Top 100 Courses.
The original land was described by early club member, Bob Hancock in 1924 as “absolutely nothing except dense tee tree scrub covering the whole area”. The site in fact sits together with its neighboring Royal Melbourne Golf Club on ancient sand dunes. It is no coincidence that the high point of this terrain near the 12th tee, Battery Point, was reserved as the meeting point for 6 of the courses’ most interesting holes. The ‘submerged’ dunes give the course the basis of its indigenous heathland vegetation set over rolling topography and natural sand. This is the signature of the Victoria Golf Club, positioning it as one of the leading and most unique ‘city’ courses in the world.
The Victoria Golf Club’s fame has spread to every corner of the globe. It has produced players of a quality who have brought fame to their native Australia and to the club that they represent.
Foremost among the great achievers who have set forth from our club in quest of the highest honors the game can bestow is Peter Thomson, winner of 5 British Open Championships, 3 Australian Open titles, 2 World Cups and a host of other leading tournaments.
In a remarkable stretch of 7 years Thomson finished first or second in The Open Championship, including the only player to win 3 consecutive Open Championships in the twentieth century. Thomson, a World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, won a total of 88 events as a professional. Before turning professional, Thomson played in the club’s Pennant team and won the 1948 Victorian Amateur Championship, defeating his club mate Doug Bachli 6&4 in the final at Woodlands Golf Club. The Club’s most famous member has been immortalised with a magnificent bronze statue of Peter and his impeccable swing hitting off the 10th tee
In amateur golf, the deeds of Doug Bachli in 1954 surpassed any achievements of his amateur contemporaries when he won the British Amateur Championship, which is commemorated in perpetuity in the clubhouse.
Later in 1958 Bachli was a member of the Australian team that won the inaugural Eisenhower Cup tournament at St Andrews. Twice he was Australian Amateur Champion in 1948 and 1962 and 3 times the Victorian champion.
A small plaque in the clubhouse is a constant reminder that in 1954 Bachli was the first Australian ever to win the coveted British Amateur Championship and in the same year, Peter Thomson became the first Australian to win the British Open. For one glorious year the two greatest trophies in world golf, the ‘Auld Jug’ itself and the British Amateur Cup sat side by side on the mantelpiece in the member’s bar. Not only were the two pieces of silverware symbols of Australia’s emergence as a world power in golf, but also they focused the game’s global spotlight onto Victoria Golf Club in a way no other club in Australia ever will be able to boast. Those achievements alone would set this club apart from others, but there is much, much more of which Victoria Golf Club members can be justifiably proud.
In more recent times Geoff Ogilvy, a Junior Champion of the club and 1997 Victorian Amateur Champion, triumphed in the 2006 US Open defeating Phil Mickleson, Jim Furyk and Colin Montgomerie by a single stroke in dramatic circumstances at the Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. Since then Ogilvy, the Australian PGA winner of 2008 and the Australian Open Champion in 2010, has added 3 World Golf Championships to his major victory and continues to frequent the club where the clubhouse terrace is dedicated in his honour.
The glory days of Victoria Golf Club members, in fact started way back in 1904 when The Honourable Michael Scott won the first Australian Open ever played. He repeated the feat in 1907 in the same year that he was Club Champion at both Victoria Golf Club and Royal Melbourne Golf Club, a feat that has only been repeated since by State Champion, John Lindsay in 1994. Scott achieved Australian Amateur Champion status in 1905, 1907, 1909 and 1910. He was also victorious in the Victoria Amateur Championship in 1904, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1910 making him one of the most dominant players of his era. Scott later returned to his native country of England and has the distinction of being the oldest winner of the British Amateur Championship in 1933, just shy of his 55th birthday. Scott went on to be a Walker Cup representative as well as the Captain of the renowned Royal St. George’s Golf Club.
Scott’s Australian Open feat was matched in 1909 when the left- handed Claude Felstead captured the Australian Open title at Royal Melbourne. Felstead’s triumph was celebrated by commissioning a framed photograph of the hero to be hung in a ‘suitable place’. That same photograph still hangs in the members bar today. Felstead was still in his teens when he won the championship and his victory was hailed as a huge upset.
The Club Champion of 1906 at VGC was another famous name, the name of Sir Norman Brooks. In 1907 Brooks had the distinction of winning the Wimbledon Singles Tennis Championship. Brooks would go on to win the most famous tournament in world tennis again in 1914 and finish runner up on two further occasions at The All England Club. Brooks also won his third major event, the Australian Men’s Singles Championship which has its perpetual trophy named in his honour. Today’s tennis stars play for the ‘Norman Brooks trophy’ at the Australian Open in the first Grand Slam event of every year.
In the early 1930s Harry Williams was considered by Gene Sarazen to be “the greatest left-hander in the world” and tried to lure Williams to the United States with the promise of rich returns, but he did not take up the offer. Williams burst onto the golf scene and at 16 years of age won the Australian Amateur Championship in 1931. Six years later in 1937 he was to win again and in an era of unparalleled strength in amateur golf, Williams would also win 5 Victorian Championships. Williams’ clashes with Sydney’s Jim Ferrier, the 1947 USPGA Champion, through the 1930s have become part of the folk lore of Australian amateur golf. Williams, dissuaded by his mother from travelling abroad, perhaps didn’t always possess the passion for the game to match his undeniable talent. In one particular regular competition at Victoria, Williams left the course after 9 holes to go to the local horse races. He had posted 8 up against par on the front 9 and accepted the losses for the remaining holes to register 1 down. Unbelievably in his absence, this was still good enough to win the members competition of the day.
The story of M.J. (Mick) Ryan who started as a caddy at the original home of Fisherman’s Bend, is one that had a huge influence on amateur golf in this state. He became a member of Victoria Golf Club before moving to Kingston Heath where he subsequently won the 1929 Australian Open as an amateur. Ryan was the last amateur to win the Australian Open and to retain his amateur status.
In latter years, Ray Jenner won the 1973 Australian Amateur title in Perth and then went on to take the Victorian Amateur Championship in 1979.
Victoria Golf Club has been one of the most prolific Pennant winning clubs in the history of Victorian golf. With upwards of over 30 men and women’s titles, it is a testament to the quality of player that has represented the club throughout the years. Amongst them multiple State Champion, Neil Titheridge who was honoured in 1978 by his appointment as Captain of the Australian Eisenhower Cup Team. Majorie Bailey too had the honour of being appointed non playing Captain of the Australian Espirito Santo team in 1976.
The contribution of women to the golf and social life of the Club have been significant. The Victoria Golf Club has significantly and historically been at the forefront of establishing the involvement of women in golf. Lady Tallis was elected the first Associate President of the Club in 1925 when the momentous decision of the times was made to admit women to the club. Although difficult to comprehend by today’s standards, this was indeed a progressive move by the club, given the conventions of the early 1920’s.
Not withstanding the challenges associated with creating change, the influence of women within the club has grown from the early years through the autonomous Women’s Committee. The election to the Board of former Associate President Dorothy Wall-Smith to the club’s Board of Directors in 1986 marked a milestone in the history of the club. The journey to fully integrating into the formal deeds of the club from Associates to Members came about in the early 2010’s thus bringing to a full circle the vision and commitment of Lady Tallis and the other significant women who followed her example.
Many talented women have graced the fairways of the Victoria Golf Club and represented at State and National levels. Leading amateur player and 16 time Club Champion Barbara Dillon represented Australia on 4 occasions and was one of the finest players of her era when she dominated the fairways over 3 decades in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. One of the most prominent players has been Stacey Keating who achieved our first success at the Australian Amateur Championship in 2010. This followed her earlier success at the 2008 Canadian Amateur. Stacey emerged in professional ranks by winning the 2013 Victorian Open and has since gone on to win multiple professional events. 2007 US NCAA Champion team member and former State Amateur Champion Alison Whitaker too has achieved significant success not just on the course but as a highly popular golf commentator on the European and LPGA Tours.
Gabi Ruffels, daughter of Australian Open Double Tennis Champion Ray Ruffels, became the first Australian to win the 2019 US Amateur Championship. The major amateur championship victory represented a remarkable journey for the 19 year old who had only taken up golf 5 years earlier. Her historic win credits her junior development at Victoria Golf Club and the astute tutelage by her parents Ray and former tennis professional Anna-Maria Fernandez.
While we reflect on the brilliant achievements of our members on the golf course, we should pause to honor another of our members whose handicap never reached single figures but is forever remembered for his outstanding war record. Flight Lieutenant William Ellis Newton was awarded the Victoria Cross in Salamaua, New Guinea in 1943, the highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to a member of the British and Commonwealth forces. The citation read; “His many examples of conspicuous bravery have rarely been equaled”. Newton’s photograph hangs above the fireplace in the clubhouse lounge with the names of VGC members who gave their lives in active service.
Apart from their golfing accomplishments, club members at Victoria are proudly known for their socially friendly culture, enthusiasm for the game and openly embracing their houseguests and visitors alike.
Over the years many great players, who have individually won multiple Major Championships, have visited and tested their skills on Victoria Golf Club’s sandbelt course. The champion women’s names include Donna Caponi, Pat Bradley, Sandra Haynie, Jan Stephenson and Honourary VGC member, Karrie Webb.
Meanwhile the men’s names include some of history’s greatest players. Walter Hagan, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Gary Player, David Graham, Dave Stockton, Tom Watson, Ray Floyd, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods have all played at the Victoria Golf Club.
The Wills Masters tournament of 1964 famously saw American legend Arnold Palmer climb a gum tree, short and left of the 9th green. He played his 3rd shot to the renowned par 5 from up the tree, some 15 to 20 feet off the ground! The enormous roar and delight of the crowd was only tempered when Palmer just failed to make his ensuing putt for par. In the same tournament, Jack Nicklaus holed his second shot at the 15th hole for an eagle from the middle of the 11th fairway. A large gum tree blocked Nicklaus’ path to the hole, but he struck a wedge so purely that it soared over the tree, pitched 6 feet short of the hole and trickled in. The tree has since been christened the ‘Nicklaus tree’. However, these heroic feats were unable to match the winning score of South African Cobie Legrange.
It is worth noting that on his first visit to Victoria Golf Club some years earlier, Nicklaus was first tagged with his now world famous nickname of the ‘Golden Bear’ by golf writer and club member Don Lawrence. Some years later, a silver salver was inscribed by Nicklaus to this effect and presented in gratitude by Nicklaus to Lawrence. Today the salver sits proudly on display in the member’s bar.
Between 1964 and 1975 the Club hosted 6 Wills Masters tournaments (‘64,’66,’69,’71,’73,’75) with many top ranked players spreading the reputation of VGC throughout the world. In 1966 the sponsors, in the lead up to the Wills Masters tournament in October, held negotiations with Ben Hogan at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Hogan’s dislike of air travel however, saw him decline the offer to play at the Victoria Golf Club. Kel Nagle eventually won the tournament having more recently finished runner up at the 1965 US Open. Nagle overcame a 4 shot deficit to Roberto DiVicenzo in the last 6 holes to win the event. Other players to have won the Wills tournaments during this time include Bruce Crampton, who frustratingly finished runner up to Nicklaus on 4 occasions in majors and David Graham, who went on to win the US Open and USPGA Championships.
Prior to the Wills tournaments, Crampton won both the 1956 Speedo and 1957 Pelaco International events at Victoria with member Peter Thomson winning the 1959 Pelaco contest. Thomson’s 7 shot win came over Nagle only a week after both had paired to win the World Cup, which was then known as the Canada Cup, at Royal Melbourne.
1968 saw the Victoria Golf Club host the World Amateur Team Championship, the Espirito Santo Cup for women. This tournament was conceived as the equivalent of the Eisenhower Cup for men. The United States on this occasion, prevailed over Australia in the prestigious event.
The Australian Women’s Open Championship has been hosted three times by the club. Most interestingly, a player who has won a major professional golf championship has claimed each event at VGC. In 1974 Japanese player Chako Higuchi triumphed and in 1976 Donna Caponi defeated the same player for the Australian title. The final day of the 2014 tournament saw one of Australia’s greatest players Karrie Webb, come from behind in testing conditions, to win the championship.
The theme of major winners triumphing at the Victoria Golf Club continued at The Colgate Far East Ladies Championship, a prestigious world golf tournament of its day, which was held in 1974 & 1975. Canadian Sandra Post, the 1968 USPGA Champion, won the title in 1974 with 6 time major winning champion, Pat Bradley winning in 1975. Colgate extended their sponsorship in 1976 & 1977 with The Champion of Champions men’s event which saw local crowd favourite, Bob Shearer defeat Jack Newton in 1977. Newton’s daughter, Kristie, would later join the club and become the Women’s Club Champion.
The Men’s Australian Open Championship has been held at VGC in 1961, 1981 and 2002. Frank Phillips won his second Australian Open in 1961 ahead of 1960 Centenary British Open winner Kel Nagle and Gary Player.
The tournament of 1981 saw a dramatic showdown between reigning British Open Champion Bill Rogers and defending Australian Open Champion Greg Norman. Norman, needing a birdie on 18 to take the lead with Rogers a further hole behind, smashed his wooden headed driver some 360 yards on the wind, over the rise down the short par 5. Norman’s ensuing second shot, a pitching wedge to the green, inexplicably found the front greenside bunker from which he only managed to achieve par. In contrast, Rogers needing a much longer 4 iron for his second shot to the green birdied the hole to win by 1 shot over a disappointed Norman. Seven times Australian Open champion Gary Player finished a further shot back.
Meanwhile the 2002 Open was shrouded in drama with the cancelation of the first round due to the exceedingly fast greens with the head of the AGU accepting responsibility for the controversy. However, an outstanding conclusion ensued over the remaining 54 holes with reigning USPGA champion Rich Beem narrowly missing an eagle attempt at the 18th to force a playoff with local winner Stephen Allan.
The Club hosted the Australian PGA in 1999 and has twice played host to the Australian Masters. In 2010 the tournament featured reigning champion Tiger Woods who gained 5 shots in the last 4 holes but ultimately just failed to catch the eventual winner Stuart Appleby. The tournament in 2011 was a final round showdown between club member Geoff Ogilvy and the prevailing winner Ian Poulter of England.
The 1998 President’s Cup held at Royal Melbourne also presented an opportunity for US President George Bush Senior to play at Victoria Golf Club. President Bush famously shared in the tradition of a ‘short drink’ on the ‘short hole’ with members at the 16th hole.
Club members pass Billy Meader’s portrait every time they come up the stairs from the locker room for the after golf sojourn at the 19th hole. It would do all good to pause and study the steely countenance of the man whose vision contributed to the enjoyment of thousands of members. It is an unexplained mystery that the inscription under the portrait of the founder hanging in the foyer reads that he started the club in 1901 when the undeniable fact is that Victoria Golf Club was formed in 1903.
After a life devoted to golf and Victoria Golf Club, Meader died on July 27, 1940. On opening day at Cheltenham, the portrait was revealed and declared by Club President Baillieu that it would “hang there for all time”. The portrait is an enduring reference to the deeds, not only of the players to emerge from Victoria Golf Club, but to the dedicated band of administrators who have guided the club so successfully for over 100 years.
The unique qualities of Victoria Golf Club, which have been blessed by the hand of nature and touched by Mackenzie’s brilliance, challenges both the greatest players of the game and club members alike. The unique sense of history and privilege experienced at the club is one to be truly revered on this famous sandbelt course.
– VGC founded in 1903 by VGA Treasurer Billy Meader
– First site at Fisherman’s Bend, Port Melbourne
– Present site relocated to Cheltenham in 1926 and designed by Billy Meader, Oscar Dammon and Alister MacKenzie
– Notable members Peter Thomson AO CBE, Geoff Ogilvy, Hon. Michael Scott, Sir Norman Brooks, Claude Felstead, Lady Tallis, Mick Ryan, Harry Williams, Doug Bachlie, William Ellis Newton VC, Ray Jenner, Stacey Keating and Gabi Ruffles.
– Host of Australian Men’s Open 1961, 1981, 2002, 2022 Australian Women’s Open 1974, 1976, 2014 Australian PGA 1999, Australian Masters 2010, 2011 World Amateur Women’s Championship 1968
– Top 10 Australian and Top 100 Internationally ranked course.
Historical content referenced and adapted by Stephen Ager with extract credits taken from:
Victoria Golf Club 1903-1988: Don Lawrence
Further references from:
Victoria Golf Club1988- 2002: Brendan Moloney
Golf Architecture, A world wide perspective: Paul Daley
The Sandbelt: Paul Daley