The Original Property
Latrobe Golf Club is located on one of Melbourne’s most historic sites. Melbourne was first settled in 1835, and in June 1840 Thomas Wills purchased, for £3784, 176 acres (70 ha) of land which formed a rough semi-circle between Darebin Creek, its junction with the Yarra River and the Yarra River itself. The land takes in all of what is now Latrobe Golf Club, plus Farm Road, Lucerne Crescent, the Tower Hotel and bordered on the west by what is now Como Street.
Almost straight away, Wills began clearing the property and landscaping the hill that overlooked it in preparation for building a mansion. ‘Lucerne’, as he called it, was the grandest home of its day. Proudly sitting atop the rise where the golf club upper car park is now, it was made of bluestone and hand-made bricks from one of the colony’s first kilns. The interior walls were lath and plaster with much stained woodwork and an imposing staircase. The photo below shows the house as it was around the end of the 19th century.
Photo from P 15 of The Dream Comes True
Wills was one of early Melbourne’s most honoured citizens. He was the son of a convict father and free-settler mother, but became a successful business man, and moved to the newly-settled Melbourne from Sydney in 1840. He became a Justice of the Peace, a magistrate and was on a number of boards. For several years, Lucerne became a popular meeting place for the nouveau riche of early Melbourne. His wife also was a respected lady of society. Wills’ nephew-in-law, H C A (Colden) Harrison, wrote of his aunt that she was ‘a true grande-dame and a splendid hostess’ and that ‘under her guidance, balls, parties, picnics and musical evenings became a feature of life at Lucerne’. (Harrison was one of the founders of Australian football, with his cousin, Thomas Wentworth Wills, nephew of Thomas, the builder of Lucerne.)
Charles La Trobe, after whom the club is named, was appointed Superintendent of Port Phillip District in 1839, and subsequently became Victoria’s first Lieutenant Governor when it became a separate colony in 1851. There is conjecture about Governor La Trobe’s link with Lucerne. Some writers have called it his summer retreat and said he was a regular visitor; others claim he was seldom, if ever, there. However, he was certainly a friend of Wills, so it is highly likely that he would have visited Lucerne. The name of Wills’ property may well have been influenced by La Trobe’s Swiss background (La Trobe spent much time in Switzerland before coming to Australia, and later returned there) — and surrounding streets are also named after Swiss locations.
Wills and his wife separated in the mid 1840s — Wills bought land across the river (on which he built Willsmere, a very large mansion), while his wife continued to live at Lucerne.
Over the next 80 years or so, the property passed through a number of hands, and much of it was broken up. Lucerne deteriorated, but it was purchased in 1920 by Major Percy Lay, a World War I hero. Lay retained the property until his death in 1955, when it was bought by Latrobe Golf Club.
In the two decades between the world wars, Major Lay sold off various portions of the Lucerne estate, eventually retaining only the crumbling homestead and 24 acres. The most notable purchaser of Lay’s land (from Latrobe’s point of view) was a Mr J Ford Paterson, who bought 50 acres in the mid 1930s and leased the land to a group of businessmen who built a nine-hole public golf course. The businessmen were led by W E Spencer and E M Hall, who formed a company called Latrobe Golf Investments Pty Ltd.
There are conflicting reports of when golf was first played on the site — some say as early as 1934 — but by 1938 the businessmen had opened a course under the name Latrobe and the public was being invited in newspaper advertisements to come and play. In the same year an old house at 1 Roemer Crescent was acquired, and this became the first ‘clubhouse’.
A newspaper report of the time, provided by Spencer, was not just colourfully optimistic about the future of the course but blatantly inaccurate. It read in part: ‘The site is on a stretch of land with a lovely unspoiled river frontage of about two miles, surrounded by magnificent old oaks and elms planted by Governor La Trobe. The land is probably as rich as any in Victoria and will provide a base for greens and fairways unsurpassed anywhere in abundance and texture of turf.’
Unfortunately the truth was that the course was not of a good standard. Carved out across what was basically a flood plain, it was virtually treeless and the soil was of a poor quality for golf turf. Grass on the hastily constructed greens was patchy, the fairways were uncultivated and the rough impossible.
Such conditions dampened the enthusiasm of public golfers and, as a business venture, the golf course was a failure.
The golf club can trace its beginnings back to a miserably windy and squally night, 1 November 1939, when five hardy souls attended a meeting at the clubhouse which had been advertised in the ‘Northcote Leader’ for persons interested in forming a club. The five who attended were L J Wood and A G Turner, both members of Ivanhoe Golf Club, L P Abbott, from Highland Park Golf Club, and cricketers Norm Whitcher and Merv Lavender. Wood was elected President, Turner as Captain and Lavender, despite ‘the fact that he had never been on a golf course nor held a club in hand’ became secretary, treasurer and handicapper. Nominal club membership fees were adopted and application for affiliation with the Victorian Golf League was agreed.
Within months, the founding five had realised 50 members and the club was up and running. The early ’40s were heady days for the club, with regular competitions and social events. However, the club was in constant dispute with the owners who refused to contribute to upgrading the course and facilities and who believed the club was trying to take over the course. Moreover, there was a war going on, and even in the years immediately after the war there was the real possibility that the club would be disbanded.
The Northcote branch of the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) at that time had a social golf club of 40 members that played on a number of public courses, including Latrobe. When the Northcote RSL golfers heard the ailing Latrobe G C was considering disbanding, they approached the club for a meeting to discuss the possibility of joining. The result was a new category, Green Fee Members, created specifically for the RSL group, whose dues were 5 shillings (50¢) pa, with a green fee of 2 shillings and sixpence (25¢).
The RSL members mixed in so well that in 1947 they were invited to join as full members. In March that year there were 80 men members and 50 associates (women members), who each paid 7 guineas and 5 guineas (7 pounds 7 shillings and 5 pounds 5 shillings) respectively for dues. However, of these amounts, only 5 shillings went to the club; the rest went to the lease-holders.
In 1948, because of dispute with the lease-holders, a number of long-standing Latrobe members decided to leave the club. With total assets of a meagre 200 pounds, the remaining members, perhaps 50 or less, gathered on 3 March 1948 for what was to become the first official Annual General Meeting. At the meeting James Foley was appointed President, Lavender Vice President, and other office bearers were Cec Stalker, Captain, Bill Gott, Honorary Secretary, and committee members Frank Leviny, Keith Carlton, Alf Smith and Roy Wilson. Despite the fact that the Latrobe Golf Club had been in existence for almost a decade, this meeting is now regarded as the beginning of the club
The new committee now renegotiated the deal with Latrobe Golf Investments, and eventually it was agreed that the course be made available for the exclusive use of members. New members were recruited, and by mid-1948 the books were full: 250 male members and 75 associates. Changes were also made to the course, and by October that year Latrobe had 12 holes in play.
In February 1950, following much hard work by Foley in drafting them, the club had approved by the State Attorney General’s Department its initial Memorandum and Articles of Association, to became a company limited by guarantee, and hence was entitled to own land.
However, tensions continued between the lease-holders and the club, over such issues as numbers of members, fees, numbers of holes to be played, and particularly ownership of the land and surrounding properties. Following a meeting in December 1948 at which the administrator of Latrobe Golf Investments, a Jack Olver, made substantial demands, which, if not met, he would reopen the course to the public, the committee investigated the possibility of acquiring more land to the east. Consequently, over the next few years, a series of outright purchases, and leasing followed by purchase, resulted in the club owning all of its land. Those from whom the club eventually acquired its property included Paterson (the actual owner of the disputed then course, which occupied 47 acres), radio station 3AW, which had bought 17 acres from Major Lay and built its transmission tower (behind where the current 11th green is; this tower was not dismantled until 1959), and Major Lay himself for a further 25 acres. This new land was enough for construction of a new nine holes of more than 3000 yards. The final purchase, of all the remaining old Lucerne property, another 24 acres (basically, all the current front practice area around to the ‘Island’ practice fairways), was completed in 1956 on the death of Major Lay in 1955.
Membership numbers and finances were always of considerable concern and two other clubs contributed substantially to the fledgling club by joining with Latrobe: in March 1950, the Ivanhoe Golf Club, which played at the public course in Ivanhoe, and in early 1953, the Highland Park Golf Club, which played in what is now Kingsbury on government land that was to be built on for public housing.
The Course and Clubhouse
Once the new land had been purchased, plans were developed for construction of the extra holes. This was undertaken, albeit affected by periods of severe flooding, difficulties with the terrain, problems with inadequate equipment, lack of manpower, doubts over the supply of funds, hospitalisation of the course designer, Sam Berriman, curator of Huntingdale Golf Club, and problems with the club’s own curators. Finally, on Saturday 7 April 1951, the full 18 hole course was opened. It was a par 71, with a of length 6226 yards (5693 metres). The 1st hole was where the current 7th is, but it ran the other way, and included land which is where the current freeway runs. The Yarra took a big loop in the middle of the course — vestigial remains of this are the water hazards beside the current 16th and 17th holes. The diagram below shows this layout.
Diagram from P 52 of The Dream ComesTrue (MapOf1st18HoleCourse.jpg)
In late 1949 and early 1950, the club acquired an old weatherboard ex-Army building used during the war. This was dismantled and re-erected by members at its property in Roemer Crescent. However, it was not long before it became clear that a more permanent clubhouse was needed. This became possible following the acquisition of the Lucerne Farm property, and in October 1958 the club approved the construction of the two-storey building that is the basis of today’s clubhouse, on land behind the old Lucerne mansion. In keeping with the club’s historic vice-regal links, the new building was opened on Saturday, 12 December 1959 by the then Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, Sir Edmund Herring, who was also the club’s Patron. Other notable attendees, who played in two ‘exhibition’ groups, were Bill Edgar, Tom Crow, John Hood, Bruce Devlin, Doug Bachli and Kevin Hartley, certainly as impressive a group of golfers as was around at that time.
An obvious problem for the club, once its new clubhouse was built cheek-by-jowl with the Lucerne mansion, was what to do with the historic house? After considerable resistance from various groups, including the National Trust (which was much less influential than it is today), because of the derelict state of the building, the club was given permission by the local council to demolish it. So, in January 1960, what was Melbourne’s oldest grand mansion was reduced to rubble, and Latrobe Golf Club now boasts probably the most historic car park in the country. In May 1973, a plaque was unveiled to commemorate the site of the mansion. The inscription reads:
NEAR THIS PLACE STOOD “LUCERNE”
BUILT ABOUT 1841 BY
THOMAS WENTWORTH WILLS
ONE OF THE EARLIEST SETTLERS
OF THE PORT PHILLIP DISTRICT.
THE HOUSE WAS FIRST DESCRIBED BY
RICHARD HOWITT IN “IMPRESSIONS
OF AUSTRALIA FELIX” PUBLISHED
IN 1845, AND AGAIN BY ROLFE
BOLDREWOOD IN “OLD MELBOURNE
MEMORIES” PUBLISHED IN 1889.
GOVERNOR LA TROBE
WAS A FREQUENT VISITOR.
“LUCERNE” WAS DEMOLISHED IN 1960.
CLASSIFIED ‘A’ BY THE
NATIONAL TRUST OF AUSTRALIA
ERECTED BY THE NORTHCOTE CITY COUNCIL
AND LATROBE GOLF CLUB.
UNVEILED BY THE MAYOR OF NORTHCOTE
COUNCILLOR W. N. MARSHALL, J.P.
With the clubhouse now having shifted from one end of the course to the other, the order of holes on the course itself needed to be revised, however no actual major change to the layout was necessary. But a new challenge now arose.
Throughout the 1960s, there was the possibility that a freeway would be built along the River Yarra and be likely to affect the course. In 1969, this possibility became a reality, and a Development Committee was set up to ensure that the outcome for the club was as good as possible. Advising this committee was a subcommittee, comprised of non-members of the club, but people who provided substantial expertise. Members of this group included barrister Jim Gobbo, engineer Keith Wood, golf course architect Sloan Morpeth and valuers F J Sheehan and J Burnham. Gobbo subsequently became Sir James Gobbo, Governor of Victoria and another vice-regal Patron of the Club, Wood went on to become a long standing member of the Victorian Golf Association Council, and Vice President of that body, and Morpeth was one of the state’s most decorated golfers and golf course designers.
The freeway development involved straightening the river by cutting out the big loop that ran through the course, which gave the club land, but it also meant that land at the extreme south of the course along the river was lost. The Latrobe team negotiated with the relevant government authorities, and it was eventually agreed that, instead of taking a lump sum as compensation, all construction costs would be met until the project was completed — it was subsequently estimated that this was worth twice the original lump sum offer.
As with many major projects at Latrobe, this one was dogged by problems. Apart from doubts over how much adverse effect reconstruction would have, how long it would last and what the final result would be, the period was marked by extremes in weather conditions, with alternating seasons of drought and flood. In August 1971, heavy machinery rolled onto to the course so that diversion of the river could commence. By November, the course was like an open cut mine; it was absolutely the worst time for anything to go wrong, but wrong it went, in a very big way.
Heavy rain throughout October saw the river burst its banks, melting snow from the highlands compounding the problem. The rain lasted for weeks. The course went further and further under water, with only the tops of trees visible. It was the highest flood in the history of the club, with water lapping the doorstep of the pro shop. To make matters worse, the club had stored more than 100 cubic metres of topsoil in the lower car park and this was washed away. The result was catastrophic, a symbol of what was to become, through no-one’s fault, the disaster of the freeway project.
The river diversion was completed in early 1972, and at last Latrobe had all its own land again. But flood was followed by drought from November 1972 to February 1973. Where twelve months previously there had been 10 metres of water now there was dead new grass. This drought was followed by another flood and then another dry summer. The expected 18 month construction period had extended to 3 years and still there were temporary layouts. Grass was sown time and again, and it was hoped that the new course would be opened in 1974. However, once more in May of that year another sudden flood engulfed the course. This time, roadworks upstream meant that tons of new earth were washed onto Latrobe and deposited as thick mud on fairways and greens.
Eventually, the weather settled sufficiently for the reconstruction to be completed, and on 1 March 1975 the new course was opened by Club Patron, Sir Edmund Herring. It was now a course of 6040 metres, par 71.
Some further minor modifications have occurred since then, with its current Championship length for men being 6092 metres and par and Scratch Rating each being 72; and for women, 5272 metres, par 72 and Scratch Rating of 73.
Players and Performances
All clubs have their outstanding players. Listed here are some who have made their mark in Victorian golf, with their main performances outside the club.
Player/s Performance Year
Bill Kuhnell Victorian Boys’ Championship 1955
Bill Kuhnell Victorian Boys’ Championship 1956
Alan Lehner Victorian Amateur Championship 1982
David Briggs Victorian Amateur Championship 1984
David Briggs Member of Victorian Senior Interstate team 1984
Cameron Howell Victorian Junior Ivo Whitton Championship 1986
Cameron Howell Victorian Senior Ivo Whitton Championship 1986
Cameron Howell Member of Victorian Junior Interstate team 198??
Cameron Howell Member of Victorian Senior Interstate team 198??
Cameron Howell Victorian Champion of Champions 1986
Euan Walters Victorian Boys’ Championship 1987
David Diaz Victorian Junior Championship 1988
Jim Dempsey & Garry Mansfield Australasian Amateur Foursomes Shield 1988
Darren Carroll & Euan Walters Victorian Foursomes Championship 1990
Stephen Cropley Member of Australian Champion Victorian Junior Interstate team 1991
Grant Gibson Member of Australian Champion Victorian Junior Interstate team 1996
Alan Lehner World Masters Games Champion 2002
Mi Sun Cho and Clare Choi Australian Women’s Foursomes Championship 2003
Mi Sun Cho Victorian Women’s Amateur Championship 2003
Clare Choi Victorian Women’s Junior Championship 2005
Toby Wilcox Master of the Amateurs Champion 2008
The club has had success in the Victorian Golf League (VGL), Victorian Golf Association (VGA), Women’s Golf Victoria (WGV, previously the Victorian Ladies’ Golf Union, VLGU) and Yarra Valley Courses Senior (YVC) pennant competitions. (Latrobe G C became a member club of the VGA in 1952, and the Associates joined the VLGU in 1953). Moreover, some significant events have been held at the course, indicating its growing recognition as one of championship standard and as an excellent test for golfers. Following are some significant achievements and events.
VGL C Grade Women’s Pennant 1950
VGL C Grade Women’s Pennant 1952
VGA Division 2 Junior Pennant 1962
VLGU Women’s Sub-Division 3 Pennant 1963
VLGU Women’s Division 1, Section B Pennant 1966
VLGU Women’s Division 2, Section D Pennant 1966
VGA Division 4 Men’s Pennant 1969
VGA Division 4 Minor Pennant 1962
VGA Division 4, Section 2 Men’s Pennant 1977
VGA Division 3 Men’s Pennant 1978
VGA Division 2 Men’s Pennant 1983
VGA Division 1 Men’s Pennant Runners Up 1981
VGA Division 3 Minor Pennant 1983
VLGU Women’s Section 8 Pennant 1985
VGA Division 2 Minor Pennant 1985
VLGU Women’s Section 4 Pennant 1988
VGA Division 1 Minor Pennant 1988
VGA Division 1 Men’s Pennant Runners Up 1988
VGA Division 1 Minor Pennant 1989
VGA Division 3 Minor Pennant Runners Up 1992
VGA Division 4 Men’s Pennant 1997
VGA Division 4 Men’s Pennant Runners Up 2000
VGA Division 3 Men’s Pennant Runners Up 2001
VGA Division 4 Colts Pennant Runners Up 2003
VGA Division 3 Colts Pennant Runners Up 2004
VGA Division 2 Colts Pennant 2005
VGA Division 4 Men’s Pennant 2007
VGA Division 4 Men’s Pennant Runners Up 2009
VGA Division 3 Colts Pennant Runners Up 2010
GV Division 3 Men’s Pennant 2012
YVC Men’s Senior Pennant Runners Up 2012
Victorian PGA Championship 1958
Victorian PGA Championship 1964
Governor La Trobe Centenary Tournament 1975
Australian Open Golf Championship Regional Qualifying 1998
Australian Junior Interstate Teams Championship 1999
Most of the above history is based on or is a direct extract from Garry Mansfield’s wonderful History of the Latrobe Golf Club, ‘The Dream Comes True’. This book was published as part of the commemorations associated with the club’s celebration of its ‘official’ 50th Anniversary in 1998. While he was researching and writing this history, and subsequently, Garry was playing excellent golf, winning the Club Championship in 1997 and 1999, the Club Foursomes Championship with his good mate Jim Dempsey in 1995 and 1998, with his son Brek in 2000, the Club Mixed Foursomes Championship with Sue Deason in 1997 and 2000, the Golfer of the Year aggregate event in 1994 and 1997, and numerous other major and lesser club events. He was also a stalwart of the men’s pennant team, playing over 200 pennant matches between 1967 and 2001. His last match was a win in the Division 3 Pennant Final, which Latrobe lost 4/3, played against Peninsula at Royal Melbourne in May 2001.
All through this period, Garry was battling throat cancer, with numerous operations removing more and more of his larynx, until finally he lost his voice altogether. Garry’s courage was recognised in a special presentation and standing ovation at the annual VGA Pennant Dinner on 4 June 2001, which he was too ill to attend.
Sadly, Garry passed away on 18 September 2001, aged 51.