From Bust to Boom: Rebuilding a goldfields golf club with a focus on fun

A small town in the heart of Victoria’s goldfields has brought some fun back to golf, and is striking it rich with hugely expanded memberships and future improvement plans.

Image copyright Sean Radich

We loved this piece sent to us from Tarngulla and District Golf Club and made sure we shared it with you all. The club, located in country Victoria is experiencing a boom thanks to a decision to dispense with a few of golf’s outdated traditions and focus squarely on making golf fun.

Tarnagulla and District Golf Club Inc. began in 1917 with nine fairways and sand-scrape greens laid out on a cleared reserve to the north of what once was a bustling goldfields town. Nowadays, Tarnagulla could almost be classed as a ghost town: a speck on a map on the highway 30 minutes west of Bendigo, with all the old diggings returned to the rugged bush, and just 300 or so permanent residents.

According to the current Club President, Liam Radich, Tarnagulla Golf Club’s peak was probably in the 70’s and 80s when the regular Saturday competition would draw in 50-60 golfers. The club has always been community-run, with residents from around the district and holiday-home-makers from Melbourne helping in the upkeep of the club. After incorporation in 1922, records from 1923 show that there were 52 members: 29 women and 23 men.

But, like many golf clubs across Australia, Tarnagulla had succumbed to a gradual decline in golf memberships and competition play, and so that by the start of the 2010’s there were only five members. The last women’s club champion was awarded in 2003, and the men’s in 2009. By 2016 the golf club was close to bust.

Image copyright Sean Radich

However, with a new outlook, a new committee, and a decision to focus on fun, Tarnagulla Golf Club is back to boom times: close to 60 annual members, and an Easter competition day that attracts 90 players, friends and family. The drastic turn around in the club’s fortunes came from dispensing with some of the traditional elements of a typical golf club and listening to what the local golfers wanted.

“In order to revive the golf club, we spoke to those who played the course and asked them what they wanted from their golfing experience,” said Mr Radich. “Then we looked at making some small tweaks to try and attract them. Most said that whilst they loved playing golf, they simply did not have the time to play eighteen holes.”

“Also, many of the competition days conflicted with other sports, like country football and netball. Others suggested that whilst they liked playing golf occasionally, the thought of competition golf was scary, staid and a bit too formal for them.”

Image copyright Sean Radich

Like most clubs in the region, Tarnagulla’s golf season runs from around March to November every year, as the summer heat browns off the un-watered fairways. So rather than focussing on holding traditional weekly competitions, Tarnagulla Golf Club decided to hold fun 9-hole golf days spread throughout the season, often coinciding with long weekends when there are more visitors in town and when the local sporting competitions usually take a break.

The club opens with the Easter Ambrose Cup, and each golf day has a different format to keep maintain the golfers’ interests, and to make sure that the irregular golfing “hacker” isn’t penalised too harshly.

The club expanded the promotion of the golf days with bright fun-themed posters placed all around the district, advertisements and articles in the local newsletters, and a new social media presence on Facebook.

Copyright Sean Radich

“We wanted to create a fun atmosphere from the outset, so to do this we created promotional posters that were colourful and quirky, and came up with names for the golf days to try and catch your attention or reference the local area, such as the mob of kangaroos that visit the course every evening, and the legend of the local puma,” Mr Radich said. “We began placing the posters throughout the area and on Facebook, and the local community really seemed to embrace these.”

“We even had locals who took it upon themselves to photocopy them and hand deliver them to letter-boxes around the region! And the posters for ‘Kangaroo Caddy’, ‘Big Cat Scramble’, ‘Three Club Monty’ and ‘Queen’s Birthday Bash’ have become collectors items to some in the district.”

Image copyright Sean Radich

The committee and club volunteers provide a family-friendly atmosphere with a big celebratory afternoon tea for every event to encourage as many golfers to return, and to bring friends or family with them to enjoy the homemade cakes.

You don’t need a formal handicap to play the club’s golf days, and anyone who comes to the club can borrow a set of clubs, balls and tees. Children play for free, friends and family are encouraged to walk the course if they don’t want to play nine holes, and there’s no such thing as a dress code.

On a golf day everyone is given a nametag to make it easier to start up a conversation, and all that attend are welcomed like a long-lost friend with a cup of tea, cold drink, snacks and sweets.

“One of my proudest days as Club President has been seeing three generations of a family – one with their baby in a pram using it as golf buggy – all playing a team golf event. And over on a separate fairway there was a regular Tarnagulla golfer who had his six-year-old grandson riding his mountain bike alongside giving him encouragement.”

“Seeing that is fantastic, because if families are coming to play then we know we will have future Tarnagulla golfers to keep the club going.”

Image copyright Sean Radich

And looking towards the future, Tarnagulla Golf Club wants to improve the facilities for golfers, as well as maintain the strong membership numbers and regular golfers that play the course. Over the last three years the volunteers have cleaned up the encroaching bush and refreshed the sand-scrape greens after several years without course maintenance.

The club plans to install new signage to help new golfers navigate the course, and there are discussions to build some alternate tees to create another nine holes on the same fairways and greens.

And when COVID-19 restrictions allow it, the club will hold its first 18-hole club championships again … and the new champions can be added to the long list on the board that takes pride of place in the clubhouse.

Image copyright Sean Radich

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