By Alan Eager
It was decided at a RSL meeting in 1978 that Bellingen should have a golf course.
Rick McDougall, Secretary/Treasurer of the RSL, was the main instigator, convincing the RSL to purchase land and build a golf course.
The Ladies were playing a three-hole course at the motel site in 1973 but only played a few games. The ladies abandoned the course when the motel owner would not allow a shed to be built as the golf clubhouse because it would not blend with the motel buildings.
There were lengthy discussions on likely sites. One favoured by a number was in North Bellingen along North Bank Road, bordered by Hydes Creek Road, along the bush to the cemetery. The area offered 18 holes. Another area considered, but not seriously, was in the vicinity of Nobles Lane, east of the town.
The present site won the day as it offered the best opportunity because dairy farmer, Maurie Connell was selling out. Housing developments were reducing the land size for successful farming.
A notice in the Courier-Sun newspaper in September 1978 said
"...application to Council from RSL Club to build a golf club adjacent to Trunk Road opposite Connell Park, approval granted pending details of clubhouse location and design as well as vehicle parking and access."
The present golf course was originally three small dairy farms.
In February 1979 the Courier-Sun reported : "Land had been purchased by the Bellingen RSL Club to provide a nine hole golf links for Bellingen."
Part of the land was bought from Mr & Mrs John Habgood who milked cows for town delivery. It was 17 acres (6.8 hectares) on the western end, adjacent to their home and back garden.
A further strip was purchased from Mr & Mrs Maurie Connell between the road and river sufficient to provide nine holes. The Connells previously had purchased a small farm on the eastern end from about the present 17th Tee down to the river and across to the Butter Factory road.
The paper reported: "The Connells own the rest of the river flat through to East End so that in future years, if necessary, it should be possible to negotiate for the purchase of a further area to provide 18 holes."
Golf Professional at Urunga, Tom Hardwick, and RSL Treasurer and keen golfer, Rick McDougall roughly laid out nine holes. This original layout had more holes running from the road to the river and back than the current layout. When the lease on the eastern end of the course expired in October 1983, the course was changed to the present layout but with a different order of play.
On 2nd February 1979, over 70 people attended a meeting in the RSL club and enthusiastically supported the proposed formation of the Bellingen Golf Club. A Steering Committee was formed to seek a grant and 75 people paid nomination fees. A letter from the Urunga Golf Club congratulated the RSL Club in laying the foundation for a golf club and promised support and advice.
Many Bellingen residents were members of Urunga Golf Club, which backed the idea of Bellingen having its own club as it was seen as a way of encouraging people to play golf.
GOLF COURSE CREATED.
Early in 1979, work began on clearing the land.
Many people were involved in preparing the course for play. They included: Rick McDougall, Gerry Bailey, Ron Kenny, Sally Taylor, Wal Hobson, and Col McLellan who was one of the first people to turn the ex cow pasture into a golf course.
In 1979, Col McLellan was slashing grass for the Council and this is his side of the story: "The paddock was covered in Kikuyu grass 12-18 inches high and the only way to get it down was to slash it. You could only drive in low gear and you would end up with whopping great windrows. It would take 3-4 slashes before we got down to the good grass. I would slash every Saturday morning starting at 6 am and go through to 11 am when I would race down to Urunga to play golf at 12.30. Gerry Baileys wife, Jess would make me stop and have breakfast on the stipulation from Gerry that I could slash wherever I liked as long as I left the roses alone. Gerry had creeping roses growing along the riverbank at the back of his house. The greens were like temporary greens of today. We got push mowers and just kept going round and round in circles until we had a green. In an area along the riverbank (now lost to past floods) I nearly lost the slasher and myself to the river. There was a flat area where everyone seemed to slice their balls and it needed cutting. I kept backing the tractor closer and closer to the edge and all of a sudden it disappeared. There was a big washaway where a flood had undermined the bank. There was no way of getting the tractor out by itself, but it was lucky the Council had a rubber tyred dozer which we sneaked down to the golf course to snig me out so I could continue slashing."
8th November 1979, the Courier-Sun reported : "As a result of good efforts by a group of volunteers, splendid progress has been made in preparing Bellingen Golf Links for play early next year. The ideal waved surface of the links beside the river has been cleared of all obstructions and mown on several occasions, greens prepared and some 50 trees planted with polythene piping taking water to the greens. A second hand tractor mower had been acquired."
A meeting last week attended by 20 members of the RSL Club, members of the Executive and others congratulated those who have given so much of their time and for the progress made. More workers are wanted because the Club failed in its application to the Department of Sport & Recreation for an assistance grant despite the Shire Council giving the golf links its top priority. This was disappointing as the club is $667 "in the red". A good profit was made from the Ball in mid October and raffles with more to be held before Christmas.
It was decided to open membership for 1980 at $10 for members; $7 for Associates; and $5 for Pensioners. There was also an appeal for loans (interest-free) for two years of $50 and $100 to provide funds to establish the Golf Club.
The meeting elected Dick Halpin as President; Ian "Rick" McDougall as Secretary; and Noel Warwick as Treasurer.
The first Bellingen Golf Club News was published in the paper on 6th March 1980 written by "Divot Dick" who said`: "Hope everyone has noticed how the fairways of our local links have improved - and what a stunning entrance to our town with Connell Park on one side and the green golf links on the other."
There were now 60 financial members and 44 paid nomination fees. Various fund raising ventures were undertaken and social gatherings at the golf club with long drive competitions and novelty golf shots. The High School was using the links on sports days to encourage young ones to have an interest in golf.
At the Annual General Meeting in July 1980, retiring President, Dick Halpin, reported that the course had come along extremely well due to the fine work by a band on voluntary workers. He named: Rick McDougall, Gerry Bailey, Sally Taylor, Wal Hobson and Bill Denham.
Office Bearers elected were: President: Hal Hobson; Vice Presidents: John Hammond and Terry Hayes; Secretary: Rick McDougall; Treasurer: Noel Warwick; Committee: Bill Denham; Ernie Goodwin; Stan Novak; Wal Hobson; Phil Kelly and Jack Neill.
It was decided that the 9 holes be accurately measured and scorecards printed, and that markers be placed on the course so that competition play could commence at an early date.
The treasurer reported that the Club had spent $3500 on ground improvements, machinery and equipment, and rates.
The layout for the golf course was printed in the Courier-Sun on 23rd July 1980
The course was approximately 2000 metres in length with the shortest hole 150 metres and the longest over 300 metres, made up of four par 4s and five par 3s.
There was a natural hazard beside the green on the 4th hole. A huge river oak tree had been washed away leaving a crater about 20 metres across, full of rocks, shrubs and vines in which many balls were lost.
Competition play commenced in August 1980. The competition was over nine holes at any time as often as desired for the week commencing each Friday. There were 19 entrants in the first week, starting Friday 15th August. The winner was Ted Rixon with 30½ strokes.Tom McMullen was second.
Golfers were welcome to use the course at any time and cards were available from Gerry Bailey, (house nearest the links) and there was a box at the house where cards maybe left after the game.
Lady golfers conducted their first competition on Saturday 13th September with 20 nominations including a number of Urunga Associates.
Gross winner was H. Chelman and Handicap winner was J. Sanbrook over 18 holes. There was a nine hole competition for learners and balls were won by P. Drayton, M. Machon, R. Mitchell and S. Brown. [No scores were mentioned]
The inaugural meeting of the Bellingen Golf Club Associates was held on 2 nd October 1980. Betty Novak was elected the first President and Madge Warner Vice-President. Secretary was Vera de Bree, Treasurer Jessie Bailey, Captain Joan Sambrook, Vice-Captain Vilma Neill, Handicapper Edna Poole, and Publicity Officer Jean Tait. They agreed that the ladies would hold a regular competition every Saturday beginning on 4 th October. The fee for Saturdays would be $1 per person with 20c for green fees. Thursdays golf fee would be 50c with 20c for green fees.
May Carratti was offering golf lessons for ladies to encourage their involvement in the game.
The first members competition over 18 holes was held on Saturday 22 nd November with 16 starters. The winner of the trophy presented by Rick McDougall was Hal Hobson with 62 net; Runner Up was Wal Hobson with 63. Several players had net 64.
Associates winner was Betty Novak with 74 net. The 9 hole weekly competition continued.
In February 1981, Ladies Day was held every Tuesday over 9 holes as well as Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The men were playing 18 holes on Saturday and 9 holes on Sunday as well as the weekly 9 hole ball competition.
A letter from the NSWLGU in September 1981 accepted the Associates affiliation and confirmed the scratch score as 63. This was later reduced to 62 in October 1982.
The first Club Championship for men was over 54 holes held on 18 th, 25 th October and 1 st November 1981.
A Grade winner was Tony Brown and B Grade was won by Kevin Sheriden.
The ladies played their championships over 36 holes on Tuesdays 15 th and 22nd June 1982 with 16 starters each day. The cost was $3.00 per person with prizes for 18 hole gross and net on each day for A and B graders with the champion being the best gross over 36 holes. The winner was Vilma Neill.
Throughout 1982/83, the golf course was referred to as the "Meadows".
In 1983, Life Membership was bestowed on G. Bailey; W. Hobson; A. Kenny;
I McDougall; and S Taylor. The President, in his report to the AGM in July said: "Over the last four and a half years, these fellows turned the Meadows into a golf course virtually with their bare hands and have continued to maintain same to a very high standard."
Others who gave many hours of their time in developing were Terry Hedges and Phil Kelly who used their own tractors and mowers; Doug Snell loaned his tractor and dozer; and Spud Lavender, Council foreman, who was useful when the club needed the use of council equipment.
In the early years, Sally Taylor and Ron Kenny voluntarily mowed the course for years. In later years, Bill Jarrett and Gordon Wagner gave many hours a week of their time to maintain the course.
The lease on the lower or East End of the course expired in October 1983. Fences were removed and the whole area cleared of unnecessary trees and prepared for mowing. After it was mown several times, three temporary greens were prepared near where permanent ones would be built.
Hal Hobson recalls playing conditions during that time: "When the new area was available in 1983, the fairways although grassed, but which had been subject to farming for many years, were all furrows and very rough. These smoothed out fairly rapidly once play was commenced. We were playing the new layout while it was still being cleared of old barbed wire fences, posts and trees. Some of the camphor laurel trees are still in existence on the second and fourth fairways. Driving off on the 4 th tee in those early days, the fairway ahead contained great piles of tree trunks ready for burning and players had to hit over or around them - quite difficult on a long par 5."
Retired Golf Professional, Jim McInnes who was living in Sawtell, gave freely of his advice and assistance for the new layout on which play began in autumn 1984.
The course rating was 72, consisting of two par 5s, two par 3s, and five par 4s. Generally, holes were much longer and though not bunkered, some greens had high banks that were to become a feature of Bellingen Golf Course.
Over the following years, more trees were planted, nine extra tee positions built to create an 18 hole hit-off if only to 9 greens.
At one stage, Phil Kelly had planted 40 citrus trees on the course. Most have been replaced but they did and still do provide tasty fruit for golfers.
In March 1988, a letter from the NSWGA confirmed the ratings for the course.
Length was 5843 metres, ACR 69 and Par 72.
One of the most contentious issues to be discussed over the years has been the course layout and the position of the first hole in particular.
In November 1986, it was suggested that the course be altered so that holeNo 4 be played as the first. Thus holes 1, 2 & 3 become 7, 8 & 9. There was to be a trial period of one month with the Match Committee to finally decide. Nothing happened and the issued was not raised again until July/August 1989, and in December it was decided to hit off from the 4 th as the 1 st from January 1990. Again it did not happen. In July 1990, the committee was unanimous in making the 13 th tee No1; but it was not until October 13 th 1990 that the 4th was to be played as the 1st. At that time there was also reported a lot of discussion on a new course layout.
A number of floods over the 21 years have taken minor toll of various parts of the course, particularly on the lower portions of the course adjacent to the river. Two floods in February and March 2001 were the most destructive, washing away a large portion of the riverbank below the clubhouse and on the river flat. Two holes were lost which changed the course; And a new era began for the Bellingen golf course.
Nev Wisely, builder, with a lot of voluntary labour, organised the construction of the clubhouse. Work began in mid-1982 with the concrete slab poured in October.
It was completed in winter the following year when the RSL Club fully completed the whole building, installed the cool room and equipped an excellent bar and laid carpet throughout the main area. Jack Neill did all the electrical wiring. The Associates furnished the kitchen and donated a clock and several paintings as well as cleaning and catering.
The Bellingen RSL Golf Clubhouse was officially opened on 6 th November 1983 by the Shire President, Gordon Braithwaite.
The cost was thought to be about $70,000.
Officials on that occasion were: Phil Kelly, President of the Bellingen RSL Club;
Hal Hobson, President of the Bellingen Golf Club; Noel Warwick, Secretary of the Bellingen Golf Club; Rick McDougall, Treasurer of Bellingen Golf Club and Bellingen RSL Club.
The first "clubhouse" was a garden shed built to store petrol, mower and Rick McDougalls clubs. It was situated at the back of Phil and Jean Kellys house. Their neighbours were Gerry and Jessie Bailey.
Most times, the "clubhouse" for after golf drinks was near this shed or in the Baileys backyard sitting on the ground or on eskies.
A story is told that one day Rick was playing around in the shed and next minute it went up in flames.
A Golf Shop was equipped and run by Professional, Tom Hardwick, the only golf professional to be based at the club. He came to Bellingen in 1993 after freelancing in the area, giving lessons from Dorrigo to Macksville and Woolgoolga.
Extensions to the Bellingen RSL Golf Club were opened on Wednesday 18 th August 1993. The two-story extension included a lounge area above equipment storage space as well as refurbishment of the existing club. A feature was the island bar.
In following years, a concrete veranda was added and various changes made to the interior layout especially after 3 rd November1997 when the RSL Club and the Golf Club combined to form the Bellingen RSL Country Club.