Design Notes

Gil Hanse gets the A-OK to reimagine Australia’s Royal Sydney

Rees Jones touches up North Carolina’s Old Chatham; Wisconsin’s Lawsonia Links gets the Oliphant bunker treatment

Rory McIlroy 2013 Australian Open.JPG
Rory McIlroy en route to winning the 2013 Australian Open at Royal Sydney Golf Club.

The road has been long and winding, but this past week, the lights turned green for the comprehensive renovation of Royal Sydney Golf Club.

Now 129 years old, Sydney’s oldest and most prestigious club has turned to Gil Hanse to perform the work. Hanse first presented his redesign proposal in March 2017 and after several tweaks, it was approved by the members in November 2019.

However, the proposal suggested the removal of nearly 600 trees, which drew the ire of residents’ groups and environmentalists. After years tied up in hearings and other legal proceedings, the New South Wales Land and Environment Court approved the club’s revised plans on Dec. 1. Concurrently, the Woollahra Council agreed on a compromise plan to save a portion of the trees that were slated for removal.

RELATED: Design Notes archive

Royal Sydney has played host to 15 Australian Opens, starting in 1906. Winners have included Bruce Crampton, Gary Player and Mark Calcavecchia, and, most recently, Rory McIlroy in 2013 and Jordan Spieth in 2016. Its layout experienced a bunker renovation by Alister MacKenzie, during his legendary 1926 visit to Australia.

However, after Spieth’s victory, what had become apparent to the club was that the course no longer functioned optimally, with congested playing corridors, trees restricting airflow and drainage and irrigation failing. Hanse’s team, including Australian landscape architect Harley Kruse, formerly a longtime associate with Greg Norman Design, plans on removing the offending trees that cause the most issues with shade and safety and replacing them with more environmentally friendly trees and shrubs. Utilizing more open areas in the native sandy coastal soil will partly transform the character of the course from parkland to heathland. Hanse and Kruse will then redesign many of the holes to better reflect and highlight the natural terrain.

"Our championship course has not undergone such a comprehensive renovation for 100 years," club president Chris Chapman said in 2019. "The course and its in-ground and on-ground infrastructure are showing their age and would have had to be resolved at some point in the near future. In addressing these issues through the vision of one of the world’s best golf course architects, the club will create an important sanctuary of native flora and fauna in Sydney’s eastern suburbs — an incredible opportunity. This re-imagined Championship course will stand among the finest heath courses and be contemporary, playable and sustainable."

In addition to a new "two loops of nine" routing, Jane Buckley, the club’s women’s captain, said that the new design will create a more multi-faceted course for all levels of golfers.

"A ‘ribbon’ design on our tee areas will create greater variation among the four sets of tees — the front-most tees provide simpler shots onto the fairway, while those further back face increased challenges," Buckley said. "The new approach to bunker design and placement emphasizes strategy rather than penalty. Similarly, with 64 percent more fairway space and wider playing corridors, the course will provide for more shot selection for different strategic approaches. What these design factors mean is that diverse playing groups — men and women, younger and older, newer golfers and more advanced — can play together more harmoniously with challenges suited to their ability level."

Stephen Martin, Royal Sydney’s men’s captain, outlined several of the specific enhancements to the new championship venue.

"As well as the design features, the redevelopment will allow us to rebuild our greens using USGA construction and methodology and SubAir drainage technology," he said. "Our bunkers will be constructed with a new liner to also aid drainage, as well as improved bunker sand and entry points to increase playability, safety and speed of play."

Also, Martin marveled at the positive effects the new landscape plan will have on golfers and non-golfers.

"The new landscape will not only complement the course design by providing more fairway space, but will also present a number of sustainable benefits," he said. "It will almost quadruple our current floral diversity — including several rare and endangered species — as well as add an additional 144 trees over the current tree count. The heathland species will thrive naturally in our local environment, meaning the club's turf-care team will be able to reduce watering and other inputs for the course’s rough and landscaped areas. We also anticipate that the new landscape will result in a wider variety of native animal species making Royal Sydney their home."

Work on the reimagined Royal Sydney will start in 2024.


Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, North Carolina, is undergoing a comprehensive set of renovation projects by original course architect Rees Jones, ahead of its hosting the 2026 U.S. Girls’ Junior. The 21-year-old layout previously played host to the 2019 U.S. Senior Amateur.

Jones and associate Greg Muirhead began their refinements in 2021, continued them throughout 2022 and will likely conclude their work in 2023. Among the improvements overseen by Jones and Muirhead are converting fairways to Zorro zoysiagrass, and greens to Mach 1 Ultradwarf bermudagrass.

Also, the Jones team is adding bunkers and rebuilding others, rebuilding tees, adding undulations to the new greens and adding a new water feature on the par-4 16th hole.

One of America’s Top 100 public courses, the Links course at The Golf Courses of Lawsonia in Green Lake, Wisconsin, continued an ongoing bunker restoration in 2022 that would take the course back as closely as possible to its 1930 origins.

Designed by William Boice Langford and Theodore Moreau, a legendary Midwestern team that employed a similarly engineered, often linear style as Eastern stalwart Seth Raynor, Lawsonia’s Links has been working on one bunker at a time, on one hole at a time.

Craig Haltom, vice president of Oliphant Golf, Lawsonia’s management company, is overseeing the 2022 work.

"One thing that we have realized by looking closely at the historic [1937] aerials is that the course has indeed changed very little since the 1930s," said Haltom to Midwest Golfing. "There are a couple bunkers, like in the fairway on Number 16, where one bunker had been split into two, probably for erosion control or drainage reasons. It has been fun to figure out details like that with our consulting historian and Langford/Moreau expert, Dan Moore."

At the same time, improving drainage and sand quality are accompanying the restoration of the bunker specs. Restoring grassed-over bunkers, re-locating cart paths and re-aligning mowing lines (to restore width, angles and strategy) are also part of the process.

Haltom plans on continuing the work started by architect Ron Forse in 1998, together with superintendent Mike Berwick, on removing trees and restoring the course features to their original dimensions.

Most of the bunker restoration work will take place over the winter and into 2023. Current superintendent Mike Lyons also assisted in the work that took place in 2022 on Links’ sibling, the Woodlands, which saw the par-5 18th hole transform from a squirrely dogleg right to a less controversial, straighter hole.