The extraordinary story behind Australia’s newest 18-hole golf course and the people who built it.
It was a course that Wayne Perske had visited once before.
Residing in Brisbane as he forged a career on the Japan Golf Tour, Perske and his wife would sneak away from the bright lights of the city to the serenity of the tiny village of Maleny in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.
It was only an hour’s drive but may have been another world away. The sleepy contentedness of the town left a lasting impression, even if the golf course that was being pieced together slowly by a hardy band of volunteers didn’t.
“I knew a little bit about the golf club; I knew that it was a long time coming,” Perske tells The Professional.
“I didn’t know the finer points, the politics and the blood, sweat and tears that went into it.
“I had played here many years ago when it was just scratched out. It wasn’t in great condition at that stage but I did enjoy the layout.
“I thought it could be something cool but never thought it would be. I just thought it would end up staying that way, a couple of blokes with hand mowers doing tees and greens. But it’s morphing into something way cooler.”
Perske’s sole win in Japan came at the 2006 Token Homemate Cup and 10 years later he left life on tour behind.
He dabbled in real estate, completed the PGA Professional Bridging Program to become a Full Vocational PGA Member and worked out of Golf Central in Brisbane before taking his family on a trip around Australia.
With one foot on the sand at Margaret River south of Perth and the other feeling the Indian Ocean lapping at his ankles, Perske received word that a job he had applied for prior to the car departing Brisbane was his.
“You can ask my wife; I said I’d never be a club pro. I just couldn’t see myself doing the role of a club pro day in and day out, but this place is different,” Perske explains of his decision to apply to be Maleny Golf Club’s Manager/ Professional.
“There’s a feeling here and I feel very passionately about the philosophy of the club. It really is the way golf should be moving forward.
“We always wanted to settle in Maleny and there’s only one job here for a golf pro.
“I didn’t expect it to be what it’s turned out to be.”
The Sunshine Coast was not immune from the severe lack of rain that gripped much of the eastern seaboard in the latter half of 2019 and facilitated a delay to Maleny Golf Club opening its completed 18-hole layout.
That ultimately happened on February 15, the latest milestone in a 20-year fight to make it a reality.
When Dr Max Whitten’s great-great-grandfather arrived in Australia almost 200 years ago, there was a space on the immigration form titled ‘Probable Usefulness’.
That would become the title of a book detailing the Whitten family ancestry and the mantra by which Max has mobilised the Maleny community.
Elevated to the position of president by default when the interim president moved to Victoria in 2001, Whitten stepped down in September 2019 with the end of a two-decade journey in sight.
He has only stepped so far as the vice presidency at this stage and concedes there were times when establishing an 18-hole golf course in Maleny faced seemingly insurmountable odds.
“In 2010 we had a meeting with council officers. They wanted us to shift some tees because of the wetland, which also meant a green had to be shifted,” Whitten recalls.
“I said, ‘If that’s what you want, we’re pulling out.’ “They backed off at that point but there have been plenty of other obstacles.
“In 2018 we had only $225,000 from Council to build the last six holes. I put in a bid to Sport Australia for $200,000, I put in a bid to State Government for $150,000 and $35,000 to the State Gambling Fund.
“On Christmas Eve I got knocked back by all of them. I kept that to myself until after Christmas.
“Because of the demand, there was a second round of grants issued by Sport Australia for those who had missed out. In February I got a call from our local politician who said, ‘I’ve got some good news for you, you got your $200,000.’
“There were a few occasions where it got tough but I used to tell people to go home and get some sleep and I’d lie awake and worry about it.”
When course construction began in March 2014 the club hired former Headland Golf Club course foreman Mick McCombe to oversee the works and he quickly bought in to the Whitten philosophy of ‘probable usefulness’.
Initially, McCombe was it. But now with only two full-time greens staff under him, he has harnessed the power of an army of volunteers to perform a variety of tasks, including mowing fairways and greens and building rivetted bunker faces with 80,000 mats of unwanted synthetic turf cut to size by hand. They even built him a maintenance shed.
“We had a plumber, we had a builder, we had a tiler, electrician, they all came and did their bit for nothing. It was incredible and saved us so much money,” recalls McCombe, who was awarded the AGCSA’s Excellence in Golf Course Management award in 2016 following the completion of the initial nine holes.
“When I first started I told Max that I couldn’t deal with so many people. He said I had to train people to train people. That’s always stuck with me.
“I taught guys how to run mowers and now they’re teaching their mate to run that same mower. “All I’ve got to do is to try and direct that energy.
“It’s really turned into something different than what I thought it was going to be.”
Free of pretention and built from the ground up by those who will grace its fairways for the foreseeable future, Maleny Golf Club is a triumph not simply for the golf that it has created but the people it has united.
A 20-year labour of love that has endured many days of frustration and sleepless nights for those driving the cause forward, it is now a golf course with a collection of holes placed delicately within the existing landscape, farmland that was bought for the people of Maleny for use as community recreation.
It is this caveat in such challenging economic conditions that shapes to be Maleny’s greatest strength.
A walking trail surrounds the course and leads directly into the charming township, the course itself has been used as the host venue for the Queensland and National Cross Country Championships and abutting what will be the second fairway is the Maleny Bridge Club, public park and future site of playing fields and equestrian centre.
The golf club is even open at night for the use of astronomy buffs eager to use its elevated locale – and minimal light pollution – to look deep into the dark sky above.
Originally engaged by the Sunshine Coast Regional Council to incorporate a golf course design within what was the Maleny Community Precinct masterplan in November 2009, course architect Graham Papworth soon become aware of the challenges the Maleny Golf Club had faced over the previous decade to simply reach that point.
“Under normal circumstances someone would have given up on that job,” Papworth says matter-of-factly.
“They had so many obstacles in their road in terms of approvals and conditions that were put on the project but Max doesn’t take a backward step.
“He was definitely the driving force behind that course.”
Save for some sites in Japan not suited for golf in the first place, the Maleny golf course boasts the most dramatic topography that Papworth has ever worked on.
Responsible also for the designs at Noosa Springs and Lynwood Country Club among many others, Papworth had budgetary and environmental restrictions to navigate yet had just enough space and landscape features to design 18 dramatic, fun and visually pleasing golf holes.
“There is just enough difference in shapes and enough room to be able to effectively utilise the ridges and then the flatter parts of the cross slopes and some of the valleys,” Papworth adds.
“If it was a little bit smaller you’d struggle to fit 18 holes but it was just big enough to do that.
“We couldn’t afford to do much in the way of earthworks but we didn’t really want to because the ground was generally such that we were able to work with the existing contour, especially the green sites. Most of those sit on the natural ground.
“That’s what made it quite as different and as picturesque as it is, just being able to flow with the contours that are there.”
The completed Maleny course opens with a mid-length downhill par 3 before a broad, sweeping par 5 on the western-most side of the property.
A wonderful opening trio is rounded out by a short par 4 with three distinct green sections before moving on to a three-hole pocket in the south-west corner.
The front nine closes with a lengthy roller-coaster par 4 and holes 11 and 12 play either side of a wetland that adds to the Scottish highland feel the club is trying to create.
Long rough well wide of the playing corridors will enhance that links look and deliver what will ultimately be a golf course the people of Maleny will have to share with golfers from far and wide fond of the game’s earliest traditions.
“It is the way of the future, a shorter golf course that requires a lot of strategy,” Perske offers.
“We get quite a lot of people telling us that this has the potential to become the jewel of the Sunshine Coast.
“I can certainly see that happening.”