Exclusive First Look: Cathedral Lodge
Australia’s newest golf course, Cathedral Lodge, officially opens this month. Here’s why it could be Greg Norman’s finest achievement in golf course design – and the most satisfying deal investment banker David Evans has ever brokered.
TAKE it as this gospel: there’s nothing quite like Cathedral Lodge - Australia’s newest golf course opening this month - anywhere in the country.
“Anywhere in the world, for that matter,” adds its enthusiastic designer Greg Norman, who’s jetting back from the United States to crush the opening tee shot on a parcel of land he firmly believes has all the hallmarks of a world top-100 showstopper.
Inspired by owner David Evans’ affinity for Augusta National, Cathedral Lodge sits two hours north-east of Melbourne on the banks of the Goulburn River, near Alexandra in the Murrindindi Shire, and leaves nothing to the imagination.
Carved out of natural canyon land and intersected with flowing creeks and an endless array of colours, it’s a course tipped to rival Norman’s famous Kerry Packer project, Ellerston. But any comparisons to the country’s No.6-ranked course should stop there, says Norman.
“The Cathedral Lodge property is unique in that it’s a canyon shape with a ridge running through the middle of it, where you go up the ridge on one side of the valley and back down it on the other side of the valley,” says Norman. “Ellerston, meanwhile, was so spread out, so vast, so big and a totally different story.”
Adding to the contrast, Norman says the design blueprint for both projects couldn’t have been further apart.
“Kerry just said, ‘Build me a f---ing great golf course,’” he recalls. “Playability wasn’t an issue for Kerry. He just wanted a tough course, a course that even I would find difficult as the world’s No.1 player at the time. I remember he’d stand there and say, ‘OK, son. How would you play this hole and how would you make it tougher for yourself?’ That was Kerry. I built a course to match his personality of wanting to challenge anything and everything.
“Conversely, David wanted playability with Cathedral Lodge – and he was there every step of the way, walking with me during the entire design process.
“The easiest thing in the world to do is build the hardest course in the world. The hardest thing to do is build a balanced golf course. Catering for someone who only carries it 80 metres and those who bomb it 300 metres – these are the complexities of being a golf course designer in today’s game. But I enjoyed the challenge with Cathedral and I think the end result could be one of my favourite courses.”
After years of flying to America with his late father to watch the Masters, Evans decided he wanted to build his very own private, American-style country club for family, friends and business associates.
“Dad and I used to go to Masters every three-or-so years and one day I said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have something like this back home?’” says Evans, a stockbroker by trade who rose to prominence at Goldman Sachs before branching out to set up his own investment bank a decade ago. “The idea was to create that private country club feel with the American service model and a beautifully manicured course that members would be proud to play.”
After spending time as chairman of the Essendon Football Club during its infamous doping scandal, where he helped steer the club through its darkest hours, Evans resigned from the honourary role and quickly shifted his focus to his other great passion in life.
“I always wanted to build a golf course on my property and after being lucky enough to play Ellerston, I decided the time was right,” says Evans.
Adds Norman: “But at no point was David asking me to replicate the holes of Augusta National. What he wanted me to replicate was Augusta’s feeling and atmosphere, the uniqueness of the place and the exclusive nature of how the club is run.”
With the Goulburn River flowing majestically along the property, Norman quickly went to work, starting with all the green locations, where he identified the more spectacular sites and worked backwards from there. “We had to work out what the flood and wetland issues were,” recalls Norman. “I ended up walking up and down each hole eight to 10 times, just looking at where the landing areas should be and where the tees should go. The elevations were so dramatic I had to look at it from every possible angle – more so than any other course I’ve designed. The typography of the land was so magical to work with and the wildlife on the property is simply amazing. We let the kangaroos and wombats just roam free.”
The end result of Norman’s toil is a spectacular 18-hole layout that came in “well under budget” and is highlighted by the head-turning, 250-metre, uphill par 4 12th hole that cleverly connects the two sections of the property.
“I saw this beautiful eucalyptus tree in the middle and thought, This could be a really great short hole for the big hitters,” says Norman. “Yet from 90 metres in it demands an extremely tough shot. The complexity of the hole is what will be talked about. I had to make a few tweaks for the ladies during my last trip, but it’s what makes it a fantastic golf hole.”
Several holes are beautifully framed by spectacular backdrops of Cathedral Mountain, while Norman says parts of the layout are so tucked away they allow you to “quiet your mind” while playing.
“At the very beginning when we were just starting to push dirt around, I hiked up to one of the highest points on the property and just stood there for 15 minutes on my own, watching the sunset and listening to the birds,” says Norman. “I was in my own place and actually recorded a video of it and posted it on Instagram. I rarely do that on design jobs but Cathedral Lodge captured the beauty of Australia – I simply had to share it with the rest of the world.”
Evans, who admits he didn’t consider anyone else for the job, says Norman nailed the brief to a tee.
“Greg asked me what I was looking for and I said, first and foremost, I wanted fast but fair greens like Royal Melbourne, where I’m also a member,” he says. “I also wanted beautiful MacKenzie-style bunkering and some really unique and spectacular short par 4s, which he has well and truly delivered. Greg’s had an enormous amount of passion for this project from the word go. He’s been on-site a lot throughout the whole process and his company are also in charge of the build itself, so that’s been a bonus. It’s come out way better than I ever envisaged. The debt of gratitude our family owes him can’t be overstated. Not only is Cathedral Lodge a wonderful golf course but the experience all the way through has been amazing. Greg was just a delight to work with.”
Evans intends on capping membership numbers to “around 170-180” and getting a ticket here is by invitation only.
“It’s only going to be a very small membership – and 65 spots have already been filled before the official opening,” he says.
But don’t give up hope just yet. Evans has big plans for the course moving forward that could see you getting a game. There’s just one small catch – you’ll most likely have to be a tour pro.
“Ultimately I’d love to have a tournament played at Cathedral Lodge on an annual basis,” he says. “With portions of the course only six months old, I’ve allowed myself to look forward a few years when it’s fully matured and it makes me genuinely excited to think where it could get to.”
Asked where he thinks it could rank on the world stage, Norman kept his cards close to his chest.
“I’ll leave it in the lap of the judges,” he says. “All I know is I did the best possible job with my team. We did it with a tremendous amount of passion and pride. We worked with an owner exuding passion and excitement and that pushed us to find ways to make it even better. I personally exhausted myself to make sure David walked away happy, because if he’s happy, I’m happy.”