Keeping Things Moving – The Journey of Superintendent Chris Burgess
From diving for lost balls in the Lake Course dams to taking the reins as Head Superintendent, Chris Burgess’ Yarra Golf journey has come full circle.
While growing up in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs, Burgess was no stranger to Yarrawonga Mulwala.
His father, Geoff, was a plumbing contractor at the Mulwala ammunitions factory and Chris would regularly ride along with his Dad on trips to the region.
“We’d come up here for Easter, Christmas, long weekends. Dad would be working, and we’d be looking around for things to do,” Burgess told the Kipsey.
“When I was about 8, I found an old set of clubs in the shed and decided to try golf. Pretty soon I was hooked! One of our members, Norm Coleman, noticed me out there one day and really helped develop my game.
“I just loved being out on the course. I remember I used to crawl into the water on the 8th hole of the Lake every night with a bucket, looking for golf balls to practice with! ”
A few years on, Burgess, now a board member of the Australian Sports Turf Managers Association, became Superintendent of Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club Resort in 2010.
The rise to Superintendant was the culmination of a greenkeeping career that began at age 17 with an apprenticeship at Lloyd Williams’ ultra-private Capital Golf Club.
With a tee sheet featuring some of the world’s biggest stars, such as Hollywood celebrities Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Costner, and NBA superstars Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, Capital GC provided an unrivalled education in presenting a first-class golf course.
“The money spent on it was incredible, said Burgess.
“During the construction phase, I remember we actually finished building all 18-holes, laid out all the turf, but Lloyd wasn’t happy with the design, so we ended up ripping it all up the next day and starting again.
“We’d go months without anyone playing the course, but it always had to be in A1 condition, just in case someone came in. It was the best-conditioned golf course I’ve ever set eyes on.”
After completing his apprenticeship, Chris reached out to an overseas contact who put him in touch with the superintendent overseeing the construction of Kingsbarns Golf Course, near St Andrews in Scotland.
“I basically just wrote a letter and got a phone call back saying, ‘when can you get here?’. They’ve got plenty of golf courses in Scotland, but not a lot of blokes with course construction skills.
“I was put in charge of machinery, greens and bunker construction. It was just an incredible experience.”
Recently listed among the world’s top-100 golf courses, Burgess enjoyed a productive 2-year stint at Kingsbarns, helping launch the seaside course that now plays host to the European Tour’s Dunhill Links tournament.
Returning to Capital thereafter and graduating from foreman to Assistant Greenkeeper, Burgess found his first Superintendent position at Lang Lang Golf Club in 2006.
“I went from a golf course that had probably the most money in Australia, to Lang Lang, which basically had nothing”.
While loving his time at Lang Lang, Burgess soon married a local Mulwala girl, with the pair keeping a keen eye on the Yarrawonga Mulwala area with the dream of one day calling it home.
This dream was soon realised in the summer of 2008 when Chris accepted a contract to become the new Superintendent at Black Bull Golf Course in Yarrawonga.
With Black Bull GC under construction, Chris and his new team got to work on what was then a vast barren, dirt paddock and began sculpting out the Peter Thompson designed lakeside course.
With only 12 holes completed, the impact of the global financial crisis pulled a halt to development and threw Burgess’ Murray River golfing career into limbo.
Thankfully, this period of uncertainty aligned perfectly with a new opportunity at Yarrawonga Mulwala Golf Club Resort, with the departure of superintendent Mike Swanwick in 2010.
With the course in need of fresh ideas, Burgess was the ideal fit.
“When I came in, the greens needed some attention, so that was my first goal, but overall you could see that both courses needed a facelift.
“There were plenty of golf courses along the Murray River that looked like ours, so to help us go to that next level, we really needed to go further than just improve the conditioning.”
Over the next 10-years, Burgess and his tight-knit ground staff have indeed taken Yarra Golf to the next level.
Under his leadership, both the Murray and Lake Courses have pushed inside the top-70 public courses in Australia and played host to a number of the prestigious tournaments, including the annual PGA Legends Tour event, the Senior Victorian Open.
“It’s definitely a labour of love. We’re out there, rain, hail or shine, that’s for sure. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. The boys I have on staff, they’ve been here 10, 15 years. You don’t stay that long if you don’t love it.
“Guys like Trevor Elliot, who has really developed his course knowledge, has been incredible. He’s an assistant to me, but he could be a superintendent anywhere.”
The challenge now for Burgess and his team is continuing the progress.
“You’ve got to keep the momentum up. I just love it when we get visitors come up and say that the courses just get better every time they play here. That’s the most satisfying thing.
“Whether it’s building new golf holes, new greens, we can’t just sit on our hands and accept what we’ve got. It is a business, after all. Courses are built and improved every year, and that creates competition for golfers.
“We need to keep Yarra Golf at the top of the list.”
With a new group of apprentices starting this Summer, and new projects in the pipeline, the future of Yarra Golf’s most important assets couldn’t be in better hands.