Fast (and slow) times at Wattle Park

By my reckoning Caddyshack and Crackerjack were cinema classics even before I worked in the golf and bowls industries, where it became apparent just how uncannily art imitated life. And there was plenty of ‘Crackershack’ material during my misspent youth at Wattle Park Golf Course, nestled in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs.

‘So where do you usually play?’

I hated that question, late last century when it seemed perfectly acceptable to expend countless hours obsessively smacking a little white ball about.

‘Um, mostly Wattle Park’, I’d respond, somewhat embarrassed.

‘Ha, that old goat track’, would come the standard conversation killing guffaw.

Few appreciated the beautiful scenery, city view, flora and fauna, or the intricacies of the narrow rolling fairways and postage stamp greens.  Sure, rubber door mats as tees wasn’t ideal, nor was losing your ball in a crack on the long, concrete 2nd fairway in summer – but crikey you’d get value for your drive!

Nevermind, I still loved the place, particularly for the absence of loathesome golf club wankery. It was a second home post-VCE, when I scored a handy cash gig running the pro shop on weekends, and by extension, as much free golf, pies and ice creams one could consume.

It wasn’t all ginger beer and Skittles though. Silent and grey winter days were tedious, but it was the frantic, endless summer Sundays when every cent was really hard earned. Working solo, from dawn (some nutters were already rounding the 3rd by then) to dark would be spliced with the odd attempted theft, and more commonly, brouhahas inflamed by four hour (9 hole) rounds.

My hairiest moment arose when putting the flags out one frosty morning. Many a hack came unstuck hitting over the creek on the fourth. When the adjacent hill was too steep for the RV’s handbrake to handle, the marauding buggy headed for the same watery grave. It took all my speed, strength and dumb courage to chase down and save it (and in that split second, I thought, my job). Ironically, the bastard was always nigh impossible to get started.

At night Wattle Park was a haven for drunken shenanigans, and next morning a trail of desecration could be found. Notwithstanding, filling the cups with poo went to subterranean senses of humour. Turd-in-the-hole anyone?

Personally, as the world’s most impatient golfer, I empathised for those growing old, caught in the Sunday log jam on members’ competition day. Nine holes with no booking system, and prices fixed since the introduction of decimal currency ($2.35 for 9, $3.40 to go round twice) – at its worst the queue stretched from the first tee, up the path, past the shop and into the next day.

Suffice to say, Sundays at Royal and Ancient Wattle Park was Hack City, and what was potentially lost on green fees was certainly made up for in snacks and club hire. I was fortunate not to be held up at gun point.

The monthly big band day at the nearby rotunda elicited the most dread.   A slow ritual migration of seniors would crowd out the golfers in the shop to order their ‘cup of chino’. I wasn’t a barista’s bootlace and had not the time nor skill to work the dog of a coffee machine I’d conveniently label ‘out of order’.  ‘Will instant do?’

An aspect of Wattle Park I enjoyed was the eclectic clientele.  Jeff Kennett and his offspring occasionally frequented the course, back when the then Victorian Premier filled me with idealistic rage. The one time I served JGK through gritted teeth he stiffed me on his $2 buggy hire. Barry O’Farrell can count himself unlucky.

A number of AFL players also breezed through, including a flamboyant goal kicker who stiffed my manager on paying for a new set of Calloways, but it was the ones who flew over the cuckoo’s nest I found more interesting.

One poor manic depressive literally played flog (golf backwards) for therapy, inventing his own random path around the course. My manager (ripper bloke, Bob Irving) said let him be.  ‘As long as no one gets hurt’.  Much like the harmless homeless guy who’d materialise somewhere on the course and regale unsuspecting players with the same lame joke (why are golf and marriage similar? No two days are ever the same) to the point where one couldn’t suppress a pre-emptive smirk.  Another regular had this endearing habit of compulsively saying ‘thankyou-please’ at the end of most sentences.  A polite form of Tourette’s if you like.

My all time favourite customer wouldn’t have known a bunker from a divot. One blazing hot day she wandered in from Heaven for some refreshments. Suddenly I was in a 1980’s soft drink commercial. I’ll never forget her standing at the counter, struggling to contain those ice cold cans, her sheer white singlet struggling to contain those… and um, where was I? Elle MacPherson in her famous Tab commercial had nothing on this honey.

It’s poor form to speak ill of the dead but the ultimate mood killer was the aging pro, whom I reckon retired as a player shortly after Old Tom Morris. His claim to fame was coaching a teenage David Graham. Come the afternoon, after his long lunch at the nearby Chalet restaurant, it was the stolid stench of imminent death warmed up by the house red which filled the shop. He’d just sit there at his desk, wistfully staring out the window – the cha-ching of the register reminding him to inhale and exhale.

Finally, the arrival of course security/flag collector, Alan – with a 115 year old’s head on a 75 year old’s body – signalled the end was nigh. His son, a Jesus lookalike with the disposition of an introverted Buddhist, provided backup should there be any trouble. Lord have mercy…  Toothless Al could gum your ears off for hours with tales of footy thugs, Festival Hall pugs and life on the mean streets of Depression-era Richmond. Even in the last throes of my 14 hour shift I enjoyed the kind of conversations I never got to have with my grandfathers.

Inevitably new management swept in and my card was marked. My next and final golf gig was at Albert Park working for a former police detective, a cross between Caddyshack’s Judge Smails and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.

That was a much darker sequel.



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