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Proposed sale of land owned by Melbourne’s Jewish golf club tipped to raise $120m-$150m

Ashley Browne
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Published: 18 March 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ASHLEY BROWNE: This week’s announcement of the future sale of the land owned by Cranbourne Country Club will change the horizon for Jewish golfers and unlock a potentially huge cash injection into the Jewish community

WEDNESDAY’S ANNOUNCEMENT THAT Cranbourne Golf Club, one of the sporting jewels of the Melbourne Jewish community, will be closing its doors in late 2025 and becoming part of a revamped Huntingdale Golf Club, will have massive reverberations.

It is worth examining on a few fronts: the potential cash injection into Victorian Jewish community initiatives, and the impact on golf itself. Let’s start with golf, which is a more straightforward story.

The club was founded in 1951, when a group of Jewish golfers, having been refused membership at Melbourne’s leading clubs because of - well, you know why - decided to form their own club.

Cranbourne itself was then just a series of paddocks, far from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, but the club became the home for Jewish golf and once it opened, the community flocked there.

It was a good course, perhaps a touch long, but was consistently ranked in the top 60 in Australia and considered good enough to twice host the Victorian Open when that was a prestigious event.

The country club was faced with a massive land tax bill that would have been passed on to the golf club members through an astronomical fee increase.

Importantly, it opened its doors to everyone, the complete reverse of the prestigious “sandbelt” courses such as Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria and others who shut  Jews out in the first place. Local Cranbourne golfers also joined in healthy numbers.

But the non-discriminatory membership practices would prove to be its ultimate undoing, although it was a slow burn. Over time, membership numbers started to plateau and then decline. The prestigious clubs ended their closed-door policies and many Jewish golfers jumped at the opportunity to join some of the world’s best courses on the famed Melbourne sandbelt.

As Melbourne grew and traffic worsened, the commute to Cranbourne started to become more difficult. An hour each way during the week, 40 minutes each way on the weekend. Golf has always been a time-poor sport and this didn’t help.

And then there were the demographics of the club. The effective Jewish membership at Cranbourne – those with memberships for five, six and seven days  – had dropped to about 30 per cent of the entire cohort and was down to perhaps 200 in total.

Huge numbers were leaving the club to play elsewhere – some on the Mornington Peninsula where they have holiday homes - but many others at nearby Metropolitan, Yarra Yarra and even Huntingdale itself.

The golf club faced a huge dilemma. The land was actually purchased by the Cranbourne Country Club, a trust that was established by the Jewish golfers back in the day, who then leased the land to the golf club on favourable terms.

But as Melbourne’s suburban sprawl took hold, the course was no longer surrounded by paddocks but by houses, business parks and industrial areas. The land was worth a fortune, valued at somewhere between $120 million and $150 million.

It was taking a lot of money, community money, it could be argued, to subsidise a golf course with a dwindling Jewish membership. Even more so with the long-held assurances that in the event of the land being sold, the proceeds would be disbursed among the community.

In the end, it did come down to money. The country club was faced with a massive land tax bill that would have been passed on to the golf club members through an astronomical fee increase. The future was unsustainable.

Speculation had been rife in Jewish sporting circles for several months that something was happening with Cranbourne and the reveal came via email to members on Wednesday. In late 2023, Huntingdale, the long-time home of the once-glamorous Australian Masters, will be closed for renovations for two years and its members will temporarily relocate to Cranbourne.

In late 2025, Cranbourne will close for good and members of both clubs will move back to Huntingdale, whose makeover will be overseen by 2006 US Open champion and now leading architect and designer, Geoff Ogilvy.

Cranbourne members who wish to relocate will have their joining fees waived at the new club and can receive fee assistance thereafter if required. Money will be invested in golf development and the clubhouse at the revamped course will honour Cranbourne’s history and in particular its Jewish heritage.

For Jewish golfers, this represents an outstanding opportunity to play at a sandbelt course that should be among the top 20 in Australia when completed. At the time of writing this piece, Huntingdale is a 19-minute drive from the heart of Caulfield. Cranbourne, by contrast, is 42 minutes away.

If this development doesn’t stop the drift of Jewish golfers to other clubs, then nothing will. And it should encourage more Jews to take up the game or in some cases (such as mine!) renew their interest.

The potential is there for an injection of $100 million, perhaps more, into the Jewish community’s coffers.

Putting the golf to one side, the larger issue is what will happen with the proceeds of the sale of the land that developers will be desperate to get their hands on. The clubs sits in the heart of one of Melbourne’s fastest-growing regions.

The potential is there for an injection of $100 million, perhaps more, into the Jewish community’s coffers.

In all likelihood, a trust will be established to determine what to do with the money and two immediate priorities come to mind.

The first is the proposed Caulfield Hospital redevelopment, which is mooted to become the new home of Mount Scopus College, but which will also include a host of sporting and cultural facilities that outside of school hours, will be used by the entire Jewish and local community.

This is regarded as a “once in a 100-year opportunity” and while the funding model does not take into account any windfall from the sale of Cranbourne, a further injection of funds would be welcomed all the same.

The other option is the redeveloped Caulfield racecourse. The weekday training facilities are gone (it will still be used for racing), and a host of sporting fields and other community and recreational facilities will be built in their place. It is believed Maccabi Victoria has been approached to become an anchor tenant there, but there might now be an opportunity for the Jewish sporting body to instead become a genuine partner.

The Melbourne Jewish community fondly remembers 97 Alma Road, the old Maccabi Victoria headquarters, and sporting centre, which was sold nearly 30 years ago. It was a short-sighted decision; one the community soon came to regret.

The sale of Cranbourne revives hopes of there again being a true Jewish sporting and community centre of its own. Once golf is taken care of, Maccabi basketball, whose dozens of teams play across the length and breadth of Melbourne, craves a genuine home court.

The well-supported AJAX senior football club (Australian Rules) plays its home games in Albert Park but has been trying unsuccessfully for many years to establish a base much closer to where their players and supporters reside.

Consideration must also be given to how the Cranbourne sale can assist to make the cost of Jewish education in Melbourne a bit more affordable.

There will be a few old-timers who will be saddened by the closure of Cranbourne. It has long held a notable place in the Jewish community and Les Kausman’s excellent history of the club, What Is Golf? illustrates why.

But it is also a necessary and many would argue, long overdue move. Getting the community to agree on what comes next will take time to consider and will likely involve plenty of heated debate and perhaps a few tears.

But it is a golden opportunity that cannot be squandered, especially for those who look north to see what the Sydney community is doing with the Hakoah Club, with more than a touch of envy.

Photo: Cranbourne during its founding years (courtesy the club website)

About the author

Ashley Browne

Ashley Browne has been writing about Australian sport for the last 30 years and is currently a senior writer for Crocmedia. He was the co-editor in 2018 of People of the Boot, The Triumphs and Tragedy of Jews and Sport in Australia.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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