17 November 2023

The little club with a lot of heart thanks apprentices for helping to restore its future

| Jen White
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Three men standing on a bowling green.

Apprentice Matt Miles, TAFE teacher Dave Little and club director Clem Hayward on the club green, which is being restored. Photos: Jen White.

In the movie Crackerjack, Mick Molloy plays a young bloke who joins a lawn bowls club just so he can use a free parking spot. Bowls is the furthest thing on his mind, but when the club enters financial difficulty, he comes to the fore, and saves the day and the club.

Many of the young TAFE apprentices gathered at Kembla Heights Bowling Club on Thursday (16 November) hadn’t been born when the movie came out in 2002, but their contributions may also help to save the day for this struggling little club.

The club was started in 1949, built by the miners of Mt Kembla. These days, it’s down to a dedicated bunch of volunteers to keep the doors open and the club running, and maintain a green that’s suitable for competition bowls.

Club director Clem Haywood said COVID was devastating for the club, leading to a decline in patrons, financial losses and members leaving to join other clubs that are able to host competition bowls.

“We’re a struggling little club up here, tucked out of the way, a little gem in Wollongong,” Clem said.

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“More people are coming back up here, but we need a kitchen, we need to be able to serve food.

“We have a music jam session on the last Sunday of the month, people bring along an instrument or sing, it’s like an open mic night, and we have quite a bit of barefoot bowls too.”

The club’s biggest challenge is to have a well-maintained green, suitable not just for barefoot and social bowls, but also for competition matches.

And that’s where the TAFE apprentices come in. Yallah Sports Turf Management teacher Dave Little was driving by the club one Sunday afternoon and stopped in for a beer.

“He said to us, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a bunch of blokes come up and do your green for you’,” Clem recalled.

“I knew he was a greenkeeper but I didn’t know he was a TAFE teacher at Yallah, so he brought the boys up here and it’s brilliant.

“It’s a win-win cause the boys get some hands-on experience and we get a new green.”

Dave said the 18 apprentices in the course, who are working on bowling greens, golf courses, sports stadiums, racecourses and cricket wickets, are released by their employers for three days a month for TAFE requirements.

“One of their study units is renovating sports turf, so we volunteered to come here and help get the greens renovated. The students get some practical outcomes, tick some boxes in their assessments, and the club gets a win out of it as well,” Dave said.

Matt Miles is a second-year apprentice greenkeeper with Figtree Sports and a keen bowler as well.

“I’ve been on and off greenkeeping as a bowler for close on 15 years but I finally decided to take the leap and actually become a qualified greenkeeper,” Matt said.

“It’s a good career and a really good atmosphere once you get involved. Greenkeeping is a bit of an untapped resource that nobody really thinks about, compared to plumbing or electrical.

“There’s no two days the same and you’ve always got something new and exciting happening.”

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Matt works under Figtree head greenkeeper Sean Bellotti, who this year won the NSW Bowling Greenkeepers Association’s Greenkeeper of the Year award.

“It makes our life pretty easy when we know we’re in the right hands with Sean, learning as much as we can,” Matt said.

“If we can give back to a little club like this one – even though every club’s our rival, nobody wants to see a club struggle. We all get involved and help each other out the best we can.”

Former vice-president Bob Upton was grateful for the “immense” help offered by the apprentices.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a few difficulties with different things and we’ve been battling to get back. But as a group of people, we’ve stuck together and worked together and we’re getting back together,” he said.

“We’re one of the luckiest clubs in the state because our president Bryan (O’Keefe) is also a qualified greenkeeper, so he looks after the green and it costs us nothing for him, just the materials.”

Bob is determined the club will not go the way of many other bowling clubs and be forced to close.

“We will not let it happen, it’s something that’s almost impossible to think about.”

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