ROYAL MELBOURNE GOLF CLUB - EXCLUSIVE REVIEW
by Darius Oliver, from Australia's Finest Golf Courses
The Royal Melbourne Golf Club - West Course
Course Opened – 1931
Designer – Dr. Alister Mackenzie
That Royal Melbourne is Australia’s foremost golf club is irrefutable. For more than 100 years the club has been at the pinnacle of the game in this country, its golf courses the most celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere.
It all began in 1891 when a group of prominent Melburnians formally introduced the Royal and Ancient game to Victoria by establishing the Melbourne Golf Club on leased land near the Caulfield railway station. As urban encroachment threatened the existence of their course, the search for a more permanent home brought the clubs council to a racetrack built among the heathland scrub of Sandringham in the city’s south. What they uncovered among the undulating sand dunes was the ideal location for their new links, a discovery that inadvertently led to the birth of the Melbourne Sandbelt.
The club’s Sandringham course opened for play in 1901 but by the early 1920’s housing had engulfed the western corner of the course. The club decided to sell this part of the site and move slightly east to their main paddock in Black Rock where an additional 68 acres of land was available. Although only six of the original holes were lost it was decided that the entire course should be upgraded and redesigned.
A committee that included Australian Open champion Alex Russell was given authority to seek the best golf course architect available to advise on the new layout, and to do so regardless of cost. At the time the Royal and Ancient at St. Andrews was using Dr Alister MacKenzie as a consultant, and recommended him to the club’s President, who was in Britain at the time. For a fee of 1,000 pounds MacKenzie accepted the invitation to advise at Royal Melbourne and in 1926 started out on his groundbreaking Australasian adventure. Though this fee was steep, the club recovered most of its expenses by acting as the designer’s agent and collecting a share of monies he charged a further eighteen clubs to use his services.
His stay in Black Rock was brief and while on-site to survey the land he was accompanied by Russell and head Greenkeeper Mick Morcom who was well read on the subject of golf architecture. MacKenzie was clearly satisfied that both men were capable of interpreting his ideas and philosophies and when he departed left the construction of his West course to their supervision. He later described Morcom as the best greenkeeper he had ever come across and appointed Russell as his design partner.
Volumes have been written on the qualities of the West course but put simply it’s a combination of the greatest land, greatest design and greatest construction ever seen in this country which makes it so special. As local designer Michael Clayton says ‘it is one of only two man-made things in Australia of world-wide significance.’
The site remains one of the finest ever found in world golf, full of dramatic undulation, its fertile sandy soil and natural rugged appearance was a gift from the golfing gods. Before starting work on the design MacKenzie asked for a listing of all member’s ages and handicaps, determined to make his course enjoyable for golfers of any ability. The timeless strategy of his subsequent design is as profound as it is simplistic and based around wide fairways that are playable to the average man yet demand the best players drive the ball into the corners to get close to the flags. When the greens are at their fearsome best this is not an easy thing to do.
Picking out West course highlights is as difficult as mounting a compelling argument against its long held position atop Australian golf rankings. Visually Morcom’s bold bunkering is spectacular while the rough areas around the tees and bunkers are a mix of native grasses which beautifully and naturally frame each hole, providing great definition and contrast without distracting from the strategy.
The greens are simply brilliant and for decades have consistently provided the finest putting surfaces in Australia. Large and beautifully contoured they are built to accommodate approaches from a number of angles with each progressively more difficult the further the tee shot strays from the perfect line.
Individually there are at least ten outstanding holes, including six undeniably world class like the all-carry par three 5th with its awesome bunkering and slippery raised green pressed against a magnificent scrub covered dune. When MacKenzie first saw this inspired setting he enthusiastically declared that they should be able to make one of the best golf holes in existence. Morcom didn’t let the genius designer down building an exquisite hole, which was in fact, the only one he constructed under MacKenzie’s direct supervision.
The 6th hole is also remarkable and has become a textbook par four, highlighting all that is challenging and fair about the designer’s commandments of golf architecture. Its grand sweeping fairway, tantalising corner bunkers and superb green setting are as playable to the first timer as they are thrilling to the professional. For many, this is golf’s best par four.
There are plenty of other standouts including the driveable 10th hole, with its teasing target perched beyond the largest and deepest sand hazard in the country, and the breathtaking greenside bunkering at the 17th. The final hole is also famous with a thrilling tee shot played across a steep sandy ridge to a blind dipping fairway.
Both tee and green on the 18th have been shifted since MacKenzie departed but, like the majority of alterations made through the years, the changes have been minor. The obvious exception is the 7th hole, built by Ivo Whitton in the late 1930’s to allow extra room for the first tee on the East course. The green on the 12th was also shifted significantly to the left and slightly back to create a wonderful kink at the end of the fairway.
Perhaps the most interesting change was that made to the 15th long after MacKenzie had discovered the penal artificial mounding of the existing hole and declared ‘we’ll leave it as is, to show future generations how silly golf course architecture used to be’. The fact he left this deliberate blemish to underline the inadequacies of penal design shows he was probably a man who did not believe in the notion of the perfect golf course. Although his point was well made, years later the club improved the hole by removing the central section of these mounds.
It seems a great shame that MacKenzie never saw the finished product at Royal Melbourne because despite leaving our shores to create countless classics across the globe, there is little doubt the West course retains the purest interpretation of his design philosophies.
Gene Sarazen said it best many years ago when he famously quipped ‘it burns me up that with the billions of dollars spent on course construction in the past fifty years, all the architects together haven’t been able to build another Royal Melbourne’.
It is certainly hard to imagine that the game of golf gets any better than Royal Melbourne West. From purist to mug punter and professional alike it remains the absolute embodiment of golfing perfection, if indeed such a thing exists.
The Royal Melbourne Golf Club - East Course
Course Opened – 1932
Designer – Alex Russell
The concept for the Royal Melbourne East course was born shortly after Alister MacKenzie had left Australia and while his famous West course was still under construction. The clubs plan to build a new clubhouse on the current 7th West was well advanced when two parcels of land east of the main Black Rock site became available in 1929. The prospect of 36 holes appealed to the membership who decided to proceed with the second course and shelve plans to relocate the clubhouse, permanently as it would turn out.
While designing the West course MacKenzie had also mapped an alternate nine hole layout, which was made redundant when the additional land for the East course was purchased. With MacKenzie back in the United States his new partner, Alex Russell was put in charge of the design and interestingly decided to lay his first four holes along the lines suggested as part of this shorter course. Aside from the shape of these holes however only the first actually resembles MacKenzie’s original plan.
The very nature and distribution of the available land meant that the East course would differ considerably from the West. Holes are played in a single loop away from the clubhouse, across several roads and covering three separate allotments. Despite the obstacles and inferior terrain of the eastern property Russell’s routing works surprisingly well with balanced nines and a great variety of holes. Sensibly the long holes tackle the wind from each direction while the only minor criticism of his arrangement is that all four wonderful par threes play to the north.
Club greenkeeper Mick Morcom was used to build the course, again proving himself to be Australian golf’s master shaper. His bunkering is superb while the greens, though smaller than the West’s, are as beautifully constructed and intricately sloped.
The East course starts and finishes on the main site alongside its more famous sibling, with these seven ‘home paddock’ holes the highlight. Incorporating the most dramatic undulation on the course, the short four, long four, mid four start is brilliant with clear risk/reward options from the tee and birdie to double bogey possibilities. The closing stretch is equally memorable starting with the short par four 15th and the heavily bunkered 16th (left), which is the flattest ‘home paddock’ hole of either course but one of the best and most underrated par threes in Melbourne. The final two holes, famously used as the climax to the world-renowned Composite course, are also exceptional with 18 one of the most awesome finishing holes in golf.
The Composite course was first conceived in 1959 when the club played host to the Canada Cup (now World Cup). Using twelve holes from the West and six from the East the tournament propelled Royal Melbourne onto the global stage. It also highlighted the quality of Russell’s work with his all-star holes standing comfortably alongside MacKenzie’s and blending into one outstanding layout.
Despite the occasional configuration adjustment neither group of holes has changed greatly since inception. On the East course the 17th was lengthened prior to the 1959 event and cross-bunkers moved closer to the green. Later the 3rd tee was built up so the once blind fairway would be visible from the tee and local boys dissuaded from snatching golf balls. Otherwise, with the exception of some minor bunker adjustments, the course has survived virtually intact, a tribute to Russell’s classic design.
Royal Melbourne’s East course is often unfairly rated because of the esteemed company it keeps, yet any track with holes the quality of the first four and final four is certainly very special. There are many other highlights as well including the cross bunkering on the 10th and the approach through the saddle of sand at the difficult 12th. Although the disparity between the best and worst holes, and best and worst land, prevents East from outranking West, to my mind only a handful of Australian courses boast anywhere near its number of genuinely world class moments.
After the good doctor departed our shores Russell was a man in demand, kept busy overseeing the MacKenzie projects and completing work of his own. Despite a flurry of design activity the East course remains his masterpiece, fitting therefore that it should stand alongside the greatest accomplishment of his illustrious mentor.
This review features in Australia's Finest Golf Courses (RRP $49.95).
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