Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West Course)
Think of golf in the northern half of the world and visions of St. Andrews, Cypress Point, Sand Hills, Royal County Down or Pine Valley might dance through your head. Think of the golf in the southern hemisphere, and one course stands out above all others: The West Course at Royal Melbourne. This Alister MacKenzie creation carries the mantle for a vast part of the world – and has done so with great aplomb since the “good doctor” journeyed there in 1926.
MacKenzie’s sole visit to Australia was only a two month stint (he left on January 1st, 1927) but he covered tremendous ground and visited all five of Australia’s great cities (Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney). Melbourne is where his impact was the greatest, in part because of the famed ‘Sandbelt,’ a perfect canvas for MacKenzie’s vision of ideal golf. At Royal Melbourne, he was granted an expansive swath of land, the middle of which featured dramatic movement. Additionally, he benefited from his two primary contacts: Alex Russell (past Australian Open champion and keen student of architecture) and Green Keeper Mick Morcom (who subsequently ascended into the pantheon of green keepers alongside Joe Valentine from Merion and Emil Loeffler from Oakmont).
What MacKenzie – evidently – instilled in these gentlemen was the concept of strategic golf. At the time of his visit the Golden Age of Design was well and truly under way … elsewhere. Australia of the mid 1920s lacked golf of sufficient sophistication to compare with the world’s elite. MacKenzie transformed the region when he routed the course and imparted the design tenets that would ‘test the best while being fun for the rest.’
Behind much of MacKenzie’s philosophy loomed The Old Course at St. Andrews, where Mackenzie consulted for the Royal & Ancient. No need to wonder where the concept of wide fairways and large greens stemmed (!) but those two ingredients were the underpinning for his design. What distinguishes the West Course from other courses that share those attributes is the construction and placement of its hazards and how they tie in with the elaborate putting surfaces ahead.
To gain the optimal advantage off the tee, the better golfer must confront the hole’s primary defenses. At the second hole if the fairway bunker on this five par is successfully carried, the stronger golfer is rewarded with a second shot into a large, angled green. Similar to The Old Course, being on the green is only the beginning. Given the contours, firmness, and pace of these famed putting surfaces, three putts – and worse – abound for those out of position relative to the day’s hole location. The better golfer is continually challenged to play with care and precision; the less accomplished player can bumble along and enjoy his stroll without trepidation of losing his ball.
In the case of the West Course, MacKenzie’s design beliefs come to life in technicolor because of the elegance of his well-placed hazards. This course and especially the hazards adhere so closely to nature as to make most other courses look sterile. Give Morcom credit for the standard that he created until his retirement in 1935. The most famous inland courses – Pine Valley, Merion, Sand Hills – are made so by the nature of their hazards with Royal Melbourne’s being second to none. According to Tom Doak (who is now the consulting architect for the club), ‘The bunkers at RM are real hazards – a big part of which is they use the fine native sandy loam which is harder to play from than the sissified perfect bunker sand specified by American green committees. You do not hear anyone hoping their ball will “get in the bunker” at RM and MacKenzie would be pleased at that.’
Brian Slawnik is Doak’s Lead Associate for Royal Melbourne. He has spent many weeks on site, which has afforded him the opportunity to determine for himself what makes these hazards so special. He explains, ‘From a shaper’s perspective, it is fun to figure out where they generated the material to build features. The compositions are so broad and the tie-ins so flawless it can be difficult to tell. Take a look at the photograph of the sixteenth hole above. Note how far left and right the bunkers extend before fading from view. Russell and Morcom had a wonderful knack for making hazards that were big without being loud. Those hard bunker edges that you see above are works of art and are possible because of the Couch thatch. A fescue course wouldn’t hold the same edge but here in the Sandbelt where the sand is so soily and compacts, they had a unique opportunity to build very special hazards. And, of course, that’s exactly what they did though I’m told it was Crockford who added many of the fingers and capes to the bunkers to stabilize the sand.’
As you drive into the club, you pass along a hedgerow where a scoop and horse drawn plough are proudly displayed beside the plaque below:
No wonder the bunkers appear so natural! Man’s hand was especially ‘soft’ on the land. Heavy machines never obliterated or altered the landscape here, not that there was a need: the property’s movement and soil composition was exquisite. As man started working on less and less desirable sites in the 1960s-1980s, more and more earth was moved in an ill-gotten attempt to lend playing interest. Such courses pale in comparison to the real deal found at Royal Melbourne.
Slawnik points to other benefits from the use of such equipment. First, there was no expectation for speed. Therefore, the workers were given time to see develop whatever it was that they were working on. Tweaks could occur in a slow, measured manner. Additionally, since what amounts to teaspoons of dirt were being moved, nothing rash or untoward could happen to the landscape. Slawnik appreciates this forced economy of movement and the value derived from shapers being compelled to be judicious in their actions.
Upon Morcom’s retirement, another titan of green keeping took over, Claude Crockford, and he carried on the tradition for the next four (!) decades. His rise to the top of the profession was based in part on the fabulous glassy, frictionless putting surfaces that he eventually obtained. Golf took a back seat to world events for the first half of Crockford’s reign but by the 1960s and 1970s, Royal Melbourne was synonymous with great greens. MacKenzie’s grandest design principles had now been realized in spades, albeit thirty to forty years after his visit. The author likens it to the grassing of the Pinehurst No. 2 greens in the mid-1930s; yes, the course already enjoyed great fanfare but when the greens were optimized, the course was elevated to the best of that architect’s work. By the time Crockford retired in the 1970s, the Melbourne greens – which were never ‘green’ but far more ominous in their molten colorings – had become the gold standard world-wide.
The following Holes to Note section is unique for this web site. While every single hole is worthy of detailed analysis, only holes that could reasonably make a list of the finest eighteen holes in the world are discussed. At its core a great golf course must have great holes. This ultimately is the attribute that lifts Royal Melbourne (West) above the other courses in the Sandbelt and places it among the world’s handful of greats. Only National Golf Links of America and Pine Valley could lay claim to a similar number of all-universe holes.
Holes to Note
Third hole, 355 yards; Laid over only moderately interesting land, the hole shines because of its green complex, reminding the author of both Pinehurst No. 2 and Winged Foot West where the targets (i.e. the greens) transform mundane properties into world class venues. After a drive or three wood, the golfer is left with a shortish iron to a relatively big green. So what’s the big deal? The fairway falls slowly to a green that continues to slope away, requiring the approach to land on the front third of the green lest the ball end up at the back, or over. Should the approach pull up just shy of the green, it collects in the fronting swale, leaving the player a chip several feet up a bank to a green that slides away. Greens like this readily identify well-executed approaches while poor ones readily turn two strokes into three. This gem befuddled the world’s best during the 1998 President’s Cup where some tried to drive it only to be left in a dead zone some 20-40 yards short with a nervy chip. St. Andrews features a plethora of greens with front to back slopes and to understand the full reach of her importance, look no farther than this green complex 10,000 miles away.
Fourth hole, 500 yards; Alister MacKenzie built the three “gold standard” half par holes in the world: the sixteenth at Cypress Point, the thirteenth at Augusta National and the fourth here. Interestingly, the thirteenth at Augusta and this hole have similar bends, albeit in opposite directions. A good drive at both opens up a range of enticing possibilities. Here, a strong tee ball that carries the crest gains an extra ~ 25 yards of roll and brings the green into reach. What an approach shot it is: certainly among a handful of the most thrilling in Australia. To the right of the green extending thirty yards into the fairway is what has been described as ‘the country’s greatest bunker’ – fifteen feet deep with a variety of native shrubs and vegetation to keep a lonely golfer company. The genius here was in the routing and incorporating the hillock perfectly to challenge and reward the tee shot. Sublimeness results from the elegant design and placement of both the fairway and green side bunkers.
Fifth hole, 175 yards; One of golf’s finest green sites nestles into its own lovely amphitheater and is framed by native Australian bush and deep bunkers that eat into the putting surface. MacKenzie surely had the Eden hole at St. Andrews in mind when he oversaw the construction of this green complex with its severe back to front tilt. This is surely the finest one shotter in a city known for its superlative short holes and stands alone for another reason: it is the only hole that MacKenzie saw completed during his 54 day stay in Australia.