Royal Melbourne Golf Club (West Course)
Sixth hole, 430 yards; Too many doglegs are made so by trees which dully force the golfer to hit straight ahead. Not here where playing angles abound and two golfers of the same skill level might approach the green with as much as a three club difference, depending on their aggression off the tee. The closer the golfer hugs the inside, handsomely adorned with scrub and sand, the easier his approach shot. If the golfer steers his tee ball away from the fairway bunkers, the more his approach must confront the deep left greenside bunker. Additionally, the putting surface is one of the game’s marvels, with more horror stories of four putts and worse told here than any other surface in the Sandbelt. Most famously, Sam Snead, after driving to the outside of the dogleg and finding the back right of the green, putted into the front left greenside bunker. One can only imagine the colorful narrative that Snead put on that story! Certainly, he found out the hard way that be it the eleventh at Pasatiempo or the ninth at Augusta National, an uphill MacKenzie green must be approached with maximum care. Selected by Pat Ward-Thomas in The World Atlas of Golf as the greatest sixth hole in the world, there is no reason to argue and most consider this the quintessential dogleg because of the perfect balance achieved between risk and reward. The commanding position of the elevated sixth tee is for many people – literally and figuratively – the pinnacle of Australian golf.
Seventh hole, 150 yards; This uphill one shotter rivals the superb, more often photographed 15th at Kingston Heath for playing merit. Yet, MacKenzie doesn’t deserve credit. Rather, Claude Crockford does. Peter Thomson details in the 1976 World Atlas of Golf how Crockford, under the guidance of Ivo Whitton (the club’s best player), moved MacKenzie’s green location to a slightly lower spot: ‘Crockford’s 150 yard 7th is a rare gem of planning and construction. To stand by it during a championship is endless entertainment because scores from the best players vary in quick succession from two to five or even seven. It was built on a sandy hill by horse and scoop like the rest of the course. It slopes in an intriguing line from back to front although there is adequate flat, or nearly flat, territory for the flagstick in one or two spots – a deception not always discovered until it is too late by players in awe of its glassy surface. It is surrounded by traps of good depth and formidable sides, with a foreground like a miniature natural park of small indigenous flora to add to its rugged appearance.’ Yes indeed, staying beneath the flag is one of the two or three most important challenges of the round and the hole (both its aesthetics and shot requirement) fits seamlessly with the rest. Generally, work by a green keeper following the advice of a club’s best player to override a MacKenzie (!) design would stick out like a sore thumb – but not here. In contrast to a certain famous MacKenzie design in Georgia, great work has been performed internally at MacKenzie’s two finest designs in Australia (Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath). The game continues to flourishes in Australia in part because the strong heritage of green keeping is passed along from one generation to the next.
Tenth hole, 315 yards; A drivable short two shotter where anything is possible. The decision is made at the tee: does the golfer challenge the pit bunker in the crook of the dogleg and attempt to draw the ball onto the green? If so, a score of eagle to double-bogey awaits. Or does he aim straight ahead, leave a tidy pitch, and reduce the likely outcome to birdie, par or bogey? Mike Clayton considers it the finest hole of its length in the world. Clayton recalls, ‘I watched Severiano Ballesteros play 10 West in the 1978 Australian PGA. Nobody ever went for the green but every day he flew at it with his driver, hitting 4 great drives up into the sandy waste just short. He made 3 birdies, a fitting reward for brilliant and bold play. MacKenzie presumably never envisaged the shot but I think he’d have been delighted that his hole perfectly showed off the player capable of extraordinary flair. MacKenzie didn’t know it but he was designing courses for Ballesteros who embraced MacKenzie’s ideas of how golf should be played. Ballesteros was, of course, the only player to win at Augusta National, Royal Melbourne and The Old Course. Few holes better highlight the talents of both men than the tenth at Royal Melbourne.’
Seventeenth hole, 440 yards; This hole encapsulates many of MacKenzie’s most cherished design tenets. Look at how the hole plays for two classes of golfers. The less accomplished player does not mind that his tee ball gets shunted to the right by the cant of the land because his next target is likely short and left of the green where there is an ocean of short grass for a short pitch to save par. The tiger dearly wants to hug the inside of the fairway as it elbows left and obviate the right greenside bunker on his approach. Again, the exploitation of the lay of the land and the integration of strategic hazards creates something wonderful, yet natural.
Eighteenth hole, 435 yards; While Royal Melbourne shares an abundance of design stratagems with The Old Course, in one aspect it surely does not: the dogleg. If you look at the holes singled out in this section, the majority of the non-one shotters dogleg. St. Andrews features only two, the seventh and seventeenth. MacKenzie perfected the art of the dogleg at Royal Melbourne; only his other masterpiece at Cypress Point comes close in its number of alarmingly excellent doglegs. While conceived in the age of hickory golf, the West Course has for the most part kept pace with technology. Having said that, dogleg holes are especially vulnerable to increased carry. In the late 1990s the author witnessed Greg Norman’s mere pitch into this green. No doubt it’s done with greater frequency now, which is a pity. Fortunately, the course is located less than a mile from Port Phillip and routinely enjoys the hidden element of wind as a defense. When the breeze is up, Royal Melbourne is at her best, technology be damned.
Speaking of length, MacKenzie’s routing (and in particular the short green to tee distances) was so efficient that adding significant length isn’t an option here. The last two holes are prime examples where the golfer virtually walks off the penultimate green and onto the tee for the Home hole. No possibility exists to lengthen 18 and other tees back up to the border of the property. So, the club wisely decided to combat distance in its own way. Doak comments: ‘Today’s grassing scheme at RM is actually borrowed from our St Andrews Beach project – bent greens, fescue approaches and surrounds for short game interest, and couch (Bermuda) fairways. The club was afraid the couch grass used by other clubs would make the course play too short and give too much roll on downhill landing areas like the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 11th on the West, so they chose a variety called Legend where the ball would NOT run out so much. It’s their way of fighting technology since there is precious little acreage for any additional back tees.’ The great William Flynn commented in the late 1920s about the need to slow down the run of tee balls as otherwise, the variety of approach shots would dwindle. Royal Melbourne has responded.
Sometimes when discussing ‘Royal Melbourne,’ confusion arises about because it isn’t clear which course is being discussed. The West Course houses the preponderance of world class holes among RM’s thirty-six but when international events are contested, a Composite Course is formed. The sequence of holes that constitute the Composite Course has changed over the years but the best version concludes with the seventeenth and eighteenth holes of the East Course. Nonetheless, the author doesn’t consider it sporting to rank the Composite Course; the West on its own needs no help. Slawnik concurs, noting of all the MacKenzie courses which he has seen, ‘Royal Melbourne comes as close to perfection as any.’
Alister MacKenzie’s book of work has no peer. Three of his courses (Cypress Point, Augusta National and here) are routinely judged to be among the world top ten and end any meaningful debate of ‘world’s greatest architect.’ For the author, today’s overplanted, tinkered version of Augusta National is well-removed from any conversation about MacKenzie’s design philosophies. To best appreciate MacKenzie’s greatness as an architect, it boils down to a study between Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. For the author, the unparalled firm playing surfaces at Royal Melbourne give it the slight edge and make the West Course a core requirement for every serious student of golf architecture. All effort should be expended from any point on the globe to come study what amounts to design perfection.
The author gratefully acknowledges the use of David Scaletti’s lead photograph and other photographs from Matthew Mollica and Ben Jarvis.