Feature Interview with Richard Macafee
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You have served as a course rater with Golf Australia magazine for the past several years. Tell us a bit about your experiences there.

I was invited to join the panel when they expanded the list from a Top 50 to a Top 100, and expanded the panel at the same time. Personally it’s been a great experience for me, as it’s been part of my attempt to become better at playing golf for fun. Golf was purely a competitive thing for me for so long, and I was terrible at playing socially with mates just for fun. I didn’t enjoy it and I played rubbish.

To meet like-minded people on the panel and discuss courses is enjoyable, and surprisingly entertaining at times. I do look at courses differently now. The main questions I ask myself when I play courses are: 1. Is the course fun to play for all levels of golfer? 2. Would I like to play this course every Saturday?

Before, I probably judged courses more on how they played on the card or in an event.

I think understanding and following the roller coaster ride that some courses go through has also given me a good understanding of what mistakes to avoid for golf clubs, especially when it comes to course changes and masterplans.

When I played Kingston Heath in the 1990s, tea-trees played a dominant role. Based on the November telecast of the World Cup, the course has opened up and the heath grasses now define the property. I take it you played a huge role in that transformation, as you chaired a committee on vegetation?

The left side of 9th fairway highlights where sand has been exposed after the pruning back of tea tree.

There was no real ‘chair’ but we established a specific Vegetation Committee of myself and one other member Bruce Hulls, and course superintendant Hayden Mead. We took a lot of counsel from on staff botanist Pete Murray and Mike Cocking from OCCM, and came up with a Vegetation Plan in 2014, which has just been updated again for 2017.

In 2011 the club did a course review with OCCM as part of our strategic plan. It is a fantastic document with comparison overhead photos of each hole from 1931, 1945, 1964, 1978 and 2010. There were a few design tweaks suggested, conditioning comments, and possible hole lengthening for tournaments – but the quote that really stood out was that “It is the off fairway parts of the course that we think should be the focus of the next twenty to thirty years at Kingston Heath.” The vegetation plan was addressing that.

We felt like we needed to bring the heath back to ‘The Heath’, to use a corny phrase. We had the name and the emblem, and a few heath plants here and there, but we had lost focus on the roughs and off fairway areas. The playing lines actually weren’t too bad. The tree management over the years by past committees has been excellent – so the transformation has really been on the ground cover more so than in the air and on playing lines. Not many large areas of tea tree have been removed, but it’s been pruned back to re-establish fairway widths and expose some sandy waste areas.

Please talk about that process of ‘opening up’ the course. Surely you were confronted by members who thought the course would become ‘too easy’?

We are very fortunate to have had good decisions made at Kingston Heath over the last 30 years, so the vegetation report hasn’t required mass tree removals. What we have done is certainly nothing on the scale of a Pinehurst, Oakmont or Walton Heath. It has been a gradual process in terms of the mature trees. I think we have been held up as a model for tree management over the years, but the vegetation assets hadn’t been well managed or re-invigorated for a while.

Our focus has really been to eradicate as much of the Couch/Bermuda grass rough as we can, and to establish the course with its own unique character based on native and heritage vegetation. Couch/Bermuda is a terrible rough grass. When short it is very playable but has no height or color contrast, and looks awful. When long it looks better but is totally unplayable.

We had also unsuccessfully tried irrigated grass paths between tees and fairways which had failed and were an eyesore, and the green to tee areas had been neglected.

Above is the failed irrigated grass path between 4th tee and fairway pre 2014. Compare that to …

… the chunked native vegetation off the 4th tee today with the organic looking granitic gravel path. What an improvement though many clubs overlook the importance of the tee to fairway walk.

One of the solutions we are very committed to is that the first consideration for replacing rough should be fairway grass. With different traffic and micro climates around the course, getting really consistent roughs is not easy. In some cases expanding the fairway is the best option. So far we have expanded the fairways on 10 holes, with 3 more to come shortly.

Interestingly we have had no objections from members to this process. It has been quite subtle, and usually in areas that only make the course a bit easier for the shorter hitters. The only objections to the changed vegetation we have had have been to a few of the ‘Heathland Re-Vegetation Areas’ with exposed sand in them.  A very small group of members find these areas ‘messy’, which of course is the aim!

New Heathland Regeneration Area has replaced couch grass rough to the right side of 1st green.

In 2016 we planted over 2,900 plants inside the boundary. There are now many new sandy waste and heathland areas on the course which look fantastic. There is more short grass and less low profile rough. The contrast between the short grass, sand and the height and color of the heath plants works beautifully.

Our members are very well educated, which is great. The club runs course walks every year with Pete Murray who takes interested members around the course explaining the different plants and species and why they work in certain places and not in others. Most of the heath plants have been planted in tee carries and behind bunkers, so don’t impact a lot on play. If we were putting these plants just off the fairway they would be more controversial.

Kingston Heath’s staff includes Botanist Pete Murray. Is the appointment of a full time botanist common place in the Melbourne sandbelt? What was the Club hoping to achieve with the addition of Mr. Murray to the full-time staff?

As far as I know we are the only club with a specific Botanist, but that could be wrong. Hiring Pete was a brilliant decision, he is extremely knowledgeable and genuinely loves his job. It’s inspiring to see someone with his passion. It brings consistency to the way the ground staff deal with the vegetation, firstly through the simple knowledge of what is valuable and what isn’t. Obviously with the vegetation plan he has been the one who decides what plants go where, and how suited they are to the traffic and environment in the area.

Certain plants are more suited to low play and low traffic areas, while others can be used closer to lines of play. Pete has also established an extensive nursery and seed bank so the club is now less reliant on buying in plants, which makes the vegetation plan so much easier to achieve.

The Club has shrewdly tackled threats and risks relating to boundaries and water. Can you describe the Club’s actions and approaches to these two issues?

As mentioned we had one close call with the boundary, but apart from that we have managed to secure almost every boundary now. There are a few houses left of the 17th fairway that the club doesn’t own, but they aren’t in strategic areas.  The extensive Eastern boundary is all owned by the club with plenty of room for further expansion.

We have been very lucky over the years to sit above a natural aquifer and have access to bore water, however the water quality has slightly dropped over the years. The club has closely tested and monitored the water quality for years, and not long ago set up a treatment facility and extra storage that will serve us well into the future.

Kingston Heath plays over a wonderful firm stretch of native Bermuda grass fairways whereby bouncy-bounce conditions exist with balls rolling and rolling … and rolling. A consequence for such speedy playing surfaces conditions can be that the course plays ‘shorter’ than its advertised length. Is there any temptation to change to a slower fairway grasses like some nearby clubs have done?

Certainly not!

I’m a bit of a broken record on this but I detest Legend Couch as a grass on the sandbelt, and I think Royal Melbourne and Commonwealth have made a mistake putting it down. It’s not compatible with firm and fast greens as you get flyers from the fairway and can’t really nip the ball off the turf. One of the features of the sandbelt is how the fairways bleed into the bunkers and catch near perfect shots that aren’t shaped or flighted correctly. I think the longer fairway grass stops balls from running into trouble and into hazards, especially on dogleg holes, of which Royal Melbourne and Commonwealth have a lot.

The most perfect grass for golf I have ever played from is at Royal St.Georges in England, where ball striking is at a premium and the options of shots to play are endless. They look far from perfect, but they ‘play perfect’.

Mike Clayton is the ‘architect on record’ today. Please speak to his and his colleagues work and guidance.

Guidance is a good word for how we use Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead (OCCM). I think they, and the club, both understand that good decisions have been made over the years and that no huge changes need to be made in respect to the course. There has been design work that they have done that many people wouldn’t even know about, and a few bigger ones like the bunker changes on the 11th and 18th that very quickly look like they have been there forever.

I know both Mike’s (Clayton and Cocking) well, and no two people understand the sandbelt better, so we couldn’t be in better hands when we need advice and guidance. It’s also nice to know that they aren’t trying to create work that doesn’t need to be done, unlike other design firms. There have been many discussions over the years that have resulted in the decision to leave something as it is.

In terms of the vegetation, OCCM have a great track record in understanding the importance of the ‘off fairway’ parts of a course, and even the importance of practice areas and fixtures and fittings. To elevate a course you need to get things right inside the boundary, not just the tees, greens and fairways.

Who else has added to the fabric of the course and Club?

As mentioned earlier, Graeme deserves a lot of credit for the way the course is today. We have been very fortunate to have had only 3 Green Keepers in the last 35 years. Graeme did 16, Martin Greenwood 14, and Hayden Mead currently who has been doing a brilliant job for over 5 years now.

We have had a similar story with management. Paul Rak, who many here would know, was General Manager for 14 years, and our current GM Gregg Chapple is into his 10th year now. I think a stable administration and continuity at committee level has been our greatest asset.

There have been no committees voted out or overthrown, just seamless changes of personnel with consistent decision making. No Captain in my time has come in and tried to make a hero of themselves by making huge changes. Big decisions have been made, but by consensus, and I think that has shown on the course with the way it has gradually improved year by year.

It’s been said many times among Australian golfers, that no other course gets ‘as much juice out of the lemon’ as Kingston Heath. That more than any other course, Kingston Heath maximises its potential à la Merion in the United States. Surely hearing that makes you proud, as what greater compliment is there?

Absolutely, we are very proud of that. The more I know about what has gone wrong at other clubs over the years, the more I am proud of the way our club has been managed, and of the course it has become.

It is a small, flat piece of old market garden land with one ridge running through it in a very low key Melbourne suburb. We certainly lack the physical land features of many golf courses, but the original designers and construction team did a phenomenal job and over the years the club has done nearly as well as it could have to bring out the best in what we have. Re-invigorating the native vegetation is the latest part of that, and it’s really exciting.

It is the epitome of a course that can be played and enjoyed by golfers of all ages and standards. I always love taking overseas guests around Kingston Heath, and it’s very re-assuring that nearly every one of the very well travelled golfers who I host ‘gets it’.

Once again, Kingston Heath reflects its natural setting in Melbourne’s glorious sandbelt.

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