Feature Interview with Darius Oliver
Darius Oliver is the author of the recently published Australia’s Finest Golf Courses. Growing up in Melbourne’s famed Sandbelt, Oliver developed an appreciation for classic golf course architecture. A one-time caddy at Royal Melbourne, he turned his passion into a profession when in 1998 he helped start ausgolf, Australia’s most noted golf web site. He has been editor at ausgolf ever since, which has helped present the opportunity to see and study all of Australia’s great courses. Australia’s Finest Golf Courses is his first book and contains well over one hundred color photographs of the finest golf in Australia.
1. How did the project (book idea) develop?
The idea for Australias Finest Golf Courses was born a few years back when I flicked through my copy of Tom Ramseys Discover Australias Golf Courses book (published in the mid 1980s) which featured Sanctuary Cove on the cover and Mirage in the introduction as the countrys latest greatest development. As there have been a number of very fine courses built in recent years I realised immediately how outdated this Aussie golf bible had become and that there was a book screaming to be written on the subject of great Australian golf courses.
2. How long did it take to research and compile all the reviews in the book?
In total the book took a little over a year to put together with traveling the country playing all the courses making up the first six months and the writing phase taking around 8 months. As it was my first book I learnt on the run a little and ended up having to trim plenty of text and several reviews because of space issues.
The book wasnt actually ready and released until a full year after I handed in the manuscript, as a first time author desperate to see the finished product that year lasted forever.
3. Was the Modern vs. Classic angle in the book taken to illustrate a disparity in the quality of courses from the two eras or simply to distinguish between the two periods?
Both, as I said earlier the quality of a number of the modern courses built following the Ramsey book was a large part of the inspiration for the book, we have a tremendous golf industry here and courses like National Moonah, Kennedy Bay, The Dunes etc deserve to be catalogued and in some way compared to the classics that have dominated the Australian game for decades.
I am however very wary of aggressive marketing campaigns and the fact that we have seen a succession of modern courses burst onto the Australian scene in recent times with huge raps and lofty rankings only to invariably slide back down the lists to a more appropriate position. I wanted to include all of Australias very good courses but eliminate the marketing spin and hype to provide a fair review of their relative quality. I fully expect that those with a keen eye for architecture and a firm understanding of what makes a great course will naturally appreciate that there is a disparity in quality between the two periods.
Look down any of the modern best of lists at the back of the book and youll see a stack of holes that wouldnt get close to a berth on the classics lists, we have one of the strongest collections of great classic courses in the world here and should be justifiably proud of them all. They dont deserve high ranking placements because of their prestige but rather their quality. To surpass a Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath or New South Wales a modern track, without the decades of maturity, the ideal land of say a Melbourne Sandbelt or the genius eye of a designer like Mackenzie, would need to be pretty special indeed.
4. Favourite courses/holes?
Ill start by stating the obvious – Royal Melbourne West is my favourite golf course while I also love New South Wales, Royal Adelaide, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Ellerston and National Moonah. Royal Melbourne East is also a terrific course and one especially dear to me as I played it virtually every day for two summers when I caddied at the club as a youngster (the West was off limits to caddies).
Some of the others high on my list but under valued by many are Woodlands, Peninsula North, Newcastle and Commonwealth, which may have diminished in modern times but is still one hell of a fine golf course.
As for individual holes, in the book I state an admiration for the 3^rd at Royal Adelaide and make the claim that it may be my favourite hole in Australia. I think Royal Melbourne West 6 and 17 are probably our best par fours but the 3^rd at RA is the sort of quirky/fun hole that I could play all day and never tire of, especially when the pin is on the front.
Other personal favourites of mine are
Par threes – RM West 6, Yarra Yarra 11, Kingston Heath 15, National Old 7 and Peninsula North 2
Par fours Newcastle 5, RM West 10, Ellerston 16, New South Wales 14, National Moonah 11, Kingston Heath 3,
Par fives Ellerston 9 & 10, National Moonah 15, The Lakes 11 and Victoria 9.
The best fun to play however would have to be NSW 5, RM West 4 and Newcastle 10.
5. Biggest disappointments both in terms of courses seen for the first time and courses revisited?
I had seen a lot of resort golf in Queensland before starting this book and probably hoped that the stuff I had missed was better than what Id seen, it wasnt. My biggest disappointment would have to be the overall quality of the Queensland courses. Royal Queensland gets a raw deal by southerners but I really enjoyed the small raised Woodlands-like greens plus a few of the back nine holes are quite strong. Outside this course and Brookwater though there is very little to admire in Brisbane, and little elsewhere in the state to get really excited by. This is a great part of the world for a holiday but for serious golfers, and especially those interested in architecture, time in QLD is probably best spent on their endless pristine beaches.
My former club used to have reciprocal arrangements with The Lakes in Sydney and I traveled up to play the course each year for many years. I think some of the additional bunkering on the front nine is overdone and not really to my taste while of those classic courses that I saw for the first time I had expected more from Lake Karrinyup in the west, which is an enjoyable if far from inspiring golf course and I was also disappointed by The Australian.
Of the modern courses the Ocean at the National is a constant source of disappointment for me, as a member I see it often and although I just love the land and the site cant work out some of the design decisions. It should be an instant Top 15 in Australia but the bunkering is perplexing, penal is fine but there seems little strategy to the placement of hazards. Much of the bunkering is positioned not to be flirted with but instead to be blasted over by long players usually leaving a simple approach. To me its neither here not there; the greens are also poor by comparison to those on the adjacent Moonah course while some of the natural features of the site, like the massive wasteland area on 4, to me have not been fully taken advantage of. Also the course seems to have been planned around a few key moments in the round, which is fine, its just that to me these are some of the problem holes and that makes the journey of getting to them unrewarding.
Also I think at Moonah Links TWP missed the boat a little, the course is a long tough slog and on a pretty dramatic site features very few moments to excite the golfer. In a city where short classics still provide stern challenges to modern professionals its disappointing to see them hell bent on curbing technology by stretching a course on a windy site to such extremes (6,850 metres). There is little subtlety to the challenge on the open course at Moonah Links and I think for a regular open venue that is disappointing. It will make for fascinating viewing however especially if the wind gets up, but where an Open venue in Britain is typically very tough in the wind but lame by comparison in the calm, ML is one nasty bastard no matter when you play it.
I should add a footnote that both courses were included in the book because despite their flaws they are built on great sites and to me are still well worth playing.
6. The influence of Dr. Mackenzie on Australian golf is highlighted numerous times in the book; considering he was only in the country for a few brief weeks do you believe his worth is in any way historically overstated?
Despite an abundance of people who beef-up Mackenzies influence on Australian golf, to me it actually seems much easier to downplay his role for the very reason you mention, he was only here for a few weeks. For me however the question of Mackenzies value requires careful analysis of all the facts and the in the dirt designs of his many visited courses before making up your mind as to which way you side.
Two key points though to keep in mind, none of the Australian courses built before he came are worth playing and the majority of the decent courses built after he left, through until this recent modern era, were built by those he trained or worked with.
Even if all he left us with was the design of Royal Melbourne West it could probably still be argued that he was the most influential designer to ever hit our shores. The fact he also bunkered Victoria, Metropolitans front nine and Kingston Heath (and built the incredible 15^th hole), laid out the original plan for NSW and remodeled Royal Adelaide to eliminate rail crossings and introduce the 3^rd, 4^th and 14^th are enough evidence of his influence for me. Of course perhaps his biggest legacy, in Melbourne anyway, was to have identified a great craftsman in Mick Morcom and an observant design partner in Alex Russell to continue his work after he departed. There is no doubt who designed RM West but these two guys possibly executed his plan better than even he could have imagined.
7. Who are the other designers, to have worked in Australia that you admire?
In Australia unfortunately we dont have a long list of great designers who have left their stamp on the country; what impressed me most about Britain on my recent trip was that I could play a series of great courses by a whole range of different designers. Aside from Mackenzie the only old-timers who have a really strong body of work are probably Alex Russell and Eric Apperly and the Mackenzie influence is evident in both their best works. Among the modern guys the Bob Harrison/Greg Norman team has the largest portfolio of really good work, while Im sure that Mike Clayton and Tom Doak will be up there in a few years once Barnbougle and St Andrews Beach open to add to Mikes Ranfurlie and his excellent, and extensive, redesign work.
8. In the back section of your book, Ellerston leads the modern ‘best of’ lists in both bunkering and best greens. Please give specific examples of great bunker strategms and greens that make Ellerston so exceptional.
Firstly let me say that in general the quality of the bunkering in modern Australian golf courses is much lower that those built by the golden ager’s. There are guys here now that can build good bunkers? Bob Harrison, Clayton’s team, some of Tony Cashmore’s work for instance, but from the mid 1980’s onwards the general standard in Australiais not exceptionally high. This may also be true elsewhere in the world although on my recent trip to the UKI especially enjoyed the bunkering at several of the modern links I played in Scotlandand Ireland.
Those comments were merely meant as a preface to, I guess, the whole back section of the book which lists the best of the old and new, in virtually every category the classic lists are far superior to the modern ones.
That’s not to say that Ellerston is the best of a bad lot but its clear superiority in many of the categories is in fact a further endorsement of the quality of the classic Sandbelt tracks.
Anyway onto the actual bunkers and greens at Ellerston. As much as, and perhaps more than, being strategic the Harrison/Norman bunkering at Kerry Packer’s course is designed to be bold and artistic. There is a great shot in my book of the fabulous driving hole at number 9, which comes complete with wonderfully dramatic fairway traps that dictate the strategy to the player but more importantly, for the setting, look fantastic. Big hitters can fire at the furthest right hand trap and draw the ball over the frontal bunkers to take advantage of the dipping fairway, shorter hitters however have a stack of fairway right but will almost invariably try to shave as much off the left bunkers as possible so as to get a clear shot of the lay-up second shot.
I also particularly admire much of the greenside trapping where you have a nice mix of sprawling Mackenzie-esq. style bunkers and holes like 6 and 12 which have more artistic shapes cut into the surrounding slopes.
The conditioning at Ellerston is truly incredible and given the minimal traffic and fanatical attention to detail it is quite feasibly superior to even Augusta during Masters week. The greens are firm and true and super quick ? hit a 40 footer on these greens and you know after the first few feet whether you have made the putt or not. The roll is extraordinary. In general green shapes follow the flow of the surrounding landscape so there is a wonderful variety of slopes – some are quite severely tilted like the 10th and uphill 12th while the undulation on others is subtle to the point of almost being undetectable. Though most are quite large, my favourite is probably the tiny green on the par five 10th which is nestled directly across a gully and set into the base of a small hill. There are no bunkers and as I said its small with the beautiful slope off the hill clear to see from the fairway. Playing a pitch across this gully and watching the ball react as it lands is
9. In the same section, you vote Ellerston as the hardest course in Australia. Is this an example of a) the owner’s wishes and b) a luxury that Norman and Harrison had in answering to only one person’s interests?
Absolutely both, you could not possibly build a course like Ellerston for public consumption – for a start 90% of golfers would be unable to handle it and those who could would no doubt be frustrated by the five hour plus rounds as the average guy searches for ball after ball. As I state in the book though for those capable of hitting the shots Ellerston demands (good ball striking single figure markers and professionals) this is an incredible experience and about as much fun as one can have on a devilishly difficult golf course.
I’m not a big fan of the long grueling golf course, say like the Lake course at Olympic, but Ellerston offers an enormous variety in the shotmaking required to play its holes. Harrison and Norman could have built a monster but far from being one long tight par four after another it’s instead a long four with a creek crossing approach, a short four that runs along the creek, a short three with a delicate green, a mid length four up and across a steep rise etc. Plus in hole 16 the course features one of the most unique holes I have ever played (up there with 13-14 at North Berwick, 4-5 at Lahinch, the Road Hole and a few at Prestwick).
The frustration with Ellerston is that most will never get to play it, so since the book’s release I have experienced this constant ‘trust me, it’s that good’ type dilemma. I wrote the book to highlight the quality of our courses and to enlighten golfers on where to play. While it is disappointing that one of my strongest recommendations is inaccessible, I stand by my decision to include the course. Many have questioned the point of its inclusion when no one can play the course but I set out to compile a book on Australia’s finest courses and Ellerston is certainly one of them.
10. The Grand frustrated a number of the players during the 2001 Australian Open. Apart from the poor set up of the 11th, how much of the players’ criticisms seemed warranted to you? Certainly, poor course management attributed to some of the high scores?
I think the 11th was a total disaster and deserved the criticism it received but at the same time that hole and the entire event taught me more about the professional golfers mindset than all the other tournaments I’d seen combined. The tee shot on 11 was diabolical and almost every player, regardless of how close they drove to the right side, ended up in the rough on the left hand side. This rough had to be kept reasonably long to prevent balls from running deep into the woods but with a pond in front of the green it left a tough, and totally unfair, second shot. What staggered me however was standing in the left rough and watching player after player find water as they tried to hit their approach from the rough onto the green. Even balls that carried the water bounded through to the back bunker for an almost certain bogey. With only 120 metres to the flag each professional refused to even consider the option of pitching short of the pond and leaving a relatively simple chip over the water. That’s not to justify the terrible way the AGU had set up the hole but course management is rightfully a factor in determining the best player in an Open field.
Even more staggering however was the way players attacked the par five 12 green with gay abandon and how those who struck the trees guarding the green cried foul. The attitude seemed to be that as a professional I should be able to go at every par five green in two shots, and they could if they drove the ball high on the right side. Complaints from players who had sprayed their tee shots down the left and then tried to take on the trees should not have been given airplay; they made foolish choices and could have easily played to the right and attempted to pitch close for their birdie.
The media chose to run with the dissatisfaction of players which was predictable but most of those who criticize the Grand haven’t actually played the course and all I’d say to them is that despite apparent qualifications the professionals on our tour aren’t the best judges of architecture. After all in a recent Golf magazine ranking Kingston Heath didn’t even make our Top 10 with the professionals on the panel. That is almost as ridiculous as the final rankings but that’s for another day or thread.
I was at the Grand for the entire Open week in 2001 and what people have seemed to forget when discussing the course is that the best and most patient player won the Australian Open, the holes looked fantastic on television (what the network had paid for) and the final round shoot-out was a memorable conclusion to what was a pretty good event. The Grand definitely gets a bad rap in this country but in my view is the best track in Queensland, Brookwater is probably close now but the rest is grossly over rated. Our open should never have gone to The Grand but the politics behind the decision need not affect our reading of the quality of the course.
11. You describe the work performed by Jack Nicklaus to The Australian Golf Club prior to the 1977 Australian Open as ‘the most radical course upgrade in Australian history.’ Though bold, your statement seems accurate given the parkland nature of the final product contrasted against the pre-WWII photos hanging on the clubhouse walls of the course featuring wild sand dunes. Just how good was the 1930s course? Do you consider the current course as a must-see for overseas visitors?
Unfortunately I’m not qualified to answer that as I’m way too young (29) to have seen the older version, from what I hear however it was one tremendous course. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine either if you take away the lakes, most of the trees and just leave that sandy subsoil, the undulation and think of what Mackenzie may have come up with on the site. It seems a good bet that the club was deserving of its lofty Top 10 status.
Is the current version a must-see? Well for me the most interesting observation I made during the compilation of this book was about the perceived quality of many classic Australian courses. Having grown up on the Sandbelt I had always looked at ranking lists and thought they sounded reasonable, Commonwealth, RM, the Heath, Metro and Victoria all in the top 10, Woodlands and Yarra just out always sounded about right. Courses like The Aus and The Lakes seemed permanently entrenched within the Top 10 and I’d assumed with the same validity. Having seen them all now however I can honestly say that I don’t know why anyone would think The Australian was anything more than a decent parkland course, it’s solid and superbly groomed but worthy of a place in Australia’s Top 10?? Unlikely, a must-see?? Not in my view.
For those of your readers who do make it to Sydney my advice is to check out the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Northern Beaches, Circular Quay, the Rocks, The Blue Mountains, Bondi Beach and play La Perouse a dozen or so times. After that if you are still looking for somewhere to play golf consider the Australian. Seriously though if planning a golf trip to Australia you’d play plenty of courses before the Aus.
12. As you note, the views from New South Wales Golf Club are beyond compare. Should one ever get past the views, how good do you think the ‘in the dirt’ design elements are there?
It’s a mixed bag really, as you know the views are out of this world and can be distracting when considering how good the course really is. By the same token however we can possibly under value the genius of what actually is there by continually focusing on the surrounds. The decision from the outset here was to attack the ridges in a variety of ways and build holes up and over as well as through the valleys and hills. In some cases it really doesn’t work ? The 3rd hole for instance is poor, but at other times the golf is as breathtaking as the game gets. The 5th is one of my favourite holes anywhere and I like the 6th and 7th but the real quality for me in the architecture comes much later in the round when you get to the loop of 13-17. 15 is one of the most intimidating driving holes on earth,requiring a strong shot between a narrow chute of dunes, the previous hole however is the ultimate gambling hole with the brave able to take on the tumbling dunes and drive for the
green but facing the ultimate penalty if unsuccessful while the safe play down the right leaves a frightening approach shot into a narrow target atop the small cliff with that incredibly intimidating backdrop. I love playing this hole because I know the sensible option here but can’t resist pulling out the wood and trying to drive close to the green, which is crazy given my pitching touch.
13. Is there a change that MacKenzie proposed for Royal Adelaide that you wish the Club would consider undertaking today?
Great question, there are several but most significantly I wish the club could reverse some of its more recent changes to bring holes back in line to the principles of Mackenzie’s design. The contentious changes I guess for a fan of the Mackenzie plan are the lengthening of the 4th, a truly classic driving hole plus the addition of fairway mounding, bunkers and grown in fairway edges which have slightly taken the gloss off what is a stellar course and made the course far more penal than I’m sure the great man would have wanted.
I’m an unabashed Royal Adelaide fan and fell in love the first time I played it, for me this place has a strange quirky quality that allows me to forgive problem areas that I may have otherwise been pretty harsh on – so I’m reluctant to suggest too much change.
I would have loved to have played the 8th hole from Mackenzie’s proposed back tee which was situated past the famous sandy crater on the 11th hole, the driving line would have dangerously skirted the 11th green so I can see why it wasn’t built but what a hole from back there! Mackenzie also had the crater hole playing as a dogleg from the 10th tee and although I love the original this change had some merit. I’m also not particularly fond of holes 15 -17 all of which are different to the Mackenzie plan, though I don’t know the land well enough to comment on its advantages. The lengthening of the par five 15th was probably needed but I don’t like the extreme narrowing of the fairway, again something I’m sure Dr Mac wouldn’t have approved.
Don’t get my wrong though about this course, in my eyes Royal Adelaide is one of the world’s great courses, sure it has some questionable architecture yet somehow it remains brilliant to play.
14. You are glowing in your praise of Michael Clayton’s work to the North Course at Peninsula Country Golf Club. Please explain.
Peninsula North sits on one of the most promising pieces of golf land in Melbourne yet until recently the course was a big disappointment. I played the course countless times in my youth and despite its flaws it was always a great fun place to play golf because of the fantastic sloping land and the wide variety of holes. What Clayton’s team has done is applied the finishing touches to the good holes and really tidied up the rotten stuff which was quite bad. See the still intact 17th for examples of just how bad.
The new bunkering is classical Sandbelt in style, which I really like but more so it’s the little things like clearing trees, straightening some tees, reshaping the greens and altering the bunker strategies that has truly done wonders. This is clearly now one of the best 15 or so courses in Australia and one we can all be proud of. The par three’s are tremendous and some of the shorter par fours like 6 and 8, which were once problem holes, are now much better. While the Australian’s upgrade may have been the most radical in this country, Peninsula North has been the most successful.
15. What are the pros/cons to the design of Victoria Golf Club vs the other sandbelt courses?
I find that a tough comparison to make because I probably enjoy Victoria more than my cons would suggest. First of all its opening hole is ordinary, the next two are similar and run in the same direction along a road, the par threes are good but there are no absolute stunners like the Heath, Royal Melbourne, Commonwealth or Yarra Yarra has and both nines finish with two par fives. On the pro side however is the wonderful bunkering and greensites so typical of those built in Melbourneduring that 1920’s period, the ambience, the beautiful clubhouse, flowing terrain and the outright quality of holes like 9, 10, 13 and 15 which are among my Sandbelt favourites.
The course suffers through direct comparison to the other leading Sandbelt courses as it isn’t on the same grand scale of a Royal Melbourne nor are its best holes of the same standard as a Kingston Heath or perhaps even a Commonwealth yet for me this track is a clear number four in Melbourne behind only Kingston Heath and the two courses at Royal Melbourne.
16. What is known about Eric Apperly? Certainly his work at NWSGC and Newcastle Golf Club in Stockton suggest he had a great feel for the lay of the land.
He was a great Amateur player in his day but is probably best remembered in these parts now as a golf course architect because he never won the Australian Open and because of the lasting fame of Newcastle and NSW. I’d agree with you totally that he seemed to have a great understanding of the land and how holes best fit the terrain, his less impressive work at courses around Sydney and country NSW also supports this as he seemed to make the best of the poorer land at his disposal. I’ve not played the Duntryleague course in Orange but have heard it’s very good.
Mackenzie trusted Apperly to finish the job at La Perouse so he obviously understood the great man’s design philosophy and could determine what would and wouldn’t work on that difficult site. Some of the additions and changes he made subsequent to the Mackenzie visit, like changing the direction of the second shot into 15 and building the 6th were masterstrokes. I guess his biggest weakness was shaping, clearly he knew what he was doing but his bunker and green shapes lack the sophistication of the equivalent work done in Melbourne during the same period. Who knows though, had Alex Russell been working with Apperly’s shaper and Mick Morcom been based in Sydney with Apperly, golf in this country may have been very different.
He is certainly an important figure in Australian golf and while I’d hate to see any of his good work redesigned a reshaping of his bunkers at Newcastle, if done properly, could enhance that course even further.
17. How healthy do you believe the Australian golf industry currently is?
I’m in regular discussion with friends and colleagues about the state of the Australian golf industry and I have some strong views on the subject. There is no doubt that Australia is a tremendous place to play golf and when you consider a whole range of global aspects is probably up there with Ireland, England and Scotland as the premier golf destinations in the world.
International golfers who came to Australia and stayed a few days in Sydney touring the sights and playing NSW Golf Club then headed to Melbournes magnificent Sandbelt for ten days to play Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Commonwealth, Woodlands, Metropolitan, Yarra Yarra, Peninsula and courses like Huntingdale, Spring Valley or Southern would have a hard time topping that anywhere in the world. When you also throw in the beautiful Mornington Peninsula just out of Melbourne, Royal Adelaide and Kooyonga an hours flight west and Barnbougle Dunes in Tasmania when it opens next year, you suddenly have a three or four week golf feast that is truly irresistible.
The concern however I have with the state of the industry is the new course development which, in line with American trends, is very much geared toward residential golf estates. There have been a stack of great golf sites uncovered in Australia during recent years but I believe we are probably one or two world class courses short of having approached the lands potential. Im quite sure that Barnbougle will stun the golf world and lift the bar back up but we really do need one or two more genuine stunners to be on the right track. Many modern courses in Australia have done little to further the actual golf industry, sure retirees now have a nice place to live but Northlakes, Sandhurst, Sanctuary Lakes, Tallwoods, Secret Harbour, Torquay Sands and Links Lady Bay are hardly going to excite the international visitor despite some decent land among that lot.
From a Victorian perspective we undoubtedly continue to have the best golf in the southern hemisphere, and thats not likely to change for many many years, but we do face a genuine threat from nearby markets such as New Zealand and eventually Tasmania. I just hope that one of the new Cape Schanck or St Andrews Beach courses can deliver world class quality golf to compliment the established classics and secure Victorias place as the home of Australasian golf.
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