Feature Interview with Richard Macafee
Richard Macafee is 46 years old and married with 3 children ages 19,17, and 15. His handicap is a tidy +3 at Kingston Heath where he has been a member since 1984. He has won its club championship eleven times (!) and also won the World Club Championship representing KHGC in 2004 at Nine Bridges in South Korea. Additionally, he competed in the British Amateur at Hoylake in 2000. Back at home, he has served in various capacities at his beloved home club, including the Greens committee 2010-present. Importantly, he co-authored the KHGC Vegetation Report in 2014 which he also updated in 2017. Away from golf, he has enjoyed being an Australian Rules Football juniors coach for the past eight years.
Who was Dan Soutar? For Alister MacKenzie to write, ‘The course has been so well constructed … there is little for me to suggest with the exception of a bunkering plan’ is quite the compliment.
Dan Soutar is one of the most significant, early father figures of Australian golf. He was born in Scotland in 1882, and migrated to Australia from Carnoustie at the age of 20. Dan was an accomplished player. He won the 1903 Australian Amateur championship, and in 1905 was the first professional to win the Australian Open. That year, he was the inaugural winner of the Australian PGA and successfully defended the title in 1906 and 1907.
Soutar was also an accomplished Club professional, serving Royal Sydney, Manly, Bonnie Doon, and Leura among others, through several decades. Soutar was a mentor to young golfers, with his protegees including Jim Ferrier, Ossie Pickworth, and Joe Kirkwood – famous names in Australian golf.
Soutar was a course designer of note. Aside from designing Kingston Heath, he submitted an impressive plan to Royal Adelaide, which while not embraced, included many green sites that are identified in the routing we see there today. Soutar also designed Marrickville (Bonnie Doon), Concord, Indooroopilly, Armidale, Pymble, Christchurch (NZ) and several nine hole layouts, as well as others no longer in existence. He consulted Elanora, Wagga Wagga, Bankstown, and others.
Dan Soutar was an influential administrator – playing an integral role in the formation of the Australian PGA, and filling several executive roles over a twelve year period. Soutar also penned the first Australian text on our game – his 1906 “The Australian Golfer” which provides a fascinating insight into his philosophies on golf, and his thoughts on the players, courses, and techniques of the day.
I gather Kingston Heath was the longest course in Australia when it opened at its current location in 1925 at 6200 meters? That is pre-steel shafts so how wise were the founders when they mused that it was easier to shorten a course than lengthen it?!
In hindsight, very wise! Dutton Green was a lawyer and club Captain, and he studied the game in great detail. He also had a relationship with Harry Vardon, who he regularly corresponded with about the state and future of golf. Vardon told him that most classic courses he had played were already too short and that any new courses designed needed to allow for the extra distance that would inevitably result from new equipment.
Soutar had held similar, often unpopular, views on length for quite a while. He submitted a design for a new course at what is now Royal Adelaide back in 1906 which was not implemented because it was considered too long and too difficult at 6,080 yards.
With Green and Soutar on the same page, the course was built in 1925 at 6,812 yards with a Bogey of 82. The real test of their resolve came quickly with Dr MacKenzie’s visit in 1926. MacKenzie was strong in his praise for Soutar’s routing and design, and for Morcom’s construction. However he did comment that “I would suggest that the course be slightly shortened (to 6,579 yards) as it is somewhat too long even for a Championship links.” Dutton Green stuck to his convictions and decided to leave the course at it was, with the simple theory that “if we are proved wrong it will be easier to shorten than lengthen the course.”
As an interesting comparison, at the time Royal Melbourne was 6,321 yards and Metropolitan 6,156 yards.
Further down the track this decision proved to be even more important as Kingston Heath (like many Sandbelt and Australian courses) ended up being in a residential area where land became very scarce and expensive.
Broadly speaking, is it accurate to give Soutar credit for the routing, Mick Morcom for the fairways/greens and Alister MacKenzie for the bunkers?
I think the more accurate summary would be to give Soutar credit for the design and routing, Morcom for the construction and most of the bunkering, and MacKenzie for the bunkering style and inspiration.
I’m not as strong on the history and MacKenzie influence as others, but it does seem evident that not a lot of his bunkering plan went in the ground exactly as it was drawn up. A lot of it was similar, but Morcom clearly understood MacKenzie’s vision and style with great clarity, and had the skill to get that vision into the ground.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of playing Kingston Heath is the fairway undulations, something acknowledged by MacKenzie on his visit, and Soutar and Morcom deserve great credit for this. For what is really a flat site, it is rare to get a flat lie for your approach shot due to the rolling and subtle undulations. The scale of the movement is not always obvious, and isn’t too great that it creates ‘collection areas’. However they are just enough to make you adjust you stance and swing, and gives an advantage to those who can control their golf ball over those with one dimensional ball striking.
This discussion refers to the course post construction and through the first half of the century. We will touch on Graeme Grant later in the interview, but Graeme was the Course Superintendant from 1982 to 1998 and in my opinion deserves to be acknowledged in the design credits for the course. Graeme oversaw the introduction of the native Couch (Bermuda) fairways, which was quite controversial at the time. He also, along with his assistant Bob Simmonds, reconstructed almost every green on the course to create the internal slopes and contours that we see today. Graeme and Bob also would have re-built nearly every bunker on the course in their time in keeping with MacKenzie and Morcom’s vision, with specific focus on the way the bunkers interact with the green complexes.
The combination of fairway conditions, undulations and green contours really compliment the great bunkering perfectly, and is why Kingston Heath is such a great, yet subtle, golf course.
Having said that, let’s give MacKenzie credit for the one hole that he did alter from Soutar’s plan – the 15th. Please speak as to what he did there.
We can definitely give MacKenzie credit for the 15th! The original 15th was a 222 yard blind par 4 over a significant ridge, and from all reports was a very poor hole. He suggested bringing the green to the top of the ridge line and creating an uphill par.3 in the style of the Gibraltar hole at Moortown.
The resulting hole is one of the best short holes in the world, one which essentially requires a perfect golf shot to hit the green. The scale of the ridge at the green means the surrounding bunkering is extremely deep and penal. At about 12 feet deep the front left ‘Big Bertha’ bunker is the most talked about, as it eats into the front and left sections of the green. It’s a bunker that is genuinely feared by many and has ruined many a good scorecard. While not as directly in the line to the green, the right side bunkering is no less shallow or easier to play from.
Mike Clayton often says that if he built a hole like the 15th today he would be roundly criticized, and it would be deemed unplayable and unfair by most members and golfers. I agree with this, and it would be a similar story for other great par.3’s in Melbourne like the 11th at Yarra Yarra, 7th at Royal Melbourne West and the 9th at Commonwealth.
I see no problem at all with a hole where you need to simply execute, and it is probably my favorite match play hole. Standing on the 15th tee in an important match at all square is an amazing feeling, knowing you just need to execute a great shot under pressure. Too many people only look at a hole in terms of the scorecard in their pocket, something we are very guilty of in Australia.
You’ve been a member at Kingston Heath in four different decades. Please describe how the course played in 1980s,1990s, 2000s and 2010s.
The most significant change in the way the course played probably took place in the 80’s due to the couch grass program and the green resurfacing and contouring. It was also at that time that the fairway shaping and width started to return to Kingston Heath. By the late 70’s most of the fairways had become very narrow and looked like airport runways in some old photos.
The widening and shaping of the fairways was done by Graeme Grant in the 80’s and is something that has continued to today. The shaping allows the native areas and bunkering to blend in very naturally, and with firm fast fairways it also brings hazards into play. It also affords more options from the tee.
The late 80’s and 90’s was probably the time where the course had the most trees. The gradual opening up of the course since then has probably been the most noticeable change in the last two decades. Not many of these trees were in lines of play, however they dominated the landscape and created safety and maintenance problems. Many were planted at the same time and therefore failed at a similar time, and we have resisted the temptation to re-plant when significant trees have come down. With more light and air flow the maintenance of tees, fairways and greens has greatly improved, and the course condition has been more consistent and allowed the course to play the way it was intended.
Please speak to three of the most important changes and pivotal moments that have occurred over your time at the Club.
The first would be the commitment to firm Couch grass fairways and firm bent putting surfaces. The whole strategy and subtlety of Kingston Heath simply doesn’t work without the playing conditions suiting the design. While it no doubt would have been done by now anyway, the decision at the time to convert the fairway grasses was not an easy or popular one. I think it set the standard in many ways, and educated the members slowly at the same time on the way golf should be played, which made decision making down the track a lot easier.
The second is a strategic and political decision. In the 90’s the club was very close to selling a significant parcel of land to the East that runs alongside the current 19th and 12th holes. We were acquiring extra land to the West for a new practice fairway, and many felt the East land needed to be sold to finance the purchase. A few of the most influential committee members were intent on selling, but a few other determined members stood firm and worked very hard to find a solution that did not involve any sale of land. They finally got their way and it was a big bullet dodged in the club’s history. That land currently has water storage and a turf nursery, is parking for tournaments, and allows for further hole extensions and changes – but more importantly is still in the club’s control. Many Australian golf courses have made poor decisions around boundary protection that have ended up being very costly.
The last has been the opening up of the course and focus on vegetation. I’ll talk more specifically on that in a later question, but it has definitely changed the ‘feel’ of playing Kingston Heath. Play was more in ‘corridors’ in the past, but a real character of playing Kingston Heath now is the ability to see across other holes on the course from almost any standpoint. I love this feature at some of the great English heathland courses such as Swinley Forest, Sunningdale and Walton Heath and it fosters a real sense of golf as a recreational sport in a club atmosphere.
You won’t talk about it so I will put you on the spot: what is your playing record at major club events?
Ha! OK. I’ve been very lucky and honored to win 11 Club Championships since my first in 1993. I was playing a lot of golf in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and had a very good run in that period. A bit of a change in focus and a few very good young players lead to a bit of a drought in the 2000’s, but somehow I’ve managed to win 3 more in my 40’s, which I certainly wasn’t expecting!
One thing I will say is that playing Club Championship Finals are my fondest golfing moments. We play a 36 hole match for our final. It’s played in late February when the course is firm and fast and perfect. The staff set the course up as if it was the last day of an Australian Open with double cut and rolled greens and ‘Sunday pins’. We get quite a few club members out to watch, and to have the course to yourself in a big match under those conditions is golfing nirvana.
How do you handle the short but deadly third? Do you ever hit driver?
I don’t hit driver in stroke play rounds, but do it occasionally in Stableford and social rounds. The goal when I do hit driver is to get it in the front right bunker for a front left pin, or the left bunker for a front right or back pin. The way the green is makes holding the green with driver almost impossible.
It’s a brilliant hole, with so many options off the tee from 5-iron to driver. I spend hours next to the green when we hold a big tournament and it’s great viewing. I’m guaranteed to see everything from 2’s to 6’s.
The key to the hole is the small, tiered, right to left green which is oriented toward the left fairway bunker and tea tree. Every inch left from the tee gives you a better angle for your approach, and every inch left from the tee brings the trees and bunker into play. The bail out to the middle or right half of the fairway is comfortable from the tee, but leaves an incredibly tough approach, even if it’s only from 70 yards out. Many pros and low handicappers miss the 3rd green with a half wedge in their hand.
The other aspect is that the further you hit it off the tee, the better the angle due to the green shape. A 4-iron up the middle is not a great angle, but a 3-wood up the middle opens up the green (but brings trees and bunkers into play).
My ‘go to’ play is a hybrid which I aim at the centre and try and let the wind drift it to the left half. If all goes to plan that leaves a three quarter sand wedge up the green. With the tier in the green a full lob wedge often creates too much spin, so my preference is for a bit of a dead hand sand wedge.
What piqued your interest in the architectural side of the game?
Without knowing it at the time, it was a trip I did with my father to Scotland and Ireland when I was 20. I was just starting to get into golf and playing off about 9 at the time, and whilst I had watched a lot of Open Championships I’d never given GCA a thought. We played 21 courses in 19 days and also went to the first 2 days of the Open at The Old Course (we left just before Faldo destroyed Norman in the 3rd round thankfully).
It’s easy to get influenced by others opinions in golf as we know, so it’s interesting to think back to that trip and my first impressions of certain courses. I remember being blown away by Royal County Down, mesmerized by Prestwick and Portrush, confused by Carnoustie and disappointed by Troon. I knew very little about any of them beforehand, but my father and I made our own list of best to worst when we got home – and they were very different!
The thing that really stood out to me was simply how many different shots I had to play to get the ball around. The combination of the shot making, the great courses and the people we met on and off the course on that trip really started my love of golf. Before then I had just really played golf.
It still was a very slow and gradual interest over the years, but I played quite a bit of amateur golf when I improved and therefore played a lot of different courses and noted simply what I liked and didn’t like. I still wouldn’t have know what a Redan was 15 years ago.
Some reading and then meeting like minded Melbournians who share a love of course history and design has accelerated that in the last decade and it has been a lot of fun to learn more and play significant courses. The time spent on the Greens Committee at Kingston Heath has also been fascinating and invaluable in understanding what goes into making courses play the way they do. In that time I’ve learned a lot from 3 Course Superintendents and the consultants and architects with whom we have dealt.
How does such knowledge help you tackle playing a tactical design like Kingston Heath?
My key to playing Kingston Heath is distance control and control of spin and ball flight. I think a lot of that has come from constantly playing off uneven lies, you just can’t be one dimensional and succeed on our course. I don’t hit many iron shots really close, but I hit a lot pin high. The great Tom Crow once told me ‘it’s amazing how close you hit it when you hit it the right distance’, and I’ve treasured that saying since. You don’t need to chase a pin to hit it close.
Understanding the strategy of a golf hole can’t hurt the way you score so long as you still play to your own strengths. There is no point playing a high draw because that’s what the strategy requires if you don’t have that shot in your bag.
I also have the advantage of physically not being capable of overpowering a course, so that makes some decisions a lot easier!
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?
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.
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!
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?
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’.