Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Royal Melbourne Golf Club

A golf course ranked in the top ten in the world should be a special place and Royal Melbourne is. There are two courses at Royal Melbourne, an East and a West. The composite course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club (ranked #8 in the world) is made up of twelve holes from the West course and six holes from the East Course. The composite can only be played in tournaments, thus I played both the East and West courses on separate days.

Alister MacKenzie did the routings of both the East and West courses in the mid 1920s. Club member Alex Russell and superintendent Michael Morcon oversaw the implementation and building of the courses and thus are co-credited with the design since MacKenzie spent only 23 days there.

Like many great designs including Pine Valley and Sand Hills, the course has wide open fairways that are playable for the average golfer, yet demand the more skilled player to drive the ball into dangerous corners to get close to the flags. It is also compared to Pine Valley because it is a “second shot” course.

Like Pine Valley, the first thing that strikes you when seeing Royal Melbourne is the scale of the course. It has a “big” feel to it with holes routed around big sand dunes, forced carries over bracken fern and sweeping fairways with big doglegs. The World Atlas of Golf describes Royal Melbourne as a “kaleidoscope experience of obstacles and emotions.”

The second hole (West), is a 485 meter (add 10% for yards) par five of excellence with a formidable sand bunker off the tee on the left and a big sweeping fairway to a well protected green.

The approach to par five 2nd green

From the World Atlas: “The third hole is a Russell creation of 324 meters. Few holes of this length anywhere have its class. The tee shot aims out to a wide expanse except for the spread of sand on the right at the crown of the hill. Beyond, the fairway rushes down to a hollow before a two-tiered green that steps down from right to left, the third stage dropping into a final huge trap at its lowest and farthest left point.”

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The 3rd green

The fifth and sixth holes on the West course are two great ones. The fifth is a 161 meter par three that plays up a hill. It has the MacKenzie look and feel of Cypress Point and is clearly well-bunkered. You also get a good sense from this picture of the massive scale the course achieves by using the elevation changes to maximum impact. This is a real man's course with some teeth.

The classic par three 5th hole

One of the distinctive features of Royal Melbourne are the hard edges many of the greens have, cut at a 90 degree angle to the bunkers. As a result, it is highly likely that a shot not perfectly hit will remain in the bunker or run through the green.

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Detail of the 5th bunker and green

The 391 meter par four sixth is one of the best in golf. It plays from an elevated tee down into a sweeping valley over bracken and with tea trees protecting the right side. It’s classic risk-reward. If you can pull off a shot further to the right over the bracken and bunkers, you will have a much shorter shot to the demanding green set on top of a hill. The farther left the tee shot runs, the more it brings into play the deep bunker guarding the left side of the green.

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The view from the tee at Royal Melbourne West's 6th

The green has appropriately been described as “lethal.”

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The wicked 6th green at Royal Melbourne West

I also very much liked the West’s tenth hole, a 279 meter par four. Note the “big bertha” style bunker protecting those who dare to shoot directly for the green. Nobody rings a bell when you get to one of the greatest golf holes in the world. There also isn’t a sign telling you; there doesn’t need to be. You just know it’s a fabulous hole because it bowls you over. The tenth is a hole like that. It was the inspiration for Tom Doak’s world-class short par four fourth hole at Barnbougle Dunes.

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The short par four tenth from the tee

The World Atlas of Golf describes the tenth hole eloquently: “Few holes of 300 yards can be reckoned to be anything more than stop-gaps. This hole is a grand exception. In golf course design two interesting themes run counter to each other. The one standard principle, that the farther one hits and the nearer one approachs the target the finer becomes the margin of error, is cleverly offset by the axiom that the more finely judged second shot gets progressively more difficult the farther one falls short of the green. The hole crosses a pleasant valley from one crest to the next.”

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The second shot on the 10th features a short, blind pitch over this bunker

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The small green on the 10th hole, Royal Melbourne West

The 416 meter eleventh (West) has a feel similar to Pine Valley and Sunningdale, with a demanding tee shot that must be hit through a long chute of trees.

View from the tee, Royal Melbourne West course, 11th hole

The difficult par five holes ate my lunch at Royal Melbourne. I played all four of them poorly. Below is the approach to the 435 meter par five twelfth (West).

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The 12th green

The composite course was devised for tournaments in 1959 so that crowds would not have to cross Cheltenham Road. While it can be confusing playing the courses trying to figure out which holes are part of the composite, the easy rule of thumb is that if you are still on the side of Cheltenham Road near the clubhouse, you are on the composite. The holes from the East course (1,2,3,4, 17 and 18) that are part of the composite are a worthy bunch. The green on the first hole (East):

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The 1st green, Royal Melbourne East Course

The second on the East is a great par four that has a blind tee shot to a fairway that starts far left and comes back to the right.

Royal Melbourne East, 2nd hole approach to green

The third hole on the East is a dogleg right down a sweeping hill and the fourth is an interesting uphill par three. The East course has recently reached the top 100 world rankings on its own merits and I can see why. It's a great collection of holes. The par three 13th on the East, 135 meters, which doesn't play in the composite courses is a spectacular little par three. It has the best protected green of the 36 holes at Royal Melbourne.

Royal Melbourne, East Course, 13th hole

As is the custom at Australia’s top private courses, they allow visitors from overseas if you have a letter of introduction from your home club. The day you play you are made an “honorary member” and granted full privileges including the ability to eat in the clubhouse. The normal greens fee rate is A$300.

We played at Royal Melbourne for a pittance! The course has been undergoing renovations in preparation for the upcoming Presidents Cup matches and thus the course was not in the usual condition they expect, so they didn’t feel it was right to charge us. To be honest, and as you can see from the photos, the course was in very good shape. They must have an extremely high standard that they keep the course in if the conditions we played in weren’t considered good. This was a very classy move on the part of Royal Melbourne.

Congratulations to one of my mates and playing partners, Smythe, who shot a 78 on one of the premier courses in the world the first time he played it! Well done; an impressive display of golf.

Aside from one of the best golf courses in the world, Royal Melbourne also has a genteel and historic feel to it. I suggest looking around the large room located off the entrance to the clubhouse which has an impressive display of memorabilia and old course maps.

The manicured hedges add a classy touch to the entry drive:

As do the grass tennis and lawn bowling courts:

Monday, June 14, 2010

Kingston Heath Golf Club

Kingston Heath Golf Club (ranked #21 in the world) is located in the sandbelt region of Melbourne and was designed in 1925 by Australian professional Dan Soutar. As was the practice at that time, bunkers were kept to a minimum when the course was built to see how it played and how the predominant winds blow. Soutar was paid a fee of 25 guineas plus traveling expenses from Sydney. He planned the course around the tenth hole, which is set among a picturesque avenue of gum trees. Soutar routed the course so you wouldn't have to play into the afternoon sun. The course was constructed by M.A. Morcom, who was the superintendent at Royal Melbourne.

While Alister MacKenzie was visiting Australia he was hired to offer suggestions on bunker placement. The course was 6,892 yards long when it opened, which is very long for the 1920s. In his 1926 report on the course, MacKenzie criticized it for being too long.

No drinks served at this 19th hole

We played Kingston Heath on a beautiful autumn day with perfect temperatures, no wind or clouds and no humidity. We played the course routing that is used when tournaments are played at Kingston Heath, including the routing Tiger Wood played last year when he won the Australian Masters. The course card was as follows:

Front nine: 1-19-12-13-14-15-16-17-18
Back nine: 7-8-9-11-2-3-4-5-6

The nineteenth hole is an alternate par three they use instead of the par three tenth hole. Kingston Heath is on very flat terrain and was easy to walk. The distinctive feature in my view are the bunkers. There are a lot of them; they are strategically placed and difficult. The greens and fairways are both relatively flat, but given the angle most bunkers are set at, it is hard to hold the ball on the green if you are coming out of the sand.

The book The World’s 500 Toughest Golf Holes ranks the first at Kingston Heath among its holes. The hole is 418 meters (add 10 percent for yards) and was originally a par five. The tee shot must be played up and over a hill with bunkers dramatically cut into its right side.

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The long opening hole at Kingston Heath

The Australian and five-time British Open Champion Peter Thomson is a big fan of the third hole, which is an 269 meter yard par four. He says, "holes of this length are not built any more - a pity. This one is a gem. In this day and age it can be driven, although the possibility must be ten or more to one against. For this reason the penalties for missing the target should be more severe, this enhancing the challenge."

Planet Golf also feels that the best hole of all at Kingston Heath is the drivable but dangerous third because the shallow green is angled to accept only the most precise pitch shots.

Thompson is also a big fan of the fifth hole, a 173 meter par three. “The threes here at Kingston Heath are very much the heart of the course, and this one is the first of three beauties. The original natural bumps and hollows have been preserved blessedly."

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The beautiful par three fifth hole

The bunkers at Kingston Heath are penal since the sand is shallow and many have high lips and a green that slopes away from your shot. Notice the shot Tiger had to play when he won at Kingston Heath in November 2009, which is typical of the course. You have to hit to a narrow, fast running green over a high lip from shallow sand.

Tiger Woods, 13th hole (11th on card), Kingston Heath 2009

As is typical here, the green is cut at a right angle up to the edge of the bunker, leaving zero margin for error. The fourteenth green has some very artful bunkering and is one of the few greens with larger undulations.

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The fourteenth green

Thompson says fourteen is one of the best par fives in Australia. My favorite stretch of holes was thirteen through seventeen. The fifteenth hole, a par three of 142 meters was my favorite. It plays uphill and is well bunkered as seen in the picture. The fifteenth hole was originally a 222 yard par three with a blind green sloping away from the line of play. Tom Doak says that MacKenzie built this hole himself. Planet Golf calls the fifteenth the star attraction at Kingston Heath, and it surely is.

The par three fifteen

The finish at Kingston Heath is a difficult one. The seventeenth is a long and hard hole at 421 meters. The second shot is blind and as such there are no fairway bunkers.

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Approach to the bunkerless seventeenth green

The nineteenth hole is a nice par three. On this hole I was introduced to the two crazy Kiwis who are playing a round of golf every day of the year in 2010 throughout the world. We had a nice chat with them, and they came away with the impression that we were a couple of American "high flyers," which I kinda like.

Tom Doak compares Kingston Heath to Merion in that it is a strategic design on a tight piece of land and has a similar great use of only about 125 acres. Combined with the intricate bunkering, it makes a compelling golf course.

The month I played Kingston Heath, Golf Digest Australia ranked the course above Royal Melbourne as the best course in the country for the first time. I don’t agree and think the composite at Royal Melbourne is better. I would also rank New South Wales, Barnbougle Dunes and Royal Adelaide above Kingston Heath. The Golf Digest Australia 2010 rankings: 1. Kingston Heath, 2. New South Wales, 3. Royal Melbourne West, 4. Barnbougle Dunes, 5. Ellerston, 6. The National (Moonah), 7.Metropolitan, 8. Royal Melbourne East and 9. Royal Adelaide.

As with all the great courses in Australia, they welcome overseas visitors as long as you follow their rules. It is easy to email them and arrange a day to play. You are made an honorary member for the day with all the club privileges. As with all the clubs we visited in Australia, we were treated very well at Kingston Heath. The club itself has the feel of a proper old English club. I wish I had scheduled more time in the sandbelt region, having missed playing Yara Yara, Metropolitan and the many other great courses here.


The Melbourne University Boat House on the Yarra River

Melbourne is a delightful city with a river running through it crammed with a lot of little back alleys and lanes where you can sit outside in a café or have a drink. After the round, we rode back to the airport. Our driver took us along Melbourne Bay and the upscale Brighton and St. Kilda neighborhoods, beside the beach and waterfront. Imagine living along the waterfront here, commuting to downtown Melbourne on a tram and playing all these wonderful sandbelt courses on a regular basis. A good deal, if you can get it. These Aussies have some lifestyle.

Central Melbourne

For the record, Australia has the best air transport system in the world. As an example, Melbourne is a city of four million people, or a little smaller than Chicago. It took us about five minutes to go through airport security each time we traveled. We flew through Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Launceston, and all are airy and clean airports and offer little stress to the haggard traveler. You don’t have to take your shoes off, you can carry through liquids and you are not presumed to be a criminal as you are in the United States. They allow non-travelers to come right up to the gate, thus the lost pleasure of having kids run up to their parents, or your mother-in-law greeting you with open arms when getting off a plane, still exists in Australia.

It helps that all the principal cities in Australia have great weather all year round, the country is geographically the size of the U.S. with 20 million people, and they are so far away that they aren't a terrorism target. Thankfully, the scourge of CNN Airport Network also hasn't infected Australia so you can sit at the gate without being barraged by noise pollution. Still, it’s just nice to remember that airline travel doesn't have to be painful.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Lost Farm Golf Club

Barnbougle Dunes is the first of two courses that will make up a world class golf resort in Tasmania. Owner Richard Sattler had the foresight to hire one of the premier architects in the world for the second course: Coore & Crenshaw, although the course was done entirely by Bill Coore. Located right next to Barnbougle Dunes, Lost Farm opens on October 1 of this year and will no doubt raise the profile of Australian and Tasmanian golf in the world to even greater heights. I was given the chance to take a pre-opening tour of the course with Richard as my guide.

The current entry gate to Lost Farm

You can see parts of Lost Farm situated right next to the tee box on the sixteenth tee at Barnbougle. In addition to another great golf course, Lost Farm will have a big (but appropriate to the site) lodge and spa set on a high ridge at the top of the property, overlooking Bass Strait. I have traveled to many good clubhouses over the years with world-class views including Shinnecock, Sebonack, Maidstone, The National Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Turnberry. In my opinion the view from this new clubhouse is as good as any of them. The Barnbougle clubhouse is set within dunes basically at sea level. The clubhouse and lodge here are significantly higher, set at the top of a hill with a view of the course, the dunes and the water.

The biggest sand dune I have ever seen is at Lost Farm. This picture below shows the 25 meter high dune, which was naturally blown into place by wind. To give you the sense of the scale of the dune, it is 300 acres in size.

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Mammoth natural sand dune at Lost Farm

The beautiful natural style Coore-Crenshaw bunkering is shown below on the third green:

LF 3rd green

Sometimes it is difficult to tell from pictures which holes are really good or situated in a unique location. Whether the picture below shows it or not, this one is going to be great. It is the fourth hole, a par three of only 120 meters, cited on the top of a big dune where the tidal estuary meets Bass Strait. It will be the signature hole in my view. Standing on the tee box here you have a brilliant view of the Strait and the wide beach to your right, and Barnbougle Dunes straight and to your left. The hole will play into the wind, so club selection will no doubt make this more than a simple short iron shot. It's quite a special location.

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World-class par three fourth at Lost Farm

The seventh hole will play downwind and features a very large grass mound in the middle of the fairway which will present some great strategic options: to go over, left or right?

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The seventh fairway

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The seventh green

It looks like Lost Farm will have just as interesting and varied a routing as Barnbougle, through the dunes. The course will have twenty holes; that is, two extra par threes, that can be used alternatively in the routing. Sattler is a Tasmanian native; a burly local farmer and rancher, he is an unpretentious gem. He was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning to show us his baby. He drove us around in his beat up 4 x 4 on a rainy day and it was one of the highlights of my trip Down Under. If you ever become jaded by corporate, cart path, waterfall-spectacle golf-as-an-adjunct-to-real-estate-development, come and spend some time with Richard Sattler. As an owner, this guy is the antipodean antithesis to Donald Trump. I think he was rather unimpressed by my cashmere sweater and Gucci loafers.

The eighth features an elevated, small green with a big bunker on the left:

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And an equally hard penalty for missing right:

LF 8

We saw a couple of Wallabies on the tenth hole while touring. A Wallaby is in the same family as a Kangaroo and looks very similar.

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Wallabies enjoying the tenth fairway

There is a rustic wooden tunnel near the fifteenth hole with access to the beach. There will be a place to sit and have cocktails and enjoy the wide beach and great scenery on the other side.

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The thirteenth green

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The fourteenth fairway

A natural "blowout" bunker on the 15th hole as seen from the clubhouse

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A view of one of the extra par threes at Lost Farm

I hope the airlines are ready to expand their capacity of flights into Launceston, the closest airport, since I predict that when the course opens it will become a must play for all the world’s golf crazed. As with Bandon Dunes, critical mass seems likely to occur when you have two great courses nearby; enough to entice golfers to make the long trek when they wouldn't do so for just one course.