Thursday, July 15, 2010

Royal Adelaide Golf Club

Once you start to get really serious about playing the top 100 golf courses in the world, you start to look beyond the obvious courses located in places you might otherwise travel to. That’s when the maps come out and you try to figure out where places like Hutchinson, Kansas (Prairie Dunes) and Adelaide, Australia are.

A time-space trivia question to start. Where in the world can you fly for one hour and arrive in only thirty minutes? The answer: Melbourne to Adelaide. Adelaide is a city of 1.5 million people located in South Australia, west of Melbourne. Their clock is set thirty minutes off those of the big cities on Australia’s east coast. Thus, when it is 3:00pm in Sydney and Melbourne, it is only 2:30pm in Adelaide, an interesting quirk.

Royal Adelaide Golf Club (ranked #50 in the world) was founded in 1892. This current location in Seaton is the club’s third. This course was first laid out in 1903 and the original designers were H.L. Rymill, and C.L. Gardiner. And, like many of the great courses in this country, the course was changed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie in 1926. In the middle of MacKenzie's Melbourne visit he traveled by train to Royal Adelaide for four days.

One of the things you notice immediately at Royal Adelaide is the Grange-to-Adelaide train line. It runs through the middle of the course including right by the club house and first hole. It is a pretty active train line; we saw the petite two train cars shuttle back and forth from the suburbs to the beach about twenty times during the round. The train is only twenty yards from the thirteenth green and runs quietly so you really must look both ways before crossing it several times during your round, since there are no protective gates. Many of the great courses of the British Isles have train tracks running alongside the course; none have a train running through them.

RA Train1.jpg
Grange-to-Adelaide train running through Royal Adelaide by the first tee

The first hole plays with the train running down the left and is a relatively straight forward 342 meter (add 10 percent for yards) dogleg left hole with one well placed bunker in front of a small green. In general, the greens at Royal Adelaide are small, and the breaks are very subtle. We had trouble all day reading the fast greens.

RA 1 green.jpg
Approach to the first green

The second hole plays on the other side of the train tracks and is a 468 meter par five. I hit my tee shot onto the tracks, which is not O.B., and it bounced down the line and back into the path running alongside. You can see the distinctive reddish sand at Royal Adelaide, the natural color.

The well protected 2nd green

Many golf books, including Planet Golf, rate the third hole as one of the world’s great par fours. The small green sits among sand dunes set in a narrow hollow. It is only 265 meters and potentially drivable, but the shot is blind from the tee. The fairway gets progressively narrower the closer you get to the green. I agree that it is a real cracker, as they say down here.

RA 3 tee.jpg
Blind tee shot, Royal Adelaide third hole

The area around the green, like many at Royal Adelaide, has closely mown areas for chipping, with a Pinehurst style upside-down bowl green. The narrow green is set at an obtuse angle to the line of play. The third is a tantalizing hole, the type where as you are walking off the green you start to think, "I should have hit a driver," or you begin to imagine a dozen different ways you could try to birdie or eagle this hole, or like the greatest holes, perhaps make a six or seven if you get too aggressive...

RA 3 green.jpg
The beautiful third green at Royal Adelaide, from behind

The fourth is also a very good hole. It is a 369 meter par four with a blind tee shot. You have to hit over a grassy knoll to a hole that doglegs to the left slightly.

RA 4 tee.jpg
The blind tee shot of the par four fourth hole

The fourth fairway has many humps and bumps that send the ball ricocheting.

RA 4 fway.jpg
The fairway, fourth hole

MacKenzie’s major contribution was to re-route the course through the dunes on the central part of the property. MacKenzie's re-routing eliminated the back and forth across railroad tracks. Aside from the back tee on fourteenth, all holes now play on either one side or the other. MacKenzie said, "If the suggestions put forward for the reconstruction of the Royal Adelaide course are acted upon, it will be superior to most, if not all, English championship courses." He wasn't far off.

When you drive into the Royal Adelaide property, it has the flat and wide-open appearance of a links course, similar to when you first pull in to many classic links courses such as Lythan & St. Annes, St. Andrews or Royal Liverpool. It doesn’t look like much, but it is.

The seventh hole is a 148 meter uphill par three and is guarded by the “big six” bunkers. The green slopes back-to-front and it is a standout hole.

RA 7 bunkers.jpg

The well bunkered, elevated green, seventh hole

As you would expect from MacKenzie, Royal Adelaide is a well routed course that offers a lot of variety. Long par fours mix with shorter ones and great dogleg holes. This variation is important to keep shot variety interesting when the wind is blowing. Another interesting hole is the 483 meter par five ninth, which first doglegs to the left and then to the right. It is seen from the green below.

RA 9 from green.jpg

Ninth green looking back at fairway

The back nine reminded me a lot of golf in the Hamptons, although you cannot see the water from anywhere on the course. The course feels a bit like Maidstone around holes nine through fourteen.

Royal Adelaide is an easy walk and has so many pine trees that it has a fragrant smell of pine as you stroll about. I really like sandy courses like this that have a great routing and don’t try too hard to impress you. The eleventh is another standout hole, called the "Crater Hole." It plays 354 meters from the back tees and is another blind tee shot (the third at Royal Adelaide) up a slight hill. The second shot is a beauty.

Once you climb the crest of the hill, you can see the amphitheatre setting the green is set in.

RA 11 green.jpg
Approach shot to the eleventh hole

The 382 meter par four fourteenth is also listed as one of the top 100 golf holes in the world. If you can carry the plateau landing area you will have a clearer shot at the renowned humped green. The plateau is guarded within the right elbow of the dogleg by three bunkers that run consecutively from the edge of the fairway farther into a fourth. The plateau can also produce a downhill lie for a ball struck well enough.

The fairway is also unsheltered and open to the wind. The club has removed many trees over the last three years in an effort to return the course more to the way it originally played.

The fifteenth also ranks as one of the 500 greatest, and the challenges begin the moment you reach the tee. The double-dogleg fairway goes first left then right through a narrow chute of trees, and from the sheltered tee box it is virtually impossible to gauge the affect of the wind. The par five hole plays 450 meters and has very deep greenside bunkers.

RA 15 tee.jpg
Tee shot, par five fifteenth hole

What do you get when you combine a seaside links-style course with a MacKenzie routing and several of the world’s great golf holes? Simply, one of the best courses in the world. I count it among my personal favorites and can see why it is rated as one of the top fifty courses in the world. It’s hard to say that any course in the top fifty in the world is under-rated, but I think Royal Adelaide is. For example, I think it is a better and more interesting course than several of the courses on the list that rank above it such as Baltusrol, Oak Hill and Royal Birkdale. I think the same is also largely true of New South Wales and most of the premier courses in the Southern Hemisphere. If courses such as these got more exposure, their rankings in the world would undoubtedly rise.

My only complaint at Royal Adelaide is the brand new seventeenth hole that seems out of character with the rest of the course. It has a massively wide split fairway with huge bunkers in the middle that are in play off the tee. No other holes have wide fairways or bunkers in the middle. The green is very large, also out of character for this course. The hole seems more appropriate for Barnbougle Dunes than it does for Royal Adelaide.

The City of Adelaide

Despite being the place where Rupert Murdoch got his start, I liked Adelaide a great deal. Named after the English Queen consort of King William IV, Adelaide is filled with many charming Victorian buildings. As my regular readers know, I like to go for an early morning walk to explore cities I am traveling to for the first time. Adelaide is very walkable, has interesting architecture, a glorious Botanical Garden and a quaint University. It is one of the most livable cities I have ever been to. It has beautiful weather year round, minimal traffic and is close to Australia’s biggest wine growing region. It is big enough to have a lot of amenities but small enough to be intimate. As a university town it has a similar feel to Palo Alto, California or Stellenbosch, South Africa.

The city is the capital of South Australia, the only state that was freely settled. As a planned city, it was laid out in a grid system with wide boulevards, public squares and is surrounded entirely by parkland. As you can see from the pictures, it has more of a Western feel to it than the more cosmopolitan and urbane cities of Melbourne and Sydney.

Rundle Street, Adelaide

The travel writer Bill Bryson sums up Adelaide succinctly and perfectly: "It feels rather like an urban version of a gentlemen's club - comfortable, old-fashioned, quietly grand, slightly drowsy by mid-afternoon, redolent of another age. It is to Australia essentially what Australia is to the world - a place pleasantly regarded but far away and seldom thought about." Let’s hope it stays that way, I would hate to see it change.

Routing map of Royal Adelaide

If you are going to Australia to golf and are debating whether to make the side trip to Adelaide, by all means do.


Anonymous said...

Great post, did the course and the city justice.
The only facts that you failed to mention are that sleepy old Adelaide with it's lovely quaint atmosphere also has an incredibly high murder rate (the highest per capita in Australia) and is renowned for it violent mass murders and paedophilia!

Anonymous said...

Not only was the golf course spectacular but the city of Adelaide was equally impressive. As top100golfer mentions, Adelaide is a must for any visitor, especially those coming from the U.S. It is a cross between Napa Valley, CA and Saratoga Springs, NY. Dead tired, we still managed an evening stroll through town and we discovered an extraordinary light show at the University. Check out this website.


Anonymous said...


South Australia no murder capital according to statistics
09 Dec, 2008 11:06 AM
Often considered the murder capital of Australia, South Australia actually has the lowest murder rate in the nation, according to new figures.

Police Minister Michael Wright said today that figures from the National Homicide Monitoring Program put SA's murder rate at 0.8 for each 100,000 people.

That compared to a national rate of 1.3 for each 100,000.

Anonymous said...

If you ever head back to Adelaide, you should also try Kooyonga. having played both of them a number of times, I always feel like I've had a more enjoyable game at Kooey. A couple of great risk / reward short par 4s to finish: eagle or double are both possible! RA has more individually spectacular holes, and obvious possibilities for the dismantling of your round in a glorious disaster, but Kooyonga gently carries you along, never quite realising that you're travelling many miles on the 'bogey train'!