2005: Adelaide’s aces a winning pair

By John Steinbreder

Adelaide, Australia

It does not have the palpable charm or international “cool” of its sister cities to the east, Melbourne and Sydney, and it rarely makes it onto the must-visit lists of travelers to the island continent. But it would be a mistake to overlook the South Australia capital of Adelaide, especially for those who have brought along their golf clubs.

For starters, the city is home to two of the best courses in the country – Royal Adelaide Golf Club, where the great Alister Mackenzie made a notable design overhaul in 1926, and Kooyonga Golf Club, which was laid out by H.L. “Cargie” Rymill, a Mackenzie disciple and longtime Royal Adelaide member.

Even if you do not tee it up every day, the pleasant metropolis set between the Mount Lofty ranges and Gulf St. Vincent is a prime jumping-off point for two of Australia’s most beguiling destinations – the natural paradise called Kangaroo Island and the wine-rich Barossa Valley (p42-43).

It was the opportunity to play the aforementioned tracks, however, that initially brought me to Adelaide, which has a comfortable Mediterranean climate, a plethora of bucolic parks and, befitting a country where beer drinking is a national pastime, more than 600 pubs.

My first stop was Kooyonga, site of the Nationwide Tour’s Jacob’s Creek Open in 2002-04. (The event was held at Royal Adelaide last year.) Kooyonga was founded in 1922, when Rymill was riding a tram to Royal Adelaide and noticed a stretch of sand hills and swampland for sale. A closer inspection by Rymill revealed the land, known as Mary’s Paddock, to be prime golf property with a variety of elevation changes. He quickly made the purchase and began working on an 18-hole design, referring frequently to Mackenzie’s book, “Golf Architecture,” as he laid out the course.

Club leaders have made some alterations over the years to Kooyonga, the name Rymill gave the setting for his new course, under the mistaken impression that it was an Aboriginal word meaning “plenty sand, plenty water.” But the designer’s initial routing remains more or less intact and has held up magnificently.

The layout begins with a pair of par 5s, the first a wide-open hole that gives players a chance to warm up, and the second a tighter and more challenging play.

No. 3 is the first of four superb par 3s, two of which come back-to-back on the second nine. And the fourth hole provides the introduction to Kooyonga’s excellent collection of par 4s – this one requiring an accurate uphill drive over a hollow, then an enticing approach to a green guarded by bunkers on both sides.

Kooyonga is not a long course, and a couple of its par 5s are reachable in two for most single-digit handicappers. But its tree-lined fairways are tight and replete with undulations, its bunkers well positioned and its closely cropped greens small and firm. Another factor that helps keep scores from going too low is the wind, which comes off the nearby water and often adds two or three clubs to shots.

Kooyonga is a frequent host to professional tournaments, and locals still talk about Gary Player’s pair of 62s during the 1965 Australian Open. So do club officials, and they go to great pains to make sure Kooyonga does not succumb so easily again. The winning 72-hole scores in the first three years of the Jacob’s Creek Open were 5 under par, 5 under and 9 under, respectively.

Adding length is not a realistic possibility because of the limited amount of land. So they tighten the fairways and grow out the rough in hopes of keeping today’s pros somewhat in check. More than anything else, however, Kooyonga is a members’ course, and club officials maintain a fair – and fun – setup the rest of the year.

Australians regularly put Kooyonga among the country’s 10 best layouts, and understandably so. But they are swift to add that it still is not the best the provincial capital has to offer. That honor goes to nearby Royal Adelaide.

This club purchased land at its current location in 1904, and one of its initial designers was Rymill. The original course, opened in 1906, was a good one, twice playing host to the Australian Open (1910 and 1923).

Mackenzie came calling in 1926, spending four days at Royal Adelaide in order to reconfigure the course and eliminate the need for players to cross a local rail line that was slated to be electrified. (The present-day pro shop once served as a municipal train station.) At the same time, Mackenzie routed more of the course through a complex of forested dunes at the center of the property.

Royal Adelaide members incorporated many, but not all, of Mackenzie’s design suggestions, picking out what they considered the best ideas and shelving the rest. The result was a finished product not entirely Mackenzie, but one that dazzles nonetheless.

Fortunately, the Adelaide members built the short par 4 Mackenzie suggested for the third hole, and it stands out as one of the best of its kind, offering classic risk-and-reward options. Roughly 300 yards, it presents something of a blind tee shot, with dunes rising the whole way down the right side to a bunkerless green. Hit a straight shot off the tee and you will fly the knoll and leave yourself with a wedge into a long, narrow green; anything off line invariably gets buried in the native grasses that cover the dunes. And watch out for a small ridge guarding the right side of the green, especially when the hole is set to the side; its gnarly grass often requires two or three hacks to escape.

No. 3 has been described as “a hard par and an easy double.” And I couldn’t help thinking how much the hole reminded me strategically of Nos. 8-9 at Mackenzie’s Cypress Point, both short par 4s that take little effort to mess up.

The third at Royal Adelaide also is greatly revered because it is the only hole Mackenzie designed that has not changed in some way. But it is not the only one that inspires generous praise.

I fell particularly hard for the par-4 11th, known as the Crater Hole for the cavernous, sandy crater over which golfers must hit their approach shots to an amphitheater green guarded by bunkers, with pines rising behind the putting surface.

Royal Adelaide is a par 73 that measures 7,221 yards from the tips. But when played from the members’ tees, it is a track of modest length (6,722 yards), where driver is not always required, most approach shots run anywhere from 100 to 150 yards and match play is the format of choice.

Ironically, the train line that runs through Royal Adelaide never was electrified, and cars chug through the club’s property to this day. Players occasionally have to cross rail lines during their rounds, and I asked one of my partners whether their presence had ever caused any problems. He laughed as he told me that no one has been hit by a train. But every now and again, he added, a golfer freezes up as he lugs his pull cart over a crossing and leaves it in the path of the train as he runs for safety, turning around just in time to see his bag, woods and irons flying in the air.

That’s a unique sight on any golf course, and perhaps reason enough, in the eyes of some sadistic voyeurs, to visit. But it is the golf – both at Royal Adelaide and at nearby Kooyonga – that truly attracts, as does the city of Adelaide’s laid-back atmosphere.

It is charming and cool enough for me.

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