Royal Melbourne far from average Aussie track
For all the emphasis upon quality of play, sometimes it’s the track that merits attention as well.
This week’s Presidents Cup at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Golf Club provides a rare look at the enduring vision of one of the game’s most innovative designers. Eighty-five years ago, Alister MacKenzie ventured across the Pacific Ocean to impart his sense of golf on the Australian continent. During a seven-week whirlwind visit in October-November 1926, he transformed the face of golf and created a legacy that continues to inspire and challenge golfers. And he didn’t do it alone.
MacKenzie (1870-1934) was a restless, volatile genius. A native of northern England, he summered at a family retreat in the remote northwest coast of Scotland where he developed an early fascination with nature and wildlife. After training as a physician, he was dispatched to South Africa during Britain’s Second Boer War (1899-1902), where he was struck by Dutch (Boer) settlers’ ability to outmaneuver British troops through their superior understanding of native landforms. This led MacKenzie to the formal study of military camouflage and his subsequent involvement in British planning during World War I.
When: Nov. 17-20
Where: Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Melbourne, Australia
2009 champions: U.S. won, 19-14, at Harding Park GC, San Francisco
Series: U.S. leads, 6-1-1
Format: Thursday, 6 foursomes matches; Friday, 6 four-ball matches; Saturday, 5 foursomes matches in the morning, 5 four-ball matches in the afternoon; Sunday, 12 singles
Golf Channel: Wednesday (9 p.m.-2 a.m.), Thursday (7:30 p.m.-2 a.m.),
Friday (4 p.m.-2 a.m.),
Saturday (6:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.)
NBC: Friday (8 a.m.-4 p.m., taped),
Saturday (8 a.m.-4 p.m., taped),
Sunday (noon-6 p.m., taped)
All times Eastern
All of this took place while he cultivated a vocational interest in golf-course architecture, to which he turned full time after the war. By the time he made his triumphant visit to Australia, he already had been involved in two dozen courses in Great Britain, written the seminal volume “Golf Architecture” (1920), and drawn up the famed horizontal watercolor map of The Old Course at St. Andrews that hangs in nearly every golf lover’s study.
The course designs that MacKenzie found Down Under appalled him. Though golf already was well-established in Australia, including play at Royal Melbourne’s original site having begun in 1891, it was based on what he considered to be antiquated notions of penal design: the proliferation of hazards arrayed directly across and alongside the intended line of play, with little thought as to strategy and options.
MacKenzie characteristically was savage in his dismissal of such a design. He quickly went to work redoing Royal Melbourne’s 18-hole tract, in the process incorporating land for nine new holes on adjacent property in Melbourne’s Sandbelt region – so named for its fine, well-draining geology. The native vegetation of bracken, fern and sea oaks provided an ideal natural setting for the course he had in mind.
In the process, MacKenzie, who always was quick to form alliances with design associates, joined talents with Australian Alex Russell (1892-1961), an amateur golf star and former artillery officer, to plan what would become Royal Melbourne’s West Course. Wasting no time, MacKenzie also raced around Australia doing consulting renovation work at Royal Adelaide, Royal Sydney, New South Wales and at such Melbourne-area gems as Kingston Heath, Flinders and Barwon Heads.
Actual construction at Royal Melbourne was overseen by Russell and by club greenkeeper Mick Morcom. It began with MacKenzie’s blessing but was completed after he left Australia. He never returned to see what arguably is his greatest design.
Golf vision aside, the collaboration of MacKenzie and Russell provided a unique strategic tandem.
MacKenzie’s lifelong fascination with camouflage made him an expert in the disguise of defensive formations such as trench works and outposts.
In the first of a two-part article published posthumously in “The Military Engineer” in 1934, MacKenzie wrote that “inland golf courses could be vastly improved . . . by imitation of the natural features characteristic of the only golf courses which were at that time worthwhile, namely the sand-dune courses by the sea.” While military camouflage seeks to achieve insolvable disguise, golf design seeks to present obstacles that are beautiful, natural and yet manageable. Properly designed golf hazards, he argued, were readily visible when viewed from the approach line but disappeared from the green looking back to the tee.
Five years after MacKenzie left Australia having designed Royal Melbourne West, Russell’s design of Royal Melbourne East was ready for play. For the 1959 Canada Cup (now known as the World Cup), play was first contested on a newly fashioned Composite Course comprising 12 holes from the West and six holes from the East. Though the routing sequence has been altered over subsequent years, this Composite Course has remained the most compelling championship layout in all of Australian golf.
MacKenzie, the strategist of land defense, and Russell, the practitioner of offensive assault, combined their talents in a unique way. Many fairway bunkers were placed at a high point or horizon line and provided a powerful challenge to oncoming players.
Increased distances over the years have reduced some of the effectiveness of these bunkers, and moving them would leave them in low spots not visible from the tee. Nonetheless, the careful observer will note the drama of these artfully crafted hazards on Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 10. Indeed, the massive sand crater along the inside left of the 312-yard, par-4 sixth hole will command attention of players as they decide whether to go for the small, well-protected target green or to lay up to the right of this dominant hazard.
For the Presidents Cup, Royal Melbourne Composite will play 7,000 yards to a par of 71. Even with some of those fairway bunkers no longer directly relevant, the rolling greens and punitive greenside sand along approach areas remains a compelling test. And no rough will protect the approach lines into sand bunkers, a style that defines so much U.S. tournament play.
A decade ago at nearby Metropolitan Golf Club, the handiwork of superintendent Richard Forsyth electrified the golf world during the World Match Play Championship (won by Steve Stricker) by showcasing closely mown turf around greenside bunkers. The look heralded a unique integration of hazards with putting surfaces.
Forsyth is now the greenkeeper at Royal Melbourne, where he is responsible for keeping the approaches into greenside bunkers cut down to near-greens-surface heights. The newly replanted Suttons Mix bentgrass greens are likely to be extremely firm and rolling about 12 on the Stimpmeter.
Thus contestants from both Presidents Cup teams are likely to face an acutely calibrated version of the exacting demands into and around the greens that MacKenzie engineered 85 years ago.