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Royal Adelaide Golf Club

Blessed with wild dunes, dramatic pines and a 1926 Alister MacKenzie redesign, Royal Adelaide is one of Australia’s oldest and most treasured golf venues

By: Jeff Wallach

Appeared in April 2004 LINKS

If banishment to Australia were still the common punishment for British felons, golfers in England would be embarked upon a continuous crime spree. The island continent is home to a collection of the world’s best links courses, including Royal Adelaide Golf Club, located 20 miles outside the small city of Adelaide and just over a mile from the coast. The history of this great South Australia track is as colorful as the course is sublime. The natural linksland here rolls through dune grasses and low marshes, between pines and swamp oaks, and across gently sculpted but strategically brutal mounding, all buffeted by freshening winds.

The first Adelaide Golf Club was founded in 1870 but survived only a few years. As one old-timer reported, “the fact that nearly everyone who had land abutting the parklands owned a cow added to the problems facing Adelaide’s golfing pioneers.” And, according to lore, when the local governor—who’d introduced golf to the populace—left Australia, he took the region’s supply of golf balls with him, thus bringing to a temporary close all golfing activity.

The club re-formed in 1892 and began looking for land and a greenkeeper who could repair clubs. The first 18-hole competition, held in 1893, saw only two players scoring under 140. Early members included Prof. W.H. Bragg, who became secretary and treasurer in 1894 and reduced his handicap from 13 to 1 because he lived across the street from the course and was able to practice in the evenings. In his spare time, he also went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

In 1895, Adelaide golfers moved to Glenelg and three years later joined the fine company of golfers from Melbourne and Sydney as members of the Australian Golf Union. Just after the turn of the century the club rejected a prospective member “because he had no experience as a golfer and the links were already congested on account of inexperienced players.” Membership two years later reached 51, plus 29 more “associate members” (i.e., women).

Even while Royal Adelaide hosted national championships in 1901 and 1903, the golf course was clearly not up to snuff. In 1904, the club moved to its current location at Seaton. Harry Swift and H.L. Rymill designed the new course, which stretched to 6,256 yards. Three holes played over the nearby railway line and three others crossed district roads. A clubhouse was built for 350 pounds and members were called upon to donate furniture. The first Australian Open to be played at Seaton, in 1910, was won with a record-low score of 306.

But even as the Swift/Rymill course hosted six Australian Opens, it too was eventually deemed unworthy. In 1926 (three years after Adelaide received its “Royal” designation) Alister MacKenzie visited to advise members about a redesign. “One finds a most delightful combination of sand dunes and fir trees, a most unusual combination even at the best seaside courses,” MacKenzie gushed. “No seaside courses that I have seen possess such magnificent sand craters as those at Royal Adelaide.” It was his intent to incorporate these dunes into a new design.

MacKenzie’s recommendations (some of which were adopted while others were overruled) stressed greater accuracy with fewer forced carries, and utilized three additional sand craters along the routing. Many of the original sand bunkers were converted to grassy hollows. MacKenzie was of the opinion that, as it stood, Royal Adelaide was too difficult for weaker players, yet not tough enough for skilled golfers.

Even given his reputation as one of the greatest golf architects of the era, MacKenzie’s recommendations stirred controversy. The author of an article in Golf In Australia wrote that MacKenzie “made two or three hasty examinations of parts of the course and surrounding country and made his report and recommendation, which included some very drastic alterations, unnecessarily costly, and many of doubtful structural benefit.”

Despite meeting with this and other cranky responses, MacKenzie’s vision greatly improved the course, meanwhile re-routing it to prevent holes from being played across the railroad tracks. He left 12 holes on one side of the tracks and six others—plus the practice area and stately clubhouse—on the other side.

Gene Sarazen visited the redesigned Royal Adelaide long enough to set the course record of 68 and make a few architectural suggestions of his own, which were summarily ignored. Following Gary Player’s victory in the Australian Open at Adelaide in 1962, fourth-place finisher and budding course designer Peter Thomson began working on Royal Adelaide with his partner, Michael Wolveridge. In ensuing years, the pair gently contoured and bunkered many open spaces throughout the course, adding both physical and strategic challenge while retaining the spirit of MacKenzie’s subtle architecture.  

Today, Royal Adelaide is characterized by wild, beautiful sandhills speckled with pines and pocked with pot bunkers among epic mounding and grassy swales. The natural humps and bumps lend a degree of unpredictability. Long marram grasses, sandy waste areas and other natural features add to the mood and challenge.

The third hole may be one of Royal Adelaide’s best-known. This 292-yard par-4 requires a blind tee shot hit confidently over a grassy rise. Soft sand, rushes and trees line both sides of the hole, which remains exactly as MacKenzie designed it. The mutton-leg-shaped green is protected by a ridge to the left and a knoll to the right. In 1989, Colin Montgomerie took an 8 on this frequently eagled hole.

Daunting length makes its first appearance on No. 4, which marches 450 yards and requires a blind tee shot (a common demand here) over a dune to cut the dogleg left. Pot bunkers on the right add to the potential chaos, catching drives that fail to draw. In fact, bunkers 250 to 300 yards from the tees characterize many of the holes here, as do tongues of rough licking into the fairways. Mounding throughout the course often conceals bunkers and other trouble, and angles of play over bunkers and around corners create hard choices.

The back nine is longer, tougher and more memorable. The 388-yard 11th is Royal Adelaide’s famous crater hole: A good drive reaches the second of two rises that cross the fairway and provide  views of the green, which is set in a wide crater at the base of a huge dune. Severe rough and bunkers adorn and protect both sides of the putting surface. A too-weak approach here will land among reeds and sand.

Fourteen has been described as one of MacKenzie’s best holes anywhere. It’s a par-4, 482-yard dogleg-right with a small plateau landing area guarded by three bunkers to the right. The second shot is played through a gap in the pines to an elevated green protected by three more bunkers and a pair of swales. No. 15, a double dogleg, also excels. The tee shot must bore down a chute between trees. The left side is heavily bunkered, while the right side offers both bunkers and mounding. Punishing rough awaits short of a green lightly trapped with shallow bunkers.

Nine Australian Opens and a long list of amateur events have been played at Royal Adelaide. After holing out at Royal Adelaide to win the 1938 Australian Open, Jim Ferrier noted, “There is always that pleasure at Seaton of pitting one’s ability against the course, as well as the surroundings which have the real golfing atmosphere.”

Several former members have felt strongly enough about the course to have their ashes scattered in the bunker at No. 13. As one stated in leaving instructions to his survivors: “I have been in it so often, I might as well finish up in it.”   

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