Appeared in January/February 2007 LINKS
When I am pressed to identify the “Best Golf Course in the World,” I always beg off, saying that there are too many great courses to pick just one. But if asked which is the ideal golf course, I can narrow the candidates to two: Royal Melbourne and St. Andrews' Old Course. That's why I believe that everyone interested in great golf courses must visit Australia sometimein his or her life.
Royal Melbourne is the masterpiece of Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who never bragged about it like his other courses because he never saw it finished. He came to Melbourne in October 1926 on the recommendation of the R&A, taking a fee of 1,000 pounds Sterling but agreeing to pay a 50 percent commission for any other consulting work the club located for him during his trip. Seven weeks later, MacKenzie left Australia having consulted on 19 courses, so not only did Royal Melbourne receive his best work, they actually turned a profit on his visit.
Two of those 19 courses are the West and East courses at Royal Melbourne, though there is some controversy about whether one should rate the two courses separately, or just the Composite course played for championships. To me, the point is moot: The West is a 10 on the Doak Scale and the Composite is slightly better.
There is also some controversy locally about the whirlwind nature of Dr. MacKenzie’s visit and how much credit he really deserves for all of his Australian work. When he arrived in Melbourne the club assigned one of its members, the Australian Amateur champion Alex Russell, to work with MacKenzie and to follow up his recommendations after the architect left the country; they also assigned their superintendent, Mick Morcom, to work closely with MacKenzie in constructing the changes to the course.
The three men got along famously, and during his six weeks in Melbourne, MacKenzie instructed them on his design philosophy and his ideas about natural-looking golf course construction. They only worked on the course a little bit—building, I believe, the par-3 5th on the West course while MacKenzie was on site—but by the time he left, Russell and Morcom were as capable of continuing his work as any partners the Doctor ever had. When the West course was finished, the two men went on to build the East course in the MacKenzie style, even though only a handful of the holes had been contemplated by the Doctor himself.Unless you are a tour pro, the visitor to Melbourne will likely be confined to playing the West and East courses as the members do, so I will describe them in that configuration. The Composite course was put together from holes of both courses in 1959, when the club wanted to charge admission to the Canada Cup and realized it could not, because both courses crossed public roads. So they selected the best 18 holes out of 21 within the central property. It’s a doozy of a layout, including six of the very best holes from the East course, but the sequencing of the holes was changed for the Presidents Cup in 2000 so it would be very confusing to describe it here.
The West course starts with one of the widest fairways in golf—83 yards across back in 1988 when I played it for the first time. However the hole is also 430 yards long, so for the club member it takes two very solid shots to get home in regulation. This combination of width and length is the first attribute of Dr. MacKenzie’s design: He gives you plenty of room to swing away, but if you don’t hit shots solidly you will be making a lot of bogeys.
The 2nd hole is a very short par 5 playing back parallel with the 1st hole and points out the newly perceived weakness of Royal Melbourne’s design. The average member can’t carry a sprawling fairway bunker on the right and must play to the left, then back around another long and deep bunker guarding the last 50 yards of the left side up to the green; but today’s longer hitters bomb it 70 yards over the bunker and hit a medium iron to the green.
With the East 17th fairway behind the tee, there is no way to lengthen the hole, so this is the first of four short par 5s that are really good two-shotters for the best players of today. It is true that very low scores can be had in competition, yet when the wind blows and the course gets firm the course can bite back even the best of golfers, and it is still just ideal for everyone else.
The next three holes play around a large central hill, and here is where Dr. MacKenzie’s genius for routing delivered a brilliant solution. The short par-4 3rd plays along the side of a hill, with a sharp little swale in front of the green usually rewarding the player who keeps his drive out to the right of the dogleg left.
The long 4th hole is the key to the routing, driving up and over towering fairway bunkers in the top of the hill, leaving room for two holes on the East course on the left while creating two of the most dramatic shots in golf—the second shot is impressive, played from a downhill lie along the edge of a drop-off to the right, to a green guarded by a massive bunker at the left front. Then you are positioned right by the 5th tee to play one of the game’s best picture-postcard par 3s, with sand and scrub to both sides of the green and a frightening tilt from back to front.I could go on describing every hole because they are all worth mention, but the highlights of the West course are the dogleg par-4 6th, 11th, 17th and 18th, the long par-3 16th (one of four holes across the road that are not used for the Composite course—the other two not used are the West’s 8th and 9th), and the short par-4 10th, which is in a class of its own.
The East course includes seven holes within the central paddock, the first four and last two of which are included in the Composite course. After the 4th, the East crosses a main boulevard and then a residential street a bit farther out, and the road crossings and a bit flatter property are what keep the East course from being recognized as a top course in its own right.
Still many Australians rank it among the country’s top five, and it earns a 6 on the Doak Scale. But it is when you come back into the main paddock and lay eyes on the par-3 16th East that you begin to appreciate the strength of Royal Melbourne. This might be the most stunning par 3 on the whole property (if not the whole city, in a city chock full of great short holes), but it is left out of the Composite course because there were too many holes and they had to walk around one somewhere!