CHELTENHAM, Australia – There are no towering pines or banks of azaleas to frame the outlines. It’s not manicured to exacting standards, with natural scruffy patches that blend in with the gently rolling landscape. The visual cues seem completely different.
But a few holes into Royal Melbourne’s West Course is enough to realize that it’s just another version of Augusta National Golf Club that Alister MacKenzie drew up more than five years earlier on the opposite side of the world.
“Tom Doak had a great quote in the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses,” said Michael Clayton of the man who currently serves as the house architect at the course that Golf Digest recently ranked No. 9 in the world. “He wrote, ‘Royal Melbourne, I think, is the course Augusta wants to be: wide enough for anybody, but brilliantly routed to make use of the topography and bunkered to reward bold play and bold decisions.’”
Clayton, a former European Tour pro from Australia turned architect, takes the strategic comparison one step further. Both Augusta National and Royal Melbourne are MacKenzie’s attempts to reproduce all the challenges of St. Andrews’ Old Course on far-flung continents.
“They’re all the same golf course,” Clayton said. “They look completely different, but it’s the same golf, same course. MacKenzie obviously drew everything from St. Andrews so they’re all obviously related to each other.
“The concept of St. Andrews is the course dictates nothing. The only thing you have to do at St. Andrews is the first hole you have to hit it over the burn, otherwise you can do anything you want.”
Only one golfer has won championships on all three courses – Seve Ballesteros. The late great Spaniard won two Masters (1980 and 1983) at Augusta, the 1984 British Open at St. Andrews and the 1981 Australian PGA at Royal Melbourne. Clayton believes it’s no coincidence that the modern golfer with the most imaginative game is the lone figure to pull off this trifecta.
“In MacKenzie’s book he wrote about seeing an American player pitch into the 17th at St. Andrews and it was Walter Hagen,” Clayton said. “That was the guy he was building golf courses for. That was the sort of play he wanted to encourage. He wanted to encourage that boldness, great flair and imagination, beautiful short game, nerveless putting. He wrote about it through Hagen who played the same way. He didn’t know it, but he was designing courses for Seve Ballesteros.
“I watched (Seve) play Royal Melbourne and it was genius. You could see why he won at Augusta. It took the same thought patterns, same shots, same short game, the same putting. They were made for him.”
The design formula that MacKenzie employed at both Royal Melbourne and Augusta is brilliant in its simplicity. The fairways are wide, with the premium on placement to allow the proper approach for particular pins. There is no thick rough to gouge shots out of, encouraging players to attempt recoveries. The greens are firm and large with big slopes. The bunkers are deep and dangerously placed.
“If you get out of position on any shot it is very hard to get back into the right place – but you can if you play a great shot,” said Clayton, a design partner with Victoria native Geoff Ogilvy who grew up playing the Sandbelt courses. “The greens are very hard and fast – probably not as difficult to putt as Augusta but fearsome when they are quick. It’s also really playable for average players, lots of room around the trouble. The better the player you are the harder the course is; and the poorer you are the easier it is to shoot 90.”
Said Ogilvy: “Nearly every time you hit it to the wrong side of the green or the wrong side of the fairway you have no chance, but you are given a lot of space to find out for yourself.”
MacKenzie traveled to Australia only once, in 1926, contracted to work explicitly on plans for the West Course at Royal Melbourne. But his side consultations with other courses from Royal Sydney and New South Wales in Sydney, Royal Queensland in Brisbane, Royal Adelaide in South Australia as well as other Melbourne Sandbelt jewels Kingston Heath, Victoria and Metropolitan left an indelible impact on Australian golf.
“Everyone wants to grab hold of the MacKenzie pedigree, but truth is he spent a day there and wrote a report,” Clayton said. “There’s a tremendous course here (in the Melbourne area) but he didn’t go there for a day. If he had gone there it would be seen as the equivalent of the others.
“But his influence was long-lasting and dominant through his Australian partner, Alex Russell, and Mick Morcom, who was greenskeeper at Royal Melbourne and constructor of all his Melbourne work. He was lucky in that he found great constructors. It was his philosophy more than anything that changed the game here. Like Doak said, there was nothing any good before he came here and nothing any good after he left.”
His hallmark features in the Sandbelt are inspiring bunkers that blend seamlessly into greens and fairways with no discernible apron. Find yourself out of position and certain pins could be impossible to reach.
“You have to figure out for yourself how best to play because it’s so wide you can go anywhere you want,” Clayton said. “Clearly the greens are designed to be played from an ideal place. It’s not risk and reward but every yard you go further from the ideal place is a yard more difficult. You’ve got to hit the right trajectory and spin and land the ball in the right place so it runs where you want it to run to.”
These strategic features that the top Australians grew up playing is what has made many of them so well suited for the challenges at Augusta and so frustrated that it took them so long to conquer.
“Royal Melbourne teaches you how to putt properly,” Ogilvy said, “because they are the best greens in the world to learn how to putt on, with the big sweeping breaks, long putts, fast putts, slow putts and the best surfaces.”
Royal Melbourne has other traits in common with Augusta National besides its MacKenzie course. The club feels a responsibility to the game, which it displays by playing host to major events on its Composite Course such as two Presidents Cups, last year’s World Cup and various major Australian events.
This year it will partner with Augusta National and the R&A to host the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship.
“Why do we do it? We do it because we love to promote golf,” said Paul Rak, the club’s manager. “At the end of the day there’s not a big financial return to it. Members lose out and lose corporate days and lose visitors. But No. 1 it helps golf, and we have a bit of responsibility to do that.”
Rak said the club works hard to preserve MacKenzie’s original intent for the course even as technology threatens its traditions.
“We try to be minimalists,” he said. “Don’t react to everything. My biggest challenge is to stop people changing the golf course.”