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- Vern Morcom
Michael (“Mick”) Allen Morcom was born in 1876 then raised in the Victorian gold rush town of Stawell, He was married in his early 20s to Alice Kleeberger and in 1898 their first son, Afton, was born. Two years later, after moving to Bendigo, Vern became a younger brother to Afton.
Mick was working for J.W. Horsfall, who was appointed head greenkeeper for Royal Melbourne in 1902, and he brought Mick with him to the club as an assistant. Horsfall only lasted three years in the position, which was then offered to Mick. He would remain in post for thirty years.
By the end of World War I, Vern was working for his father at Royal Melbourne during the day and studying at night for a Diploma in Electrical Engineering. He also played golf to a high standard, playing off a handicap of +1, winning the club championship at nearby Royal Park Golf Club in 1924 and 1925.
On completing his Diploma, Vern worked as a building and fencing contractor, taking on jobs where possible for his father’s firm, M.A. Morcom and Son, with local councils and golf clubs which needed help regarding course design, construction and maintenance.
He never saw himself as a course architect as that was never his primary occupation. His full-time job – one that lasted four decades – was as head greenkeeper at Kingston Heath, which Dan Soutar had designed. Alister MacKenzie drew up a bunkering plan for the course in 1926 and Mick Morcom’s company won the contract to implement the changes.
As Mick was busy at the time with the new West course at Royal Melbourne, Vern was enlisted to work on the Kinston Heath bunker project in June of 1927 (the same year that he was married to Dorothy Agatha Waller) and the work was completed the following year at a cost of £2020.
The club was so pleased with the final outcome – including the installation of MacKenzie’s remodelled 15th hole – it offered Vern the position of head greenkeeper in March 1928. He then tweaked a number of holes and more than doubled the number of bunkers over the following fifteen years, mainly through dividing large sand hazards into smaller clusters.
His design career got off the ground in 1935, planning three courses that year with his father at Kingswood, Medway and Torquay. Mick’s health began to fail around then and he was to pass away in 1937. A year later, Vern was invited by the Western Australia Golf Association to run the rule over courses around Perth, to ensure they were up to national championship standard.
World War II then intervened and Vern concentrated on maintaining Kingston Heath during the war years. In 1944, a huge bushfire took hold and Vern spent a couple of days fighting the flames. Reports of his death appeared in the local press but he emerged from his work shed on the third day; hungry, thirsty and a little weary but very much alive.
In the late 1940s, Vern earned design commissions in a few of the more outlying areas of Victoria, with Gisborne (1946), Euroa (1946) and Kyneton (1949) all turning to him for full design services.
Morcom also secured an assignment closer to home at Spring Valley in Clayton (1948). When author Doug Courtney later came to write the history of this club, he found when reading through eight of Vern’s notebooks that from 1953 to 1959 he had been in communication with fifty-one clubs during those years, across every state except Western Australia.
His design advice was highly sought after from clubs starting from scratch, others that were expanding from nine to eighteen or perhaps planning to redesign or renovate a number of their holes. In 1956 alone, Vern designed five courses and remodelled ten others throughout Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.
Vern’s wife died in her mid-50s in October 1958 and his own health deteriorated around that time, apologising to several clubs for delays in their design work due to being hospitalised with an ulcer. His final design of note was Rosanna outside Melbourne in 1962, by which time his daughter Faye and her family had moved in with him in Baumaris, his home since the 1920s.
Morcom retired from Kingston Heath Golf Club in 1967, aged 67 and passed away in 1976, two years after his older brother Afton.
From The Golf Courses of Vern Morcom by Toby Cumming:
“Much of Vern’s design work was done for clubs in small country towns, with limited water supply and negligible maintenance budgets. MacKenzie, Colt & Alison disdained rough as a hazard but Vern saw its practical upside – it required less upkeep than bunkering. MacKenzie, Colt & Alison favoured wide fairways unbounded by trees to maximise choice in playing lines, whereas Vern seemed less concerned by the prescriptive effects of trees and recommended their planting to beautify the surroundings.
No account of Vern’s design principles would be complete without mention of the dogleg. Vern had a penchant for designing holes where the bend was too sharp and too early. To some, this is his fatal flaw. In many cases, these holes force better players to hit an unimaginative long or even mid-iron tee shot to the corner, followed by another mid-iron to the green. Given his top-level playing pedigree, it wasn’t that he didn’t understand how far good players could hit the ball.
His reasons may have been practical – a sharp dogleg can help an architect solve a tricky routing dilemma over difficult ground or in a tight corner of a property. With only a small acreage to work with, Vern might have seen the acute dogleg as a way to defend the approach shots. Extend the second shot by forcing people to take a shorter club off the tee. Yet pragmatics alone can’t explain just how common those holes were on his courses.
We can only assume that Vern saw the sharp dogleg as a legitimate strategic challenge and if he was to avoid the situation of a weaker player being blocked out on their second, the turn couldn’t be too far from the tee. Presumably he reasoned that the better golfer would either bravely fly the corner or be able to shape the tee shot as required. And yes, some of these holes do pose interesting risk-reward questions.
It is evident from his writing that Vern was a disciple of the golden age: guided by the natural topography, striving for variety, mindful of the strategic importance of bunkering and features of the green complex. His design principles were grounded in practicality: drainage considerations, maintenance costs and the imperative to avoid playing towards a low sun. To the end, Vern saw his architecture projects as more hobby than career.
The years following WWII, when Vern was most active, were a very different time. The days of Cargie Rymill and Alex Russell had passed, MacKenzie’s 1926 visit a distant memory. Only Sloan Morpeth and Vern Morcom could be called upon, with the occasional cameo from Sam Berriman. None of these men were golf course architects by profession; they did what they could in their spare time. Viewed through this historical lens, Vern Morcom’s output – both its size and its quality – is truly remarkable.
Vern’s design portfolio includes a number of top courses in Australia’s southern capitals: Spring Valley and Kingswood and Rosanna in Melbourne, the Grange and Glenelg in Adelaide, Royal Hobart and Devonport in Tasmania. Perhaps his greatest legacy, though, is the set of courses he designed in regional areas, away from the cities. Such places often lacked a connection to golf’s leading schools of thought in architecture and greenkeeping, and Vern was able to provide this link.
The shaping of a green and its surrounding bunkers, mounds and hollows was a strength of Vern’s. Even when a club lacked the money or water needed for grass greens, Vern planned for them anyway. He saw their importance not only as an arena to test the short game, but as a lynchpin to a hole’s strategy, worked out in reverse from green to tee. At some clubs, the conversion from scrapes to grass greens was a major part of Vern’s remit.
Vern was adept at summing up a site from a topographical map. He could visualize and stake out holes over ground covered in forest and thick scrub. He didn’t shirk a challenge [but] he was also realistic. On flat sites, Vern worked to avoid bland holes. Sometimes this involved maximising the use of existing natural features, other times it meant focussing on strategic bunker placement. When sought out by quality, established clubs, Vern demonstrated that he could make modest changes that were major improvements.”
From the August-September 2004 edition of Australian Turfgrass Management :
Aerial photos going back to 1931 reveal only 53 bunkers which would have been essentially as MacKenzie’s plans dictated. Later aerials portray the vast difference between the original bunkering and that of fifteen years later – 53 bunkers had become more than 130. The position of a few had changed dramatically but most remained in the original locations.
This was where Vernon’s work is most obvious. His eye for harmonious balance within the landscape caused a rethink of the style of the bold expansive original bunkering. At Royal Melbourne the large expanses of sand blended well into the wide fairways and rather bold contours. Kingston Heath was another story, where the flatter ground and narrower fairways called for less obtrusive bunkers.
So he set about turning one bunker into as many as five or six and developing what made Kingston Heath so famous. These old aerial photographs changed preconceived views on who was really responsible for the design and construction of Kingston Heath. Photos of Dan Soutar and Alister Mackenzie took pride of place in the clubhouse but nothing was seen of Vernon or his father.
In 1945, Morcom’s set of six architectural principles were published:
- Keep to the natural appearance of the country by making greens where they fit and not by fitting them where convention might suggest.
- Place bunkers to make the good player play a better game, not to get the poorer player in trouble.
- Six thousand yards is long enough for a course under present conditions. Players shouldn’t be exhausted before they reach the 19th.
- Never attempt to make a new course on the same lines as an established one. People who say one course is better than another have got the wrong idea. No one course should be like any other.
- Short-hole greens should be placed so that players can see them from the tees. Better still, they should be able to see the pins clearly.
- Balance short holes with long holes, and the first nine with the last nine, where possible.
A Round Forever by John Scarth (2001)
The Golf Courses of Vern Morcom by Toby Cumming (2020)