“Golf came and went in Melbourne in the 1840s,” wrote Sir Peter Allen in The Sunley Book of Royal Golf; “the Club such as it was ending with a dinner at the Royal Oak Hotel in 1850. After that the discovery of gold in New South Wales and Victoria caused a huge boom and influx of people, followed by slump, which put aside most frivolous activities, so that organised golf was not revived in Melbourne until 1891.
The Melbourne Golf Club which was formed that year subsequently divided into two, one of which today is the Royal Melbourne Golf Club and the other the Metropolitan Golf Club.
The split was caused by disagreement among the members about moving from the original site occupied by the club at Caulfield. One group, led by J.M. Bruce, moved out to Sandringham, not far from the sea, taking with them the royal title which had been granted in 1895. The new course was opened in 1901. The other club remained onsite as the Caulfield Golf Club, but later in 1908 moved out to the sand-belt area and became known as the Metropolitan Club, which flourishes today.”
The following passage is a brief edited extract from The Finest Golf Courses of Asia and Australasia by James Spence. Reproduced with kind permission.
"Although six holes from the East course are incorporated with twelve from the West when Royal Melbourne is presented in its championship livery, when played in its entirety as the playing style of the East course is distinctly different. The bunkers are not so cavernous as to diminish the golfer. The fairways, though generous when compared to the Sandbelt average, are not as wide as on the West.
While it does not quite offer the grand theatre of the West, it is still a fantastic golfing experience and holds its own versus all other courses in the Melbourne area.
It is with the par threes I think where Alex Russell and Mick Morcom’s design most closely approximate their Svengali. All bar the short 13th make use of some natural drama. All involved some carry over the sandy heathland. As the greens are large enough to permit multiple pin permutations and you find yourself poised over your bag in between two or even three club decisions."
In April 2018, Paul Rudovsky, one of our most respected globe-trotting contributors, revisited the East course after being too long away:
"I first came to Melbourne in February 1977 and played Royal Melbourne’s West and East courses (as well as the Composite Course) on that trip. I have been back to Australia at least twice since and played RMGC’s West course at least three more times, but had not replayed the East. I clearly remembered holes 1-3 and 17-18, but to be honest not much about holes 4-15 (except remembering that it was almost as good as the West). So this time I decided that it was time to revisit the East and was very glad I did. It is an outstanding course and its only fault is that it sits in the shadow of RMGC’s West (which a good number of knowledgeable observers consider to be the finest in the world)."
There are a handful of golf clubs in the world that are blessed with two courses that are so remarkable that you are not disappointed which course you play whether as a member or visitor. The clubs include: Baltursol, Winged Foot, Sunningdale, Walton Heath, and The Royal Melbourne Club.
In February, 2019 I had the pleasure of playing the East course at The Royal Melbourne Club twice as well as some of it a third time as we were allowed to play the Composite course used for their most prestigious events. The East course is not nearly as good as the West course, but it is still one of the best golf courses in the world, as designed by Alex Russell, who worked with Alistair Mackenzie on the West course.
Let’s get the criticism out of the way. The East course has some holes in the middle that dogleg one way and the opposite but they are not quite as interesting as the first four holes and several of the ending holes. The course is more heavily treed than the West course. These trees serve as a significant point of defense and decision-making. Those are the only criticisms that can be laid at such an outstanding golf course.
The green side bunkers, much like on the West course and at Metropolitan, are often cut right to the edge of the green making the smallest miss short one that is often regrettable.
The challenge starts immediately on the first hole, a par 4 of with an expansive, tilted fairway sloped away from the tee shot that the big hitters will be looking to carry the bunkers on the right side. These bunkers are shared with the fairway bunkers of the West course. The first green is well bunkered and tilted right to left, more than making up for the “short” yardage, and the pin placement definitely determines the appropriate line one should take. The front right center of this green is very difficult to get close to, even if hitting from the bunker just in front of it. Playing out to the right it is almost impossible to hit the green and have your ball remain on it. It is one of the finest short holes one will ever play.
The second hole is a long par 4 dogleg right downhill requiring a long carry over the trees to cut the dogleg; but a long hitter is at risk of hitting through the fairway on the left. The right half of the fairway is hidden from the tee, where one is tempted to hit down the right side to shorten the hole, yet going down the right side narrows the fairway and often one can still be in the trees on the right. The second shot is steeply uphill to a difficult green which is long and narrow. There are no fairway bunkers but the greenside bunker on the left front of the green coming back down the hill is one to be avoided. There are additional six bunkers on the right front and ending behind the green. The green is two-tiered and quick coming back down the slope from the rear. I can see many players coming up short of this green or trying to miss long left. However, a bush/tree is there to collect the long ball. It is a gem.
The third hole is a beautiful hole, taking full advantage of the terrain as it doglegs to the right down the hill. There is a large tree on the right that will block the ideal line for the short hitter into this short par 4 with a very difficult green. The second shot is typically played from a downslope. There are bunkers left and right cutting into the green as well as one behind. The green has a hollow in it, with additional undulations and I found it to be one of the more difficult greens to get the correct speed for the putt. This is another really good golf hole.
The fourth hole, a longer par 3 playing uphill requires a draw or real courage with a fade to play to this green when the pin is on the left side. The green is farther from you on the left side which has enormous and deep bunkers in front. There is a sandy waste area in front of those bunkers. There are bunkers right of the green. You also cannot miss long as you face a difficult downhill chip. A par on this hole is to be commended. This hole likely wrecks many scorecards.
These four holes are used in the composite course. I debate whether this or the sixteenth would be the better par 3 on the composite course (sixteenth). The fourth at the East is likely more difficult but the sixteenth on the East is one of the most beautiful and interesting par 3’s one will ever play. It’s a tough choice. Maybe you choose the fourth on the East due to its length and possibly crowd control.
The course tests you in these four holes until you cross Reserve Road where the challenge lessens a bit for two of the next three holes. You are now on the other side of the road until you return to play the sixteenth hole.
Hole five is a short par 4 with a narrow fairway lined by trees and a small green. It actually is a fairly straight hole but its best to play out to the right side of the fairway for the ideal approach shot. The green is surrounded by four bunkers. Because I am a medium length and pretty accurate player I did not think this hole presented enough challenge for me.
Hole six is a nice par three to a slightly raised green surrounded by cavernous bunkers on the left side and bunkers on the right. There is a large “fairway” in front of the green for the ball that is hit short. This is a “newer” hole as the previous hole had to be abandoned due to neighboring homes.
After crossing another street, one arrives at the seventh which is the weakest hole on the course as a short par five to the flattest green. Seven begins a series of these doglegs moving in opposite directions until you finish the twelfth. Each hole is good on its own, but it feels as though a different routing that was less obvious should have been done given the amount of available land. The seventh does have many big bunkers on the side of the fairway as you make your way to the green, but the way to the green is obvious. Simply put, this hole lacks strategy.
The eighth hole is a dogleg left and was formerly a short par 5, now it is a long par 4. The fairway is generous and one can run an approach shot onto the green. There is a large fairway bunker on the right side to catch tee shots trying to cut the corner a bit. It is a strong hole in terms of length but has a weaker green, although small.
The ninth doglegs back the other way and a tee shot hit too far down the left will easily find difficulty as there is a ditch there as well as trees and tall grass. I liked the green a lot as it is long and narrow and has sort of a false front with the swale and humps near the beginning. The green side bunkers will capture any ball that wanders towards them. It is a terrific green complex making the hole a lot of fun to play.
The tenth is a dogleg left short par five that requires one to stay left of the fairway bunkers on the right. Then there is a set of cross bunkers both well short of the green extending to the right side of the green which make it a risk-reward hole for the shorter hitters. The easier decision is to lay up short of them or play out to the left side of them. The green is two tiered back to front and is very speedy. Ultimately this hole is too short as a par 5 for the long hitter and may be too short for the medium length player.
The eleventh is a sharp dogleg right and is a short par 4. The green is slightly raised and well defended by bunkers on nearly half of the green. You cannot miss this green short or to the right. The green is speedy.
The longest par 4 comes next and has the appearance of a double dogleg but ultimately goes a bit to the right. The green is raised after a swale in the fairway and is well bunkered on either side. The bunkers are taller and steeper than many others on the golf course. I found there was a generous bail out area to the right of the green.
Thirteen ends the string of doglegs with another fine par 3, a short hole surrounded everywhere by bunkers and framed by beautiful trees. The green has a few mounds and slopes towards the back. The bunkers pinch into the green. It is a wonderful short par 3.
The fourteen returns us to a dogleg left where a bunker on the left catches the shorter hitters and makes them pay for trying to shorten the hole. There is plenty of room to the right side although it leaves a longer shot into this hole where a mound short left of the green will capture a lot of balls. Once on the green, I found this to be one of the easier greens.
The fifteenth is a slight dogleg right and a short par 4 surrounded by bunkers right and left but with an opening to it in the middle. It is a beautiful hole and one I liked a lot but not as demanding as some others.
The sixteenth is a medium length par 3 that is stunning. A bunker eats into the front of the green providing separation of the two sides. I was told Ben Crenshaw spent a few hours just looking at the brilliance of this golf hole. Phil Mickleson took a 10 here during a President’s Cup. The green is tilted back to front and has another spine. There really is no room to miss it. It is without a doubt one of the best par 3’s I have ever played.
A mid length par 5 follows. It is a straight forward hole with cross bunkers extending about 80 yards out from the green and continuing to the green in a diagonal line. These bunkers are fairly flat providing more of a temptation for players to try to carry them to get closer to the green on their second shot. For a shorter hitter the obvious play is to play short of them or to the left side.
The eighteenth for me is the best hole on the golf course and certainly in the top five at Royal Melbourne. It is a very difficult longer par four of 450 yards. The bunkerless fairway doglegs to the left but has a stand of trees on that left side to capture the ball that flies too close to it in an attempt to shorten the hole. The second shot is to a green well surrounded by bunkers everywhere but in the rear. The green is very large and has a section on the right side that looks like its own island. The right front bunker has raised grass known as Dunk Island. The green is sharply tilted back to front and right to left but also can be left to right. It is one of the finest finishing holes I have ever played.
The best holes were 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16 and 18. I think16 and 18 are the standouts.
The greens are amazing. Claude Crockford, the greenskeeper in the 1940’s-1960’s used to lift the green and scrape away the “pollution” underneath. He then replaced it with new bedding while never losing one of the small ripples or undulations in the greens. They were nearly perfect as a blend of bent and fescue but were ultimately replaced by grass from New Zealand.
Make no mistake, this is not an Alistair Mackenzie course, it is an Alex Russell design. The Royal Melbourne Golf Club is much like Winged Foot where many of the members prefer the less famous course. The East course is one I could play every day and never be bored. I am certain on some days I could break 80 as well as struggle to break 100 and I would still marvel at the challenge either way. There are a few holes that are not as challenging as the others, such as the seventh, but the difficulty of the holes caused by clever angles into them and the terrific bunkering and sloped greens make it an absolute treasure.
An excellent course, that is for sure, and it is in my top 100.
Designed by Alex Russell with Mick Morcom again in charge of construction, The East Course traverses less undulating terrain than it's older sister, but has the same iconic green and bunker complexes.
In recent years the club has employed Tom Doak to modify the design.
My favourite hole would be the long par 5 seventeenth hole which meanders along the course boundary dodging bunkers left and right, and the absolutely classic par four closing hole with its stadium finish. The green is surrounded by a sea of bunkers, and different pin positions will dictate the best line of approach. The hole doglegs from right to left and requires a long accurate tee shot to hit the fairway and a steely nerve to find the green surface.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
Royal Melbourne's East course is always going to live in the shadow of it's big brother the West course, there are great holes here in my opinion, mostly at the beginning and end of the round.
Course was is good shape when I played there, greens running very true like you would expect them to on the sandbelt.
Shot values score well here as do all the sandbelt course, the contours of this course are still of a very high standard.
The resistance to scoring here at the east course is indeed fair and not to difficult, the fairways are wide enough, bunkers are in good condition to hit out of. Not that much elevation change at the east course but the routing is strong.
The memorability at the east course is high as well, with great bunkering and green complexes meeting the golfer.
Overall I enjoyed my day here immensely !!!!!!!!
The East course has recently reached the top 100 world rankings on its own merits and I can see why. It's a great collection of holes. The par three 13th on the East, 135 meters, which doesn't play in the composite courses is a spectacular little par three. It has the best protected green of the 36 holes at Royal Melbourne.
The third hole on the East is a dogleg right down a sweeping hill and the fourth is an interesting uphill par three. The second on the East is a great par four that has a blind tee shot to a fairway that starts far left and comes back to the right.
The composite course at Royal Melbourne was devised for tournaments in 1959 so that crowds would not have to cross Cheltenham Road. While it can be confusing playing the courses trying to figure out which holes are part of the composite, the easy rule of thumb is that if you are still on the side of Cheltenham Road near the clubhouse, you are on the composite. The holes from the East course (1,2,3,4, 17 and 18) that are part of the composite are a worthy bunch.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs