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The West course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club is generally acknowledged as the best course in Australia and the finest design of Dr Alister MacKenzie despite the fact that he never saw it in its completed form and never referred to it in his published writings. Born of that productive two months in 1926 when Royal Melbourne had commissioned the Doctor on the advice of the R&A, it was completed in 1931.
The club that has for more than 70 years nurtured their gift from MacKenzie and Morcom, was in fact formed 35 years before his visit. In May 1891 The Melbourne Golf Club cabled the Royal Eastbourne Club in England for 30 sets of clubs with which to equip their founder members. By 1895 the club received the Royal appendage and the heaths of Sandringham were selected for the club’s new site on 1898 with play commencing in July 1901. Royal Melbourne therefore became the first golf club in what has come to be known as Melbourne’s Sandbelt. Precisely which courses constitute membership of the Sandbelt clubs is traditionally a matter of debate but the core consists of seven: Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Metropolitan, Commonwealth, Victoria, Yarra Yarra and Huntingdale.
Royal Melbourne’s West course stands as the apotheosis of the Sandbelt. It was of those courses that Tom Doak was thinking about when he wrote: “If only Melbourne were not so far removed from America, the standard of American golf architecture might well be higher. Were both countries closer, however, it is just as likely that America would have dragged Australian standards down to its level.”
The above passage is a brief edited extract from The Finest Golf Courses of Asia and Australasia by James Spence. Reproduced with kind permission.
Warning: This might be the longest “review” ever as I was so impressed with the West course at The Royal Melbourne Club. I was at Royal Melbourne on four separate days in February, 2019 which made me feel as if I were a member for that week. I twice played the East course, once played the West course, and also played one of the versions of the Composite course (of which there have been three versions).
Is this Alistair Mackenzie’s masterpiece? It certainly comes down to his work at Augusta National, Cypress Point, and Royal Melbourne West. When one looks at Mackenzie’s thirteen principles of golf course design, they are all achieved at these golf courses to the highest degree.
Mackenzie wrote: “The ideal hole is surely one that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, gives the fullest advantage for accurate play, stimulates players to improve their game, and never becomes monotonous.” In his three most famous golf courses, Mackenzie achieved this in allowing for differing options while always being playable. Bobby Jones wrote of Mackenzie’s work: “It is playing Mackenzie’s work the highest possible compliment to say that all his courses are interesting, in every instance he placed interest ahead of difficulty.” Mackenzie de-emphasized penalties and punitive golf; he emphasized advantages gained by a well struck shot and disadvantages as an outcome of the poorly executed shot. Bunkers were not placed just for being punitive, but to allow the better player to gain an advantage yet provide the person in a bunker with a chance for recovery. He wrote, “…to reward a good shot by making the second shot simpler in proportion to the excellence of the first.” Bunkers were not placed to be obviously difficult, they were placed to catch the almost-good shot.
Well, I understand what Mackenzie wrote; playing a round on the West course it is nearly impossible to not find a bunker that will leave one with a very testing recovery shot. Yet there is room to navigate the many bunkers.
Mackenzie’s fifth design principle is that “every hole should have a different character.” That is achieved at Royal Melbourne much as it is at Augusta National and Cypress Point.
His sixth design principle is that there should be a minimum of blindness for the approach shot. Perhaps only two holes do not quite achieve that on the West course but certainly at Cypress Point that is the case on a couple of holes.
Mackenzie’s eleventh principle is “the course should be so interesting that even the plus man is constantly stimulated to improve his game in attempting shots he has hitherto been unable to play.” He achieved this at Royal Melbourne West. Depending on the wind and the state of one’s game, I believe on the West course one will be faced with playing a shot they have not tried before.
Mackenzie, through Mick Morcom’s construction, also allowed for the lucky break more at Royal Melbourne than at Cypress Point or Augusta National. Mackenzie thought this to be an integral part of the game – favorable bounces and bad breaks. One certainly gets those on both sides on Royal Melbourne West.
Mackenzie built two routes on his plans for the West course, those for better players and those for average/weaker players. That is why there are staggered bunkers and doglegs. At Royal Melbourne more so than at many of the holes at Cypress Point and Augusta National, Mackenzie places options in front of players of all levels and allows them to decide the series of shots they need on the hole to achieve their goal, which may not always be par. He felt the game should be enjoyable instead of worrying about the difficulty of the hole through a “par” score. Mackenzie was unconcerned about the top player shooting a low score as long as the average score was high. Mackenzie wanted players to set their own goals and as they improved they could try new options. This is why at Royal Melbourne he did not include a par score for any of the holes.
Keep in mind that when Mackenzie built courses that fairways were rarely watered, the ball did not go as far, and a smaller ball was often used which was harder to stop. In addition, match play or alternate shot was the usual game, not stroke play.
Was Royal Melbourne West Mackenzie’s own course and what was the role of Alex Russell (architect of the East course) and Mick Morcom, head greenskeeper, in the development of Royal Melbourne West? Certainly Mick Morcom, who built the two courses as well as Kingston Heath, played a bit role since Mackenzie was only there for three months. Morcom shaped the approaches to the greens, the greens, and the bunkers with shovels and a horse-drawn scoop and skillfully placed the mounds and hollows that can be a hazard from one angle but offer a friendly bounce with played from a different direction. Depending on the wind and the pin placement, the course can play very differently as I found out when I played the Composite for the “second” round.
It is amazing to think how golf has evolved, yet a course such as Royal Melbourne West has not been diminished by technology or the emphasis on stroke play, it has more than held its own.
So in my humble opinion, I do think Royal Melbourne West is his masterplace. That is not to say it is a better golf course than Cypress Point or Augusta National, but I do believe it still meets his design principles more than the other two courses. At the West course, the longer hitter is not always favored, certainly the short hitter is not, but the best rewards go to the smart player who takes the boldest line and positions the ball the best for the next shot that is most suitable to their game. Mackenzie wrote: “narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game in causing a stilted and cramped style, destroying all freedom of golf.” He achieved his design philosophy through various “bail out/safer routes” which is why Royal Melbourne is so attractive, interesting and playable by anyone.
Augusta National has been changed many times since Mackenzie’s original design with a reduction in some of the decisions. In my opinion, technology has reduced the need for strategy at all three courses, but to a lesser degree at Royal Melbourne.
On my first visit to Royal Melbourne I played was the West course which definitely lives up to its reputation as one of the top 15 courses in the world. I think it is nearly the equal of the Composite course. There is great land for the West course with hills, swales, mounds, undulations, sandy soil, firm turf, and beautiful trees and vegetation. The par 3’s are exceptional beginning with the fabulous fifth hole. It is followed by the wonderful sixth hole, a sharp right dogleg with a long carry then a second to a raised green. There might not be two better holes back to back in the world.
The bunkering throughout the course is superb. The greenside bunkers cut into the greens and balls struck poorly off line will find their way into them. The bunkers are deep and strategically placed. Rarely can one get up and down from the greenside bunkers. The greens are excellent at Royal Melbourne West. They are well shaped, the appropriate size for the required shot into them, and in great condition. There is a lot of movement and speed on them.
The holes I really liked were 3-7, 9-12, and 16-18. The golf course loses a little but when it crosses the road. Although five is the best known par 3’s and one of the finest in the world, the seventh is nearly its equal due to the blind nature of the uphill shot, the placement of several bunkers and the severe tilt to the green. The sixteenth is likely the most difficult. A two on any of the par 3's on the West course is rare.
In my opinion I thought many of these par 3’s were the equal of the famous fifteenth at Kingston Heath.
The first begins with a slight dogleg left downhill par 4 to a very wide fairway and a large green. However, some of the longer players in our group were able to fly the trees on the left leaving a very short approach to a fairly easy green, albeit one with a swale on the left front. There is only one bunker green side on the right. I thought this was a good starting hole, but one difficult when played into the wind.
The second is a par five that is short uphill dogleg right from the tee but then playing relatively level to the slightly raised green tilted back to front and right to left. A fairway bunker on the right must be cleared off the tee for the longer player to find a shorter path to the green. There is a swale in front of the green 50 yards short that makes it difficult to run a ball onto the green as opposed to flying it on. Deep bunkers are left and right of the green. Being behind the green is a cardinal sin due to the speed of the green. I witnessed this in two of my playing partners. This hole could yield eagles up to an eight.
The third hole is a short downhill par 4 to a green sloped front to back. There is a swale in front of the green that kicks the ball to the right as well as two bunkers left and a bunker right. I found the hole played to my strength because I could not over power it and I can hit a short iron fairly high. The longer players struggled on this hole.
The fourth is a short par 5 that plays longer as it doglegs up to the highest sandhill on the course. Bunkers are short right of the green and then greenside left and right providing additional challenge to the somewhat blind second shot. One has to hit very well-judged shots to make birdie or par on this hole.
One of the top five par 3’s I have ever played comes next, the splendid fifth that played 175 yards for us. From an elevated tee one must clear the valley to the green sitting on an opposite hill. This hole blends perfectly into the landscape surrounding it. Two large bunkers are left, three large bunkers are to the right. Anything even an inch short of the green will tumble down the hill in front of the green, leaving a shot of 30-50 yards. The green has ridges and a sharp back to front tilt. I managed to par it both times, once from the left bunker and getting lucky as the putt rolled back towards the pin; a Mackenzie design principle in action.
As good as the fifth is, the sixth is even better. It is a masterpiece of strategy to the green and on the green. It is often cited as one of the best holes in the game of golf. From an elevated tee one decides how much of the sharp dogleg right to carry over the sand and heath area which ends with a series of bunkers. One feels confident on the tee due to view of expansive space as you contemplate the tee shot. One needs to avoid these bunkers at the end. The long hitter faces a decision as well because they can run the risk of driving through the fairway into trees on the other side. The best play from a long hitter is a fade. The green is one of the most steeply sloped greens one will find anywhere with deep bunkers fronting right and left. The left side bunker is particularly one to be avoided given its height and the green above it. If in the bunker, one needs to get out of it but if the ball lands too far beyond the pin you could face a downhill putt that is likely to slide all the way off the green. In addition, whether in the front left bunker or hitting an approach shot from the fairway, one simply must avoid going into the bunker at the back left of the green. There you have it, quite possibly the best two holes back-to-back of all time.
The short par 3 seventh hole plays uphill and might be more difficult than the fifth hole. The right half of the green is guarded by a deep bunker which leads to a decision as to whether play out to the left and face a long and fast putt or play beyond the sand to the flatter part of the green. Playing left brings a left side bunker into play. If one misses two far right there are two additional bunkers. We marveled at this hole which seemingly is there to link the sixth to the eighth hole and get over the hill but is so much more.
The eighth hole is one of the weaker holes on the golf course, a short par 4 with a fairway that is linked with the first hole on the East course, both sharing a scary large bunker complex. There is an additional bunker complex on the right side of the fairway. The green is wide but small and bunkers on the right side eat into it as well as a bunker behind the green. The greenside bunkers have small bushes in them. The ideal line is to come as close as one can to the fairway bunkers on the left. The negative of this hole is that the longer hitters just drive beyond these fairway bunkers as well as I thought the green was one of the easier ones to read, despite its size.
I liked the par 4 ninth hole due to the rolling nature of the fairway that goes up a dune, then down a slope carrying a ball into a valley leaving an uphill shot to the green. The best drive here will go down the right side. The green is long and narrow and goes from right to left and front to back. Once again, the green is well defended with bunkers front left and two on the right side.
The tenth once again shows off the brilliant shaping of a hole over hilly terrain with the tee shot overlooking a valley with a substantial rise on this short par 4. There is a strategically placed fairway bunker left as the hole turns left and ends to one of the smallest green on the golf course. There are deep bunkers on the right side of the green, a swale in front of the green, a shaved bank behind the green that can leave a ball 25 yards away. Most of us had trouble placing even our high gap wedges close to the pin. We went everywhere either on or around the green. This is a hugely fun hole to play.
The eleventh is a longer par 4 dogleg to the left. The ideal line is down the left but large bunkers await you. There seems to be acres of land down the right but it leaves a much longer shot into the green. There are bunkers left and right short of the green. The green is slanted right to left. Because I am an average length hitter, I found this hole to be difficult, but it was more than fair.
Alex Russell altered the twelfth hole in 1953 making it a dogleg left, albeit a short par 5. Long hitters typically reach this green in two. Shorter hitters have to contend with heath short of the green. There are bunkers off the tee that shorter hitters have to navigate to the right. Due to its lack of length, this is not a difficult hole as a par 5 and one wonders what an extra 75 yards could do to the hole.
You cross a road to get to the short par 3 thirteenth hole, which reminded me of the thirteenth on the East course or the tenth at Kingston Heath. The green is slightly crowned in the middle, is small and surrounded by deep bunkers cutting right into the edge of the green right front, right and left. Anywhere else and this would a standout par 3 that people would rave about, but at Royal Melbourne’s West course it is fourth.
The short par 4 fourteenth follows with a primary danger being the trees on the left on this slight dogleg right. This green has the most bunkers surrounded it, nine in total, beginning 50 yards short of the green and slopes right to left. It is a tricky hole if you miss the fairway.
The short par 5 fifteenth comes next and is best played down the right side. There are mounds crossing the fairway about 115 yards short of the green. There is a false front on this elevated green which slopes back to front. Unfortunately this hole should be a par 4 due to technology and is now a weak hole.
Oh my is the sixteenth a difficult and excellent long par 3. It might be the best par 3 at Royal Melbourne and one of the very best in the world. The long par 3 is guarded by a collection of bunkers to the left that begin well short of the green and continue to the back left edge. There is another large bunker short of the green to the right side. Despite the length of this hole, the green is one of the smaller ones. Shorter hitters are at a real disadvantage on this golf hole due to the carry required. Having now played all four par 3’s, one wonders which golf courses has better par 3’s – Cypress Point, Augusta National, Merion East, Prairie Dunes?
The routing ends with two long par 4's holes requiring strategy off the tee to these doglegs routed in opposite directions. If you are a big hitter, you definitely take on the bunkers with your tee shot and perhaps even hit over the bushes. It requires some thought to decide how much of the line you want to cut off by flying it over those bushes. Done well, and the long hitter has a short iron in their hand. But for a shorter hitter such as myself the prudent play is away from the fairway bunkers but a result is a second shot of 210 yards or more as well as difficult pins to get to.
The seventeenth is a long par 4 with bunkers protecting the desired line to the green down the left side. There is enormous land to the right side but obviously it lengthens the next shot and creates a difficult second due to the angle. The design of this hole takes full advantage of the land with a slight rise in the fairway from the tee but then the second must fly over a valley up to the green. There is a bunker greenside right that cuts right into the green. There is a large swale in front that tempts one with the possibility of running on a shot but this is more difficult than it appears as it must be perfectly judged for pace. This is a great golf hole.
A blind tee shot over the hill awaits one on the longer par 4 finishing hole. A bunker is at the corner of the fairway on the right that is more in play for the shorter hitter than the longer hitter who merely aims over the right corner and typically finds his ball way down the slope with a 9 iron or some type of wedge in their hand for their second shot. The shorter hitter plays away from this bunker with a wide fairway to the left but will stay up on this hill leaving a shot of 180 yards or more. Bunkers block the approach but are not as hard against the edge as some other holes other than the right greenside bunker and one behind. The green slopes left to right and there is very little room behind the green. You do not want to go into the bunker behind the green as I did. It is an almost impossible recovery shot. The “better” miss is the front bunker on the right where I nearly saved par unlike that back bunker where I had no chance other than holing a long putt. This hole takes perfect advantage of the topography and landscape of the golf course. It is a wonderful end to a spectacular golf course.
It is a gem of a golf course and for me, clearly the best in Australia and one of the best in the world. As I said in other reviews, there are only a few courses that are worthy of discussion as the best course in the world: The Old course at St Andrews, Royal County Down, Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Oakmont, Trump Tunrberry, and Royal Melbourne West. These golf courses are works of art.
One thing seemed certain after watching the recent Presidents Cup match. The real star of the week was that magnificent composite course which Tiger Woods, full of admiration said was like the best of links courses yet with Augusta like greens complexes. Spellbinding.
There is no water on the course, and the majestic MacKenzie bunkering dominates, framing fairways, and defining the green complexes.
During his visit in 1926 MacKenzie also visited a number of other courses in Melbourne (Kingston Heath, Victoria...), and his bunkering on these courses evolved into an instantly recognisable Melbourne Sandbelt style.
There are no weak holes on The West Course, but some that I regard as 'all world' holes.
The fourth hole is a short par 5 with a scary blind tee shot over a rise with deep yawning bunkers set into the face of the dune. A successful tee shot will open up the possibility of reaching the green in two- but bunkers and bracken await the mishit shot. The large green is well contoured and it may well be that one should consider leaving an approach under the hole.
The par 3 fifth hole is one of the most picturesque on the course. The mid iron tee shot must carry over a deep gully in front of the two tiered and sharply contoured green. The green is framed by deep bunkering on both sides. From the tee a player may well sigh a breath of relief if he successfully avoids the gully short, and bunkers left and right, and makes it to the top tier. But any shot a little long can be penalised with a downhill putt or chip that will be hard to stop.
Hole six is a longer par four, left to right dogleg. The longer hitter can easily carry the bracken on the inside of the dogleg and set up a short iron approach, but he must be careful not to over hit and run through the fairway. Depending on the wind and tee of the day many will be capable of taking the shortcut and many will fail- losing a ball in the bracken, or being blocked out by the trees right. The conservative tee shot left will leave a golfer with a long shot in to a raised green with significant back to front camber, and those trademark bunkers in front. This really is a classic hole!
Hole seven is a short iron uphill par 3 to a heavily bunkered, heavily contoured green. The green is partially blind from the tee below, and the hole is exposed to the wind making it a challenge to select the correct club, as well as intended line and flight. The bunker short right dominates the view from the tee encouraging the unwary to stray left and long. But with a bunker at the back, and a steep back to front tilt to the green, there is no easy way to par this hole.
Hole 10 is a driveable short par 4 hole. These days the longest hitters can take on the green with a 3 wood, but to do so they must carry over all types of nasty vegetation and then the biggest bunker on the course, in search of a tiny green protected by steep drop offs and more bunkering at the rear. Played as a long iron or rescue off the tee, hole 10 can be then approached with a wedge or short iron from a much more friendly angle. But that approach does need to be reasonably accurate given the size and firmness of the green. It is an exciting hole no matter which way you play it.
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
I was brought up in the sand belt and relished opportunities to play RM West. I then had the luxury of playing Winged Foot over several years and it struck me that RM dines out on the composite course, WF does not. Each 18 stands on its own feet, both courses in the USA top 50 The composite is not a fair marker. My issue with the ranking is how the supposed best course in the country can have a genuinely nothing hole like 15th, or a series of OK holes from 12 to 16. And there is a difference in condition of composite and non composite holes. Don't get me wrong - it is wonderful golf. It is just not the best 18 hole layout in Australia and it is not the 6th best course in the world.
12-16 are OK? Geez - I'd hate to see good. So 15 is the one ordinary hole, like 17 at Royal County Down. 16 could be the best long par three in the world
Here Here. About time someone said it (more recently at least). I must have played RM 100 times and it is an amazing amazing club and facility. But like Sunningdale and Winged Foot, our courses need to stand up on their own. The Composite Course (which again I've been lucky enough to play 3 or 4 times in proper order), if rated, easily stands amongst PV, Shinnecock, Oakmont, RCD etc. But the West alone does note. It's a top 50, maybe 30, but not a Top 10. The holes when you cross the road (another bug bear - why didn't they build a tunnel) are sub par. 13 tries to be 10 at Kingston Heath but isn't, 15 should be a Par 4 all day long (amazing green by the way - one of the best) and 16 tries to be the true long one shotter, but again falls short (topography being the reason I'm guessing). Amazing bunkering throughout though and so much fun (and fair) to play. But NOT Top 10....
I made it finally! Magnificent :) A massive thrill, honour and privilege to have played here recently.
10 years ago when I last visited Royal Melbourne they were in the middle of the worst drought in history and had severe water limitations. In fact, Royal Melbourne suffered, as they didn’t have their own water supply as did some of the surrounding courses. I did play it back then but this recent visit was to be the first time I’d seen it with grass.
Not so long ago RMGC decided to re-turf the course with a couch grass partly due to ease of managing it and partly due to the fact that it essentially increases the length of the course given the limited roll out allowed by couch grass. This was definitely a success. The turf leans to the sticky side and severely limits roll out and ground game on such a traditionally fast and firm course. Given how much I personally love firm and fast playing surfaces and the ability fine grasses allow utilization of the ground game I’d personally question this choice, at least from a playability perspective. However, they of course had solid reasoning for this and wanted to maintain the championship test that Royal Melbourne is even with the distances the young guns are smashing it these days. Naturally we are picking at straws here as Royal Melbourne remains the best course on the best property with the strongest routing in Australia and a serious case can be made for it being the best in the world.
The West Course offers the ultimate variation of holes with literally one amazing strategic hole after another. It delivers me as much challenge as I can take plus more but remains really fun. I still feel I need about 100 plays in order to truly figure it out which is a good thing and after a round there I most certainly want to jump right back out onto the course. I was so pleased to see it in great shape this visit and I no longer have to wonder what it looks like with actual turf. Some of the things that always stand out about this magnificent place are the wonderful Mackenzie bunkering and fantastic undulated and lightening quick greens. Not sure if there are really any easy putts out there, you are required to use tons of creativity, feel and pace control to putt the greens well and some of the results will leave you shocked or provide an adrenaline rush if you manage to get it close or sink it. If golf could always be this much fun…sigh!
I feel like almost every hole is a favorite hole but have to say their signature hole, the par 3, 6th is really a perfect hole. The green sits so naturally into the hillside as does the bunkering, it’s as if they just walked up and put the flag in. On second thought, all their greens sit perfectly into the landscape and natural surroundings. Royal Melbourne is one of those few courses that are worth a trip across the world for the opportunity to play it. If the opportunity ever arises, you won’t regret it, stronger yet, you will never forget it if you make the trip.
Royal Melbourne (West) continues to be number one in the Australian rankings. This is due to the fabulous piece of land the holes sit on, but more so the genius of the green complexes. It certainly feels like the golfing cathedral of the southern hemisphere, armed with the ability to break a man’s heart as he begs for more. The course continually asks for heroic approach shots judged to perfection, or face almost impossible ups and downs to save par. It’s Australia’s toughest examination of your skill set.
Yes,Fergal. I think that you have hit the nail right on the head. The West sits on glorious rolling land and the green complexes , most made savage by the deep bunkering and vicious contouring make the West , from an architectural point of view,by far the best course in Australia .It truly is a classic .
A golf course ranked in the top ten in the world should be a special place and Royal Melbourne is. Like many great designs including Pine Valley and Sand Hills, the course has wide open fairways that are playable for the average golfer, yet demand the more skilled player to drive the ball into dangerous corners to get close to the flags. It is also compared to Pine Valley because it is a “second shot” course. Like Pine Valley, the first thing that strikes you when seeing Royal Melbourne is the scale of the course. It has a “big” feel to it with holes routed around big sand dunes, forced carries over bracken fern and sweeping fairways with big doglegs. The World Atlas of Golf describes Royal Melbourne as a “kaleidoscope experience of obstacles and emotions.” I also very much liked the West’s tenth hole, a 279-meter par four which has a “big bertha” style bunker protecting against those who dare to shoot directly for the green. Nobody rings a bell when you get to one of the greatest golf holes in the world. There also isn’t a sign telling you; there doesn’t need to be. You just know it’s a fabulous hole because it bowls you over. The tenth is a hole like that. In addition to their fabulous golf course, the members and club staff are very welcoming and warm.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
You give it only 5 stars ? Top 10 course in the world. I'd be interested in how you rank a golf course ?
I assume John ranks a course by forming his own opinion and not simply looking at the rankings to see what mark he should award it.
I was fortunate to play the West course a few times on my trip and I appreciated new aspects and nuances each time I played it. It’s a never-ending education. These greens only accept precisely struck irons as the false fronts, run offs and firm conditions are too severe. Time has no meaning when your eyes are filled with the genius that lies before you. It’s a place of pilgrimage for golfers of all abilities and undeniably a course that you should try to play before you look down from heaven. The holes are as fascinating to look at as they are to play. It’s been said that, over the past 90 years, modern course architects have not been able to make another Royal Melbourne – which is a testament to its unparalleled quality decades after its sacred creation.