Fergal’s adventure to the Melbourne Sandbelt
Fergal inches closer to completing the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World
It’s an undisputable fact that, for those golfers who are determined to play the greatest courses on earth, a trip to the legendary Melbourne Sandbelt is a necessity. Years of preparation was bearing fruit as I made my way to the bottom of the planet seeking out these globally acclaimed clubs. Nothing gets the blood flowing like an aerial view of the tightly knit Sandbelt gems as you land into Tullamarine airport on a clear day. After two weeks of golfing, and many in-depth discussions with club members, here is a summary, in no particular order, of key observations which I made on my journey:
1. The continual evolution of housing around the Sandbelt courses has forced certain clubs to sadly re-route holes away from boundary lines which has been to the detriment of many configurations.
The course is located next to Moorabbin airport, which is the most active airport in Australia and will have propeller engines ringing in your ears all day. My minimal criticism of the layout is limited to the relatively tame and uninspiring approach shots into the par fours 11th and 17th holes. As you get within 100 yards of the green, especially the 17th, the large flat aprons and lack of noticeable bunkering is somewhat anticlimactic and unexpected. Additionally on the 11th hole, there used to be an excellent bunker in the middle of the fairway which was unfortunately removed, and has diminished the quality of the tee shot.
Enjoyable aspects of the club are the significantly improved practice ground, the fun 6-hole loop that brings you back to the clubhouse and the preservation of the original lockers in the Ikea influenced men’s changing room. My favourite feature of Kingston Heath is the angles that it creates and the subtle movements that can turn a smile upside down in the blink of an eye. Kingston Heath gets its well-deserved high ranking due to superior design variety with short and long par fours and a wonderful collection of globally celebrated par threes (although a lot more should have been done to the 19th hole as opposed to creating useless bunkers half way up the hole). The most memorable and photographed holes are the epic short par four 3rd hole, and the iconic par three 10th and 15th holes. Despite all three par fives going in the same direction, this does not at all take away from the enjoyment of the round. Kingston Heath is living proof that the second shot on a par five is not the most boring shot in golf. The par five 14th hole may have the most strategic second shot on any par five I’ve ever played. The enormous MacKenzie bunker complex that wrestles the land between the 14th and 15th holes will strangle your attention and guards the high point in the land that blocks your view of the green. Precision is your only option – which is a common theme at “The Heath”. Overall, this property is a sanctuary for studying a classic layout that is regarded as the best course in the country.
Attention to detail and conditioning at “Metro” is second to none, I even heard that some of the green-side bunkers have their edges hand-cut with a scissors! To help you visualize the bunkers, imagine a set of waves about to crash onto the shore. Imagine the waves as they rise to a crescendo, take their last breath and fight for position before unleashing their power. Fortunately the greens are very large, which is an act of fairness given the brutality of the bunkers that ravenously hunt your golf ball. Most of the holes have some movement and offer very firm and bouncy playing conditions. Weaker (and condemned) aspects of the course are driven by recent disappointing alterations and re-routing, noticeably the lack of accessibility to the par three 13th hole (third effort at this hole in recent years!) and the vast non-descript par five 14th fairway. I also thought that the man-made reservoir and very bright evergreen trees close to the 17th green stood out as being uncharacteristic with the rest of the vegetation on the property. With that said, despite being so close to the city and civilized development, there’s an enjoyable sense of containment and isolation from the hustle and bustle of nearby housing estates. Among a collection of world-class holes, my favourite hole was the par five 6th hole which moves uphill from left to right and possibly has the most interesting green on the Sandbelt. Wonderful contours swim their way between the hostile bunkers and add to the best stretch of the course. Metro is regarded as a “tier 1” course and I support the motion.
Royal Melbourne (West)
The uphill approach into the treacherous 9th green rounds out an outstanding opening stretch. The back nine starts with a short uphill par four with probably the most recognisable bunker in the Sandbelt. It’s so large and so long that it climbs up the hill and covers your view of the green. The obvious play is to stay to the right and leave yourself with a wedge into the green, but golf isn’t always that easy when you have a bunker wanting to swallow you up. The 11th hole is index 1 and swoops from right to left uphill to a green that runs from back to front. It’s the beginning of Royal Melbourne’s Amen corner (11, 12, 17, and 18) on the main paddock. The dramatic swooping doglegs on the front side continue magnificently on the back nine, with the 11th and 12th holes.
The entire course is not on the same paddock. The 13th to 16th holes require golfers to leave the paddock, cross a street and play on a piece of flat land that looks and feels different. None of these holes are on the composite layout (note: the configuration of the composite course has changed at least six times since it was first used). The 13th is a well-bunkered par three, the 14th is a short par four with a turtle back green offering the only memorable feature, the 15th is a very reachable par five with an attractive bunker complex at the green. I felt that there was an opportunity to expand the waste high rough grass area that’s around 80 yards short of the green into something much more intimidating and pervasive. It’s just too easy to go for the green. After playing the West course a few times, low handicap players will consider it very scorable and not too long and I think the 15th is a great example of where a par feels like a bogey. The 16th is a bear of a par three and by far the longest par three on the course at 230 yards. The huge bunkers are spread out in all directions making the putting surface look like a needle in a haystack. I was glad to leave this part of the property and cross the street back into the main paddock for the last two holes and return to the much more exciting topology.
Both the 17th and 18th offer blind tee shots and play downhill to the respective green-sites. Admittedly, I thought the visual from the 18th tee was a bit strange. You feel like you’re hitting over a wall with a line of trees in the background. As your ball lands on the backside of the hill, the hole immediately starts turning to the right but I thought you run out of fairway too quickly before balls run down into the bushes. Club selection on the 18th hole is significantly influenced by the wind direction, and I can confirm that hitting this shot downwind is more difficult to keep your ball on the fairway as it tumbles downhill towards boundary lines.
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.
Royal Melbourne (East)
To be a Top 100 golf course in the world, more than just a half dozen holes are needed with superior challenging architecture, memorable demanding shots which are fun to play and engage the golfer to use their imagination with all 14 clubs in the bag. In my humble opinion, the East course does not meet my criteria to be a World Top 100 course. It’s disappointing to have magnificent world-class holes on the main paddock combined with such ordinary holes on the disjointed property across the roads. The 17th and 18th holes bring you back to the excitement, the challenge, the memorability and the outstanding design variety. I thought that the 18th hole was hands-down the best finishing hole on the Sandbelt, but it’s all too little too late. I would not be surprised if this course drops (permanently) out of World Top 100 lists.
If somebody told me that the back nine at Victoria would be the most impressive nine holes I would play in Melbourne, I’m not sure I would have believed them. Right from the 10th tee, I fell in love and the quality of the course multiplied. You swoop from right to left and uphill to the turtle back 10th green, followed by one of my favourite holes ever. The 11th is an uphill par four with mouth-watering fairway bunker designs that are shared with the dangerous 15th. The Cypress trees around the course make the 11th hole picture perfect. What a thrilling start to the back nine! The 12th plays downhill and moves from left to right, however, my only criticism of the 12th hole is the greenside bunker recently created. It’s outrageously uncharacteristic with Sandbelt bunkering with its cookie-cutter shocking edges. Thankfully this moment of disgust is short-lived as the 13th hole (index 1) offers a blind tee shot over a rise of land that looks down on a green site which is staggeringly similar to the 5th green on Royal Melbourne (West). The par three 14th hole plays uphill displaying the best of MacKenzie expertise with sand traps. The more holes you play, the more difficult it becomes to pick a favourite. The holes are so good that they almost bring the best out of you. If you only play some of these Sandbelt gems once in your life, it’s one of those moments in your golfing career where you really want to hit the perfect shot every time rather than walking away with regret. Life’s too short to play bad golf!
The 15th is yet another example of a drivable par four riddled with danger. The endless sea of swishing bunkers down the left-hand side will examine your course management. Yet again, a strategic and well thought out tee shot is demanded. A fool hits a driver, whereas the crusty veteran reaches for his 5 iron. The land rises up to the location of the par three 16th green asking the golfer to carry over a superb collection of bunkers that look like they are ready to make you cry. The bunkering on this course is a visual delight no matter which direction you look. Similar to the front nine, the back nine finishes with two par fives, with the 17th being significantly longer than the reachable 18th hole. The rise and fall of the precious land doesn’t allow you to see the greens from the tees, but it will ensure that you have a smile on your face when shaking hands with your playing partners. I can’t wait to play here again.
When you reach the 15th hole, your admiration for the property begins to dwindle. The par threes across the Sandbelt have such an outstanding global reputation as being the best one-shot holes in existence, but sadly the 15th at Huntingdale is not in that category. It is 140 yards with a lake on the left side, nothing in front of the green and the entire hole looks somewhat out of place. It doesn’t look, feel or play like any of the previous holes and takes you away from feeling like you’re on the Sandbelt. I stood quietly on the 15th tee box and asked my playing partner “Matt, what just happened?” The strongly bunkered 16th takes us back to the scary looking clubhouse (the new roof looks like a jagged saw blade), before the 17th takes you straight back away again to an uninspiring green-site. Although the grandstand 18th hole meanders you back to the house, the course loses its class in the closing stretch and really limps over the finish line.
The unattractive scrub behind the 8th green hampers what might be the most spectacular approach shot in the Sandbelt. Why clear just some of the scrub when all of it should have been removed so you can open up the view of the clubhouse and eliminate the ugliness that populates your line of sight. It’s unique to have a lake on a Sandbelt course that comes directly into play, but Commonwealth has one between the very strong 3rd and 16th holes. As mentioned, there are many specimens of trees that need to be eradicated, for example, the cluster that sits down the left side of the 16th tee box are a disappointment as it would be superior if players were able to look across the lake and see the green from the tee box on this Signature hole.
Holes 14 to 18 are by far the greatest stretch of holes on the course and are a real thrill to play; yet tree/bush removal continues to be required. You can be on the left side of the fairway on the short 17th hole with just 90 yards to the flag, but your view of the entire green is completely blocked by a cluster of bushes that were allowed to grow. Some connoisseurs think this adds to the strategy of the hole, but it’s too penal in my humble opinion. The 18th hole is a glorious walk back towards the clubhouse on a beautifully mown healthy fairway which almost exfoliates the neglected randomness of the previous dozen holes. I was told to return in five years after the latest batch of emergency corrections and course modifications have been fully implemented. Who knows if the club’s great potential will ever be reached or if it will continue to struggle with a long list of modifications? I really hope the club succeeds as this old gem deserves a lot of credit.
All the re-positioning of holes on the front side affected the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th holes. Additionally, the 4th and 8th greens have been softened and re-shaped. Thankfully the par three 4th hole is still a real gem and the par four 5th hole is the best hole on the course with a blind tee shot strategically moving uphill to a green that sits below the clubhouse. Why can’t every hole be like this? It’s the select few par threes at Yarra Yarra that are the only worthwhile talking points, because the vast majority of rest of the course is in need of tender loving care.
The par three 11th and 15th holes are without doubt the shining stars. The 11th has a sensational enormous bunker in front of the green with tongues coming at you from all angles. The 15th is strongly tilted from back to front surrounded with 6 or 7 bunkers cut into the green – wow-factor on steroids for sure. The disparity in quality of the par fours and fives compared to the handful of par threes is upsetting. I admit that it’s a superb piece of land and the green contours created by Russell are highly commendable and most difficult to navigate, however, the uncharacteristic modifications and urgent need for tree removal are overarching negative points to this club’s current state. Let’s hope this old classic has better days ahead.
Article and photos (except Metropolitan - photo courtesy of the club) by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who approaches the final hurdle of his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World.
15 January 2015 Respond to this article