An adventure to the Melbourne Sandbelt

15 January 2015 Respond to this article

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.
2. Alister MacKenzie gets a lot of credit for work actually done by other virtually unheralded people (eg: Morcom, Soutar, Meader, Damman). In fact, the duration of his tenure in the area and his specific contributions to a variety of courses is as debatable as asking someone for the Melbourne weather forecast. The glory of MacKenzie’s mastermind is absolutely undeniable, but it’s important to appreciate and congratulate the lesser-known names.
3. In recent years, architects have been hired, architects have been fired, and then more architects have been hired to fix the nonsense left behind by those who were fired.
4. Frequently heard comments related to the dramatic bunkering around many of the iconic par 3s, such as, “they wouldn’t get away with that if designed today”.
5. A number of the clubs have a 19th hole whereby they rotate their usage of certain par three holes and make use of the additional hole on the property to give greens a break.
6. The location of a few Sandbelt clubs today is not the same location as where the clubs first started out. The increasing need for more land forced clubs to re-locate.
7. Almost all of the clubhouses and locker rooms, with the exception of Victoria, have gone through recent renovations and redesigns.
8. Red Gum trees in bloom are a beautiful thing, and those that are on their death-bed are a sad sight. The emblem gum tree at Metropolitan is held up by almost as many cable wires as the London Eye.
9. There’s certainly a sense of ‘tiering’ among the Sandbelt courses, which is a frequent discussion point among honourable gentlemen.
10. At one stage in recent years, Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Huntingdale, Commonwealth and Metropolitan were all ranked in the Top 100 in the World, which is a testament to the quality of the golf in this precious area.
11. The most important thing to do after you play each hole in the Sandbelt is to look backwards. The holes are as exciting to look at backwards as they are to play forwards. Some of the most exciting photographs and educational learnings of Golden Age architecture will come from taking a moment to reflect back upon the celebrated fairways and features that will outlast us all.

Kingston Heath
Kingston Heath was originally formed as the Elsternwick Golf Club in 1909, and was located at present day Elsternwick Park, before relocating to its present location in Heatherton in 1925 and renaming the club as Kingston Heath. Dan Soutar is the gentleman who created the current routing which appears relatively flat, however the gentle flow of the land presents the golfer with six or seven blind tee shots (and even the infamous blind approach to the par four 17th hole) where the green is not visible. Kingston Heath 5th hole The gentle rise and fall of the property is evident from the 1st tee shot. As noted previously, Alister MacKenzie was consulted on improving the bunkering, and went one step further in his ingenious transformation of the 15th hole from a par four shortened to a far superior par three on top of a hill, which is arguably the signature hole of this masterpiece. This fabled layout has some very noticeable characteristics and trademark features. The iconic Sandbelt bunkering offers enormous sand traps perfectly placed to fuel the need for strategic placement. If you study the best angle to approach the par fours and par fives at Kingston Heath, you’ll see that Soutar and MacKenzie positioned the fairway bunkers in the ideal position from where the golfer wants to approach the greens. There lies the genius and the corresponding challenge – hit your tee shots as close to the fairway bunkers as possible in order to have the optimal angle into the greens. Push a tee shot or take a more conservative route from the tee and you’ll frequently fall victim to a daunting approach shot over a sea of sand with smaller landing areas. The mastermind continues by the frequent demonstration that length is not needed to increase the examination of your game. Due to the intimidating and overwhelming bunker complexes, hitting these greens in regulation is as sweet as apple pie. Kingston Heath 10th holeThe 16th hole is the index 1 and mightily deserves this title. After the long walk down the hill from the 15th green (note: the original 15th green was close to the 16th tee prior to MacKenzie shortening it to a par three), the blind drive on the 16th hole tumbles into a dogleg left to right that swoops around the corner to a well-protected green, and consummates the essence of how Kingston Heath examines your skills.

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.

Kingston Heath 14th holeEnjoyable 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.

Metropolitan
Metropolitan Golf Club 18th holeHaving recently hosted the Australian Masters, I had the good fortune of seeing the golf course on television a few weeks before my departure to whet my already golf starved appetite. When people think of Metropolitan, the focus is on the world-class conditioning of the entire property. This reputation for wonderful playing surfaces is supported by a healthy green-keeping budget and a well-educated team. There was discussion regarding the unbalance between the qualities of the two nines, with the front nine having a superior collection of holes when compared to the much-changed back nine (Dick Wilson & then Michael Clayton’s alterations) from the 1960s onwards. Without doubt, the most memorable feature of the entire course is the greatest designed bunkers on the Sandbelt. Although you’ll probably spend most of your Sandbelt vacation taking pictures of the bunkers, the traps at Metropolitan are in a league of their own. They are cut directly into the greens like razors, and are deep, bare and have no sympathy for anyone. You’re either on the green or you’re not. Period.

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)
Royal Melbourne West course 2nd holeWhen Alister MacKenzie visited the Sandbelt in 1926, his primary focus was the creation of the West course and he left us with can only be described as the Cathedral of Australian golf. The holes on the main paddock (and the vast majority of Victoria Golf Club next door) reside upon mouth-watering changes in topography as the holes move effortlessly around the rolling land. All holes on the main paddock have a change in elevation or significant movement. Furthermore you can’t see the greens while standing on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 17th and 18th tee boxes (all on the main paddock). To say that MacKenzie implemented his expertise with camouflage and his infamous 13 general principles of architecture is an understatement. There is little walking between greens and tees and the course is laid out for all levels of golfer to thoroughly enjoy. The opener is a relatively straightforward hole to get the round moving away from the clubhouse, followed by a par five which turns right away and brings you back up the hill. For me, the real genius (and possible the toughest shot on all 36 holes at the club) is the approach shot into the short par four 3rd hole. The green tilts strongly from front to back and left to right, and even with a well-placed tee shot up the right side of the sloping fairway, your next shot is one that requires great care. Precision and strategy is what elevates this old lady towards the top of the world rankings. Clearing the elevated bunker complex from the tee on the 4th hole offers the first real exposure to how the fairways on the West course swoop from one direction to another. It’s another “wow” moment on the front nine making your way over the hill on the 4th fairway and seeing what your next shot will look like. So many holes on this course are iconic, well documented and globally recognizable. Royal Melbourne West course hole 5The par three 5th hole is at the top of this list. Anywhere from 120 to 160 meters in length, the eye-opening bunkers on either side of the false-front green will make club selection a well-thought out process. God forbid if the wind is blowing. The epic nature of the front nine continues to stimulate on the par four 6th hole. A downhill enticing tee shot moving left to right offers golfers the luring opportunity to cut the well-protected corner. While standing on this tee box trying to decide what to hit, my Irish eyes remembered the words of Oscar Wilde “I can resist everything except temptation”. The approach shot to the 6th will fuel your fire as you turn the bend and gaze up at an intimidating green which almost feels like it’s laughing at the thought of your ball resting on its surface.

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.

Royal Melbourne West course 12th holeThe 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)
Royal Melbourne East courseAlex Russell leveraged the philosophies of Alister MacKenzie’s West course during the creation of the East course. Holes 1-4 and 16-18 are part of the composite course and by far the best holes – unsurprisingly, these holes are all on the main paddock. The rolling terrain of the opening stretch was superb, especially looking uphill to the 2nd green that makes you say “wow” over and over again, downhill to the 3rd green and up again to the long par three 4th hole. Right from the start, you’re dealing with doglegs and elevation changes that test your club selection from the tee and making sure you’re playing into the optimal spot for the approach. It was with great disappointment that we had to leave the main paddock after the 4th green. You cross the road multiple times between the 5th and 16th holes. I felt that crossing the road broke the flow and you lose the sense of continuity. It made it feel like the 18 holes were on 3 different isolated and independent pieces of land – which is never a good thing. Aggregate this with 7 or 8 pedestrian holes in the middle of the round laid out on flat land leaves you a bit underwhelmed.

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.

Victoria
Victoria Golf Club 11th holeSituated next to the vast Royal Melbourne Golf Club property, Victoria is another example of a world-class course with forgotten heroes (William Meader and Oscar Damman) who laid out the outstanding current routing. MacKenzie was consulted on the bunker complexes and few of the greens during his 1926 visit to the Sandbelt. The course opens with a short impressively bunkered par four which is reachable downwind with a 4 iron, followed by two par fours which play in the same direction along the boundary line and are awfully similar in length and look to each other. The tame nature of the opening three holes fortunately improves with a number of very demanding par threes with raised greens and outstanding bunker complexes with the front nine finishing with back to back lengthy par fives that rumble and tumble across the land.

Victoria Golf Club 14th holeIf 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!

Victoria Golf Club 18th holeThe 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.

Huntingdale
Huntingdale Golf ClubHuntingdale was home to the ‘Australian Masters’ tournament for 30 years between 1979 and 2008. It borders the Metropolitan Golf Club, but looks and feels very different. This course has a reputation for having too many holes that play parallel to each other offering a monotony of playing up and down again. Each hole is tight and fairways don’t have the same width as other Sandbelt courses. Upon careful reflection, despite the tree lined nature of the course, everything is in the right place, the course was in fantastic condition, the vegetation was healthy and there are no glaring errors with the current state of the course. I didn’t get the feeling that trees were overgrown or needed to be cut down. In fact, I concluded that the trees framed the holes so well with delightful backdrops. I thought Huntingdale had bunker complexes just as impressive as Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne (West). It’s just a really demanding course with some of the longest collection of holes in the area. I gave this course a lot of well-deserved credit up until the par three 15th hole. Prior to that, I thought the par threes were as good as I had seen, the par fours were as tough and enjoyable to play and the expected monotony of playing up and down wasn’t as tiresome as people make it out to be. Although only the 4th, 14th and 17th holes have any element of a dogleg, Huntingdale is definitely suited for better players and is certainly worth playing.

Huntingdale 10th holeWhen 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.

Commonwealth
Commonwealth Golf ClubStanding on the first tee offers a magnificent view of the mown grass between the 1st and 18th holes. The short opening hole is mobbed with iconic Sandbelt bunkers, and although the green is not in its original location, my hopes were up for the other 17 holes. That feeling of hope began to crumble shortly afterwards. The land at Commonwealth has so much potential but has been modified and neglected to an unacceptable state. There are hundreds of trees and bushes that need to be removed and scrub that should be cleared between fairways and behind greens. There are random clusters of trees that should have never ever been allowed to grow or be planted. My gracious host did a superb job of explaining all of the planned changes in the pipeline for almost all of the first 13 holes. I struggled to keep up with the volume of changes that were being described to me, which sadly took away from admiring and praising the 5 or 6 outstanding holes on the property. The beautifully mown area around the clubhouse is a perfect example of what needs to be thoughtfully replicated throughout the majority of the property (where appropriate). The 7th tee box was moved behind the 6th green, and the current unhealthy state of the 7th hole makes you wish for better things.

Commonwealth 16th holeThe 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.

Woodlands
Woodlands Golf ClubA golf course that doesn’t get a lot of attention due to its flat terrain and collection of straightforward holes that don’t offer much of a challenge. The greens on the front side were scarily small; which is really the only defence on this modest course. Not too many memorable holes throughout the property as they all begin to blend together design-wise. Having played all of the other Sandbelt gems, the lack of rolling terrain and unique looking holes really keeps Woodlands from rising up the rankings. It’s a perfect example of a nice humble golf course suffering when compared with the golfing giants all around it. By itself, Woodlands is certainly worth playing if you’re looking for a relaxing round away from the plush nature of its heavyweight neighbours. The club’s motto is “Naturally Inviting”, which is a perfect representation of the welcome that you will receive.

Yarra Yarra
Yarra Yarra Golf Club 11th holeThe opening hole is a par three which (visually) doesn’t fit with how the others are designed, which is not something you say very often in the Sandbelt. The 2nd hole had its tee boxes re-directed away from the boundary line so now they worryingly point directly back at the 1st green. The 2nd green was moved away from the houses due to complaints. The 3rd hole is possibly the poorest on the course. Similar to the 2nd hole, Martin Hawtree was engaged to move the green 60 yards to the left, away from the houses, which resulted in the removal of anything worthwhile. The undulating green and surrounding apron doesn’t look like anything else you’ll see on the Sandbelt. You’re now left with a dead straight 290-yard par four with little to no character. It’s far too obvious when Hawtree touched a hole originally created by Alex Russell and I didn’t appreciate that feeling of disconnection with the original fundamentals (refer to 3rd, 4th, 7th and 10th holes). Generally speaking, you should never ever play a hole and immediately identify that another architect created it and that it looks like nothing else on the course.

Yarra Yarra 15th holeAll 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.