The six short weeks that Dr. Alister Mackenzie spent around the state of Victoria in 1926 had an immeasurable impact on the sport of golf in Australia. In that short time, he and Alex Russell, a talented Australian amateur player and able assistant, routed the 18 holes at Yarra Yarra Golf Club, built bunkers at the Victoria, Kingston Heath and Metropolitan Golf Clubs—and designed the West course at Royal Melbourne. While some celebrate Augusta National as the greatest achievement of one of the world’s greatest architects, many aficionados recognize Royal Melbourne as Mackenzie’s finest accomplishment.
Among this group is Nick Faldo.
“I’m not sure that I really want to nail my colors to the mast, but the West Course at Royal Melbourne might just be the best golf course in the world, period,” Nick said. “I think the best golf courses are the most ‘natural’ courses–those that integrate seamlessly with their surroundings; typically these surroundings are sandy, scrubby and more rugged than pretty. Royal Melbourne meets these criteria. I also think that it’s the most strategically interesting course anywhere, after St Andrews. I love so many aspects of the design. The way it plays firm and fast-running; the way the bunkering frames and almost intrudes into the putting surfaces; the brilliance of the bunkering style, with its natural ‘scrubby’ look; the wide fairways that reward the golfer who thinks where best to position the drive; the mix of long, demanding and short, intriguing par fours; the splendid contouring of the greens; the variety of approach shots that you can play into the greens which really reward imaginative shot-making; and the fact that there is often a wind to contend with, coming at you in each and every direction during the course of a round.”
Royal Melbourne is situated in the southeast suburbs of Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, in a region that’s been dubbed the Sandbelt. The 25 square miles of rolling sandy soil and delicate grasses bordering Port Phillip Bay provide ideal terrain for golf course design. It’s no wonder that many of Australia’s most renowned courses are here. “Melbournians will claim that their Sandbelt possesses the finest concentration of great golf courses in the world – a mighty boast indeed in the face of the magnificent collection of courses around Long Island, New York, The Monterey Peninsula and the British Heathland courses outside London,” said Selwyn Berg, editor of AusGolf.com. “With his work at Royal Melbourne and the other Sandbelt courses he touched, Mackenzie introduced two outstanding characteristics to Australian golf courses – strategic, as opposed to penal design, whereby the better player is tempted to position his ball closer to trouble in order to obtain the best angle to attack the pin; and the style of bunkering that still dominates the Sandbelt today – deep cavernous bunkers that appear as part of the natural undulation and typically carve beneath the very edges of the greens. The greens themselves are large contoured affairs that provide the purest of putting surfaces.” (Much credit for the excellent greens goes to Claude Crockford, who joined the Royal Melbourne staff as head greens keeper in 1934; former greens keeper Mick Morcom played a significant role in creating the bunkers.)
Many holes at Royal Melbourne West are included on “best-of”lists; two make it on Nick Faldo’s all-time 18. “For holes number 5 and 6 on my ‘best holes in the world’ compilation, I would play numbers 5 and 6 on Royal Melbourne, a magnificently bunkered par-3 followed by a superb par-4,” Nick said. Number 5 plays 176 yards across a valley to what’s been called one of golf’s finest green sites. The green is framed by heather and bracken, and bordered by a series of attractive bunkers that extend to within a foot of the putting surface. The green slopes heavily from front to back, destining shots into the front section the green to roll backwards and off. It’s been said that when Mackenzie first saw the site of the fifth hole, he declared that his team should be able to create one of the best golf holes in existence. The construction of the hole was completed by Mick Morcom, and most would agree that he fulfilled Mackenzie’s prophecy.
The 428-yard par-4 is Royal Melbourne’s most famous hole, and properly encapsulates the Melbourne experience. From the elevated tee box, set among tea trees, the player faces a sharp dogleg right, where the bend occurs at approximately 220 yards. Those tempted to cut the corner must contend with nasty scrub and bunkers that inhabit the inside of the dogleg, as well as eucalyptus trees; in short you can’t cut the corner so much as you must carry the corner. Should you clear the wasteland, a modestly short shot to the green awaits you. If you opt for the safer left side of the fairway, you could be looking at a fairway wood to the green. You might pay a penalty for your caution, however, for those approaching the green from the left face a menacing bunker that rests on the front left of the putting surface. (Many of the fairways at Royal Melbourne are quite broad, giving average players the opportunity to stay in play; however, better players are rewarded for being on the right portion of the fairway.) The elevated, tiered green slopes from back to front, and is among the slickest of Melbourne’s fast greens. If the pin is placed on the lower tier and you find yourself above it, beware. To underscore this point, Brian McCallen writes of Sam Snead’s debacle in the 1959 Canada Cup on the sixth green in The World’s 500 Greatest Golf Holes: “The Slammer drove through the fairway into poor position at the sixth, put his second shot on the upper terrace of the green above the pin—and then putted his ball down the slippery slope into the front bunker!”
“Royal Melbourne has influenced my design work profoundly, probably more than any other course I’ve played,” Nick concluded. “Some have described Shadow Ridge, my first design in America, as ‘Palm Desert’s answer to Royal Melbourne.’ One of my greatest regrets is that I’ve never won a tournament at Royal Melbourne. I still regularly travel to Australia in hopes of putting that right. I came close in 2003, when I shot a 66 in the 3rd round of the Heineken Classic to lead by one. But Ernie Els shot a 65 on Sunday and beat me by one stroke.”
Nick Faldo has six major wins and more than 40 tournament victories worldwide, making him one of the greatest golfers of all time. A fierce competitor, he has claimed three Masters titles and three British Open Championships. He has also led the European Order of Merit on three occasions and holds the all-time Ryder Cup record for most appearances (11) and most points scored (25). Nick was part of the first European team to defeat the Ryder Cup for 28 years; he will captain the 2008 European Ryder Cup Team. In 1990, he became the first international player to win the PGA Tour’s ‘Player of the Year’ Award, and between 1993 and 1994 he held the World Number One Ranking for 81 weeks. Through the creation of his business enterprise, Faldo Enterprises, he’s launched Faldo Design, a much-lauded golf course architecture business; the Faldo Series, a competition for younger golfers; and Faldo Wines. Faldo Management was launched in 2004 to manage the affairs of professional golfers and promising young amateurs. His strong performance at recent majors (including low scores at the 2002 and 2003 U.S. Opens) show he can still compete with the best. His autobiography, Life Swings, was published in 2004.
If You Go
Getting There: Melbourne is situated in the Australian state of Victoria on the southeastern coast of the continent. It’s served by many major carriers from Los Angeles, including United Airlines (800-864-8331; www.united.com), Quantas (800-227-4500; www.quantas.com), and American Airlines (800-433-7300; www.aa.com). The weather is pleasant enough in Melbourne for year-round golf, though temperatures are warmest in the winter.
Course Information: Royal Melbourne plays 6,589 yards from the men’s tees, to a par-72. It’s a private club, though overseas visitors from recognized golf clubs, with a current membership identification card and a letter of introduction from the home club can gain access during weekdays. Green fees are A$375.00 for visitors. Contact Royal Melbourne well in advance of your visit at +61 3 9598 6755. More information on the course is available at www.royalmelbourne.com.au. Ausgolf.com is an excellent repository of information on the other acclaimed Sandbelt region courses, and offers a variety of golfing tours.
Accommodations: Melbourne is a cosmopolitan city known that rests sits on the northern banks of the Yarra River, about three miles from the Port Phillip Bay. More than 1,100 lodging options are available at www.visitvictoria.com.