Classic Courses: Royal Adelaide Golf Club

RoyalAdelaide_02FWWidePano_1378 (Large)If banishment to Australia were still the common punishment for British felons, golfers in England would be embarked upon a continuous crime spree.  The island continent is home to a collection of the world’s best links courses, including Royal Adelaide Golf Club, located about eight miles outside the small city of Adelaide and two kilometers from the coast.  The history of this great sandbelt track is as colorful as the course is sublime.  The natural links at Adelaide roll through dune grasses and low marshes, between pines and swamp oaks, and across gently sculpted and strategically brutal moundings, all buffeted by freshening winds.  Nine Australian Opens and a farrago of amateur events have been played at Royal Adelaide.

The first Adelaide golf club was founded in 1870 but survived only a few years.  As one old-timer reported, “the fact that nearly everyone who had land abutting the parklands owned a cow added to the problems facing Adelaide’s golfing pioneers.”  When the local governor, who’d introduced golf to the populace, left Australia he may have taken the supply of golf balls with him, thus bringing a close to golfing activity.

The club re-formed in 1892 and began looking for land and a greenskeeper who could repair clubs.  The first competition, held in 1893, saw only two players scoring under 140.  Early members included Professor W.H. Bragg, who became secretary and treasurer in 1894 and reduced his handicap from 13 to 1 because he lived across the street from the course and was able to practice in the evenings.  In his spare time, he also went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

In  1895 Adelaide golfers moved to Glenelg and three years later joined the fine company of golfers from Melbourne and Sydney as members of the Australian Golf Union.  Just after the turn of the century the club rejected a prospective member “because he had no experience as a golfer and the links were already congested on account of inexperienced players.”  Membership two years later reached 51 plus 29 associate members (ladies).

Even while Royal Adelaide hosted National Championships in 1901 and 1903, the golf course was clearly not up to snuff.  In 1904 the club moved to its current location at Seaton.  Harry Swift and H.L. Rymill designed the new course, which stretched to 6,256 yards.  Three holes played over the nearby railway line and three others crossed district roads.  A clubhouse was built for 350 pounds and members were expected to donate furniture.  The first Australian Open played at Seaton in 1910 was won with a record low score of 306.

But even as the Swift/Rymill course hosted six Australian Opens, it, too, was eventually deemed unworthy.  In 1926—three years after Adelaide received it’s “Royal” designation— Alister Mackenzie visited to advise members about a redesign.  Mackenzie effervesced, “One finds a most delightful combination of sand dunes and fir trees, a most unusual combination even at the best seaside courses.  No seaside courses that I have seen possess such magnificent sand craters as those at Royal Adelaide.”  His signature was incorporating these dunes into a new design.

Mackenzie’s recommendations (some of which were adopted and others overruled) stressed greater accuracy, fewer forced carries, use of three additional sand craters along the routing, and conversion of many bunkers to grassy hollows.  He opined that as it stood, Royal Adelaide was too difficult for weaker players, yet not tough enough for skilled golfers.

Even given his reputation as one of the greatest golf course architects of his era, Mackenzie’s recommendations stirred controversy.  The author of an article in Golf In Australia wrote that Mackenzie “made two or three hasty examinations of parts of the course and surrounding country and made his report and recommendation, which included some very drastic alterations, unnecessarily costly, and many of doubtful structural benefit.”

Despite such occasionally cranky responses, Mackenzie’s vision greatly improved the course, as well as rerouting it so that no holes played across the railroad tracks.  He left twelve holes on one side of the tracks and six others plus the practice area and stately clubhouse on the other side.

Gene Sarazen visited the redesigned Royal Adelaide long enough to set the course record of 68 and make a few architectural suggestions of his own, which were summarily ignored.  Following Gary Player’s victory in the Australian Open at Adelaide in 1962, fourth-place finisher and budding golf course designer Peter Thomson began working on Royal Adelaide with his partner, Michael Wolveridge.   In ensuing years the pair gently contoured and bunkered many open spaces throughout the course, adding both physical and strategic challenges without erasing the spirit of Mackenzie’s subtle architecture.

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Photo by Gary Lisbon Golf Photography.

Today Royal Adelaide is characterized by wild, beautiful sandhills speckled with pines and pocked with pot bunkers among epic mounding and grassy swales.  The natural humps and bumps lend a degree of unpredictability.  Long grasses—such as the grabby marram– sandy waste areas, and other natural features add to the mood and challenge.

The third hole may be one of Royal Adelaide’s best known.  The 292-yard par four requires a blind tee shot hit confidently over a grassy rise.  Soft sand, rushes, and trees line both sides of this hole that remains exactly as Mackenzie designed it.  The mutton-leg-shaped green is protected by a ridge to the left and a knoll to the right.  In 1989, Colin Montgomery took an eight on this frequently eagled hole.

Daunting length makes its first appearance on number four, which marches 450 yards and requires a blind tee shot (a common demand here) over a dune to cut the dogleg left.  Pot bunkers add to the potential chaos and bunkers to the right catch drives that fail to draw.  In fact, bunkers 250-300 yards from the tees characterize many of the holes here, as do long grass and tongues of rough licking into the fairways.  Moundings throughout the course often conceal bunkers and other trouble and angles of play over bunkers and around corners create hard choices.

The back nine is longer, tougher, and more memorable.  Number eleven is Royal Adelaide’s famous crater hole: a good drive reaches the second of two rises that cross the fairway and provide a view of the green, which is set in a wide crater at the base of a huge dune.  Severe rough and bunkers decorate both sides of the putting surface.  A short second shot on the 388-yarder will land among reeds and sand.  High shots should come in handy all day at Royal Adelaide.

Fourteen has been described as one of Mackenzie’s best holes anywhere—a 482-yard par four  dogleg right with a small plateau landing area guarded by three bunkers to the right.  The second shot is played through a gap in the pines to an elevated green protected by three more bunkers and a pair of swales.  Fifteen, a double dogleg, also excels.  The tee shot must bore down a chute between trees; the left side is heavily bunkered.  The right side offers both bunkers and a shapely mound.  Punishing rough awaits short of a green lightly trapped with shallow bunkers.

After holing out at Royal Adelaide to win the 1938 Australian Open, Jim Ferrier commented “There is always that pleasure at Seaton of pitting one’s ability against the course, as well as the surroundings which have the real golfing atmosphere.”  In fact, several former members felt strongly enough about the course to have their ashes scattered in the bunker at number thirteen.  As one noted before his demise, “I have been in it so often I might as well finish up in it.”

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Photo by Gary Lisbon Golf Photography.

Royal Adelaide Golf Club

Tapleys Hill road

Seaton, South Australia 5023

Phone: (08) 8356 5511

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