Presidents Cup 2019: Royal Melbourne's composite course 'the closest thing you will ever see to Pine Valley'

December 09, 2019
Royal Melbourne East,   no 16

David Cannon

MELBOURNE — Ask Mike Clayton what he thinks are the best holes on the Royal Melbourne composite layout (12 holes from the West course, six from the East) that this week hosts the 13th Presidents Cup matches and the native Melburnian—one of the most respected voices in golf architecture—is quick to identify all 18. Which is no surprise. Almost universally hailed as the best course in the southern hemisphere, “the composite” is that good.

“Royal Melbourne is the closest thing you will ever see to Pine Valley, where every hole is great,” says the former European Tour player. “I can’t think of another course where almost any hole would be the best hole on 90 percent of courses anywhere in the world. That’s Pine Valley. And that’s the composite course at Royal Melbourne.”

Designed by Alister MacKenzie back in the 1920s, Royal Melbourne was the famed architect’s first attempt to create what Clayton calls “an inland Old Course at St. Andrews.” Another effort in a similar vein would follow a few years later at Augusta National. Add Cypress Point and you get the third part of what might be termed MacKenzie’s “Triple Crown.”

“MacKenzie hated tight, restrictive golf and narrow fairways bordered by long grass,” says Clayton, himself the co-designer alongside Tom Doak of the acclaimed Barnbougle Dunes on Tasmania. “He wanted people to have room to play. But if you played to the wrong half of the fairway, your next shot would be much harder. It’s a simple formula.

“That next shot from the wrong angle was nearly impossible. But if you were good enough and brave enough, you could pull it off. That’s why Seve Ballesteros played so well here and at St. Andrews and Augusta. He excelled when he had space to express himself. He played with imagination and flair. Seve was the type of golfer MacKenzie wanted to encourage.”

OK, let’s talk specifics. What sort of things can we expect this week as 24 of the world's best golfers play an unfamiliar mixture of foursomes, four-balls and head-to-head match play over 18 holes as opposed to 72-hole stroke play? Lots, if Clayton is to be believed. On a course famed for playing “firm and fast” and for the speed of its sloping putting surfaces, this is a time to expect the unexpected. Or at least the surprising.

“Some of the less experienced players are going to wonder what this place is all about,” says Clayton with a knowing smile. “For example, they will never have played a course where you never have to fix a pitch mark. We won’t see too many shots finish stiff to the hole. Really good shots will still finish 15 feet away. Closer than that is exceptional.

“We’re also going to see a lot of three-putting. Often enough you are better off eight feet below the hole rather than three feet above it. Four feet above and eight feet below are about equal in terms of difficulty. The easy eight-footer is the equal of the difficult four-footer. And I’d rather have the eight-footer. You are never going to three-putt from eight feet. But you can easily three-putt from four feet when you start above the hole.”

Perhaps the only misgiving some have expressed going into this biennial contest is that a fast-running composite course at 7,055 yards will not be long enough to provide a tough enough test for the two sides. Indeed, Clayton shares that concern. In this era of rapid technological advance, some of the challenges MacKenzie created have been lost.

“The course will play short this week,” Clayton says. “We will see a lot of wedge shots. If MacKenzie came back now to build a course to test only the best players in the world—and he had the space—he would have to make it more than 9,000 yards long. That would replicate and restore what he created back in the 1920s. Where they are hitting wedges now, they would be hitting 5-irons. And they’d be hitting woods and long irons into the par 5s, not 8-irons.”

Still, there is danger almost everywhere on a course marked by what many believe to be the most aesthetically-pleasing bunkering in the world. Some of the most perilous, too. Take what will be the fourth hole this week. At only 401 yards, this sharp left-to-right dogleg is rife with potential disaster, as International team captain Ernie Els will attest. Leading the 2004 Heineken Classic, the South African hit a perfect drive there but ended up making a quadruple-bogey 8.

“The longer you hit your drive, the worse your angle becomes,” Clayton says. “To be in the perfect spot, you need to hit a high cut that just clears the bunkers on the corner. That gives you an angle into a left pin. But if you end up in the back bunker with your approach, you simply cannot get the ball on the green if you hit towards the hole. You can play safely, maybe 50-feet left of the flag. But from there, you are going to three-putt eight times out of 10. So you can be 20 feet from the hole in two and it is an almost automatic double-bogey.”

Pressed to identify his favorite hole on the course, Clayton plumps for the 189-yard, par-3 14th, a relatively new addition to a composite course that has seen occasional change over the years.

“When Ben Crenshaw played the old composite a few years ago he was asked what he thought of the course, and the first thing he said was, ‘We walked straight past the best par 3 I’ve ever seen,’” Clayton says. “He was talking about what is now the 14th on the composite. The 17th is, at first glance, maybe the only disappointment. It is normally the first hole on the West course. And it’s like the first at St. Andrews. You get a ‘free hit’ off the tee. But it’s amazing how often you end up with a four-footer for a par. On a seemingly simple hole.”

To sum up then, Royal Melbourne is going to be an 18-course feast for golf architecture geeks everywhere. Especially in match play, it will provide engaging ride at both ends of the emotional scale. All in all, this Presidents Cup will be as far removed from the norm that is tour golf as one can imagine.

“You are going to see things that would explode the stats on tour,” Clayton says. “We’ll see guys hitting 90 percent of the fairways. We’ll see up-and-downs from greenside bunkers at only 20 percent. Maybe 30 percent. Three-putt stats will be way up. And proximity to the hole from, say, 150 yards, will be 15-feet worse than any course on the PGA Tour.”

Sounds like fun. For the spectators at least.