News & ToursNovember 15, 2011

Royal Melbourne ready for its close-up

MELBOURNE -- To simply say, "Royal Melbourne," has never been enough. Not when there are two courses, East and West. And the same is true whenever the word "composite" is used to describe the storied venue that has, over the years, played host to many Australian Opens, a couple of World Cups, an Eisenhower Trophy, the 1998 Presidents Cup and, in 1988, the Australian Bicentennial Classic. For the course that will this week entertain a second Presidents Cup is actually the third "composite" version since the first was used for the 1959 Canada (now World) Cup.

"The first composite course came about because the club wanted to use only holes that lie inside the roads that run through the property," says former European Tour pro and native Melburnian Mike Clayton. "Back then they played 1-2 West, 1-2 East, 5-6-7-10-11-12-17-18-3-4 West, 3-4-17-18 East. And it was a great routing, probably the best from a playing standpoint.

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Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

"It wasn't ideal though. The biggest problem was that it was difficult to create any atmosphere. And it was hard for the spectators to stay connected with the action. The 10th green -- the 12th on the West --- was miles away from the 15th green -- 3rd East. The crowds were spread out over such a huge space and the people could never watch what was happening at the end of an event. Even the 17th green was a long way from the clubhouse."

Still, for all its imperfections, that first composite course was used for almost four decades, until the 1998 Presidents Cup.

Related: The Top 10 Presidents Cup Questions

"The routing was changed in order to get the closing holes nearer the clubhouse," reveals Clayton, who now works as a course designer in partnership with 2006 US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "The new order became: 3-4-5-6 West, 1-2-3-4-17 East, 2-7-10-11-12-17-18-1 West, 18 East. And that was also used for a few Heineken Classics, at one of which Ernie Els shot 60.

"That was a good routing because the closing holes were so much closer together and everyone could see everything that was happening. There was a run of eight par-4s to finish, but that wasn't seen as such a big deal, even if the 17th hole wasn't the strongest. But some members -- especially the older ones -- didn't like it, or at least had trouble coming to terms with it. And some players weren't too keen either. Still, for tournament golf, it definitely worked better than the previous version."

In truth, the third and latest version is not much different from the second in terms of the holes used. But the order has changed quite substantially.

"The new sequence is: 3-4-5-6-7-10-11-12-17-18 West, 1-2-3-16-17-18 East, 1-2 West," says Clayton. "And those changes came about mostly, I think, because of the massive corporate marquee next to the 18th hole of the West course, the 16th on the latest composite course. Which makes sense. At the last Presidents Cup not too many matches went all the way to the last green. So the people who paid a lot and wanted to be almost guaranteed to see matches coming to a conclusion weren't really getting value for money."

Nothing is ever perfect, however, and the latest composite is no exception "The problem now is that the very best holes all come along early in the round," points out Clayton. "The most spectacular holes -- 3-4-5-6 West is arguably the best four-hole run in golf other than maybe 11-12-13-14 at St. Andrews -- are all over with before the turn. Which is not to say the course "dies" at the end, but there is no doubt that the later holes are not quite as strong.

"On the up side, the 16th hole on the East course -- a really good par-3 -- is now part of the composite lay-out. And the 2nd West is a really strong finishing hole. So it's all a bit subjective really. All three versions have their plusses ands minuses. The first was the best course but the worst for the spectators. On both the second and third, however, it is a lot easier to create drama and noise and atmosphere."

Sounds good. Throw in a Tiger, a Shark, a Kiwi, a few Springboks and a few thousand screaming Aussies and we should have quite a show over the next few days.

-- John Huggan

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