PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY LISBON
If you could create the ultimate fantasy course for this year’s Presidents Cup by cherrypicking the very best the state of Victoria has to offer, how would it look?
We laid down the challenge to several elite golfers and course designers. Naturally, they didn’t disappoint.
Golf-course rankings have always been a subjective – and somewhat controversial – matter.
How does one arrive at a formula that separates the best layouts from the rest, and do it so thoroughly and objectively? Furthermore, how do panellists stick to said formula without letting emotion hijack their final adjudication?
Suppressing emotional reactions in order to make informed, objective observations is a key prerequisite to landing a spot on Australian Golf Digest’s Top 100 Courses ranking panel. And while we’re getting closer to the best system possible, we know it remains anything but an exact science.
“The world ultimately is what we say it is,” said 19th Century German writer David Friedrich Strauss.
And with those wise words, so too are the “18 Best Holes in Victoria” – our latest listing to celebrate the seven-month countdown to this year’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
But there’s a slight catch: instead of turning to our esteemed list of Top 100 judges to compile Victoria’s best pieces of architectural brilliance, we’re taking a completely unscientific approach. We assembled an all-star panel made up of Australia’s greatest players, past and present, along with some leading course architects both here and abroad, to nominate the holes they believe stand out from the rest.
Of course, any ranking of Victoria’s finest holes is going to be Melbourne-centric given the heavy footprints left by Alister MacKenzie and Alex Russell. But throw in regions like the Yarra Valley, Mornington and Bellarine peninsulas, and you quickly realise the quality of par 3s, par 4s and par 5s extends well outside the confines of Melbourne’s Sandbelt region.
Before we get to the greatest course never played, some stipulations:
1) There’s no limit on the maximum number of holes allowed for any one course. To do so would weaken what is meant to be the absolute cream of the crop.
2) Yes, emotion was involved. We’re talking about professional golfers here. “I fell in love with golf in Victoria during the 1997 Australian Open at the Metropolitan Golf Club,” says Nick O’Hern, who led that tournament after 36 holes with rounds of 67, 66 before eventually finishing fifth behind winner Lee Westwood.
“The 18th at Royal Melbourne is my No.1,” reveals Robert Allenby before elaborating: “In 1991, as an amateur, I hit a 5-iron to two feet there to nearly win the Australian Open.”
Memories to treasure, sure, but we asked our players to think deeper to ensure this was no popularity contest.
“Sure, it’s easier to love somewhere when you’re playing well but the reason I play well at certain courses is because I love them to begin with,” adds O’Hern, who now calls Melbourne home after a consistent 12-year stint in America plying his trade.
For others, like one of the country’s most active course architects Mike Clayton, the process was much more black-and-white. “The reality is a list of the best 18 holes in Victoria has to include holes four, five, six, 10, 11 and 17 at Royal Melbourne (West), and holes 16 and 18 at Royal Melbourne (East),” he says. “If it doesn’t have those you’re not taking the process seriously.”
The biggest revelation of this ranking? Stumping Greg Norman. Yep, the man who spent many of his formative years slaying the opposition on Victorian fairways couldn’t narrow his ‘best of’ list down to a point where he felt comfortable contributing. Apart from that late scratching, there are a few surprises that will warm some hearts outside Melbourne.
One final note: remember, this is a ranking of purity not postcard worthiness, which should be music to the ears of our highest-profile international designer on the panel, Tom Doak.
“One of the most telling signs of the state of modern golf architecture is how little architects talk about their individual golf holes,” he writes on his company website. “We are constantly asked what is the ‘signature hole’ on our courses, a euphemism for ‘which hole will take the best photograph so we can use it in all of our advertising until you are sick to death of seeing it?’
“Apart from talk of signature holes, nearly everything written about new courses are general platitudes, with little detail about whether the course contains outstanding holes or not.”
Well, Tom, have we got a special treat for you…
5th hole: Royal Melbourne (West Course)
161-METRE PAR 3
The only hole at Royal Melbourne built under the direct guidance of Dr Alister MacKenzie, this little showstopper is arguably the greatest hole in the country, and one all other one-shotters are inevitably compared to.
“It’s brilliantly conceived and impeccably shaped,” says Cape Wickham co-designer Darius Oliver.
What makes it so good? It’s devilishly pitched green, which sits beyond a valley and between a series of glorious trademark Sandbelt bunkers. Oh, and then there’s that deceptive green entry. “The reward for keeping your ball under the hole is enormous, but it takes both skill and courage to flirt with the green’s false front,” Oliver adds.
PGA Tour star Aaron Baddeley agrees: “It’s one of my all-time favourite short par 3s,” he says. “With that green sloping back-to-front, it’s so important to hit the right club, especially if the pin is at the front. If you miss in the wrong spot, you’re cactus. It’s such a great hole when the Presidents Cup comes to town.”
Aussie legend Ian Baker-Finch is another fan. We nearly sent the 1991 British Open winner mad trying to find his favourite holes on the Sandbelt. However, he admitted his heart lay with the par 3s. “The par 3s just stand out to me. I could name great 20 world-class par 3s just on the Sandbelt but if I had to name a few it’s really hard not to put the fifth at Royal Melbourne in that three.” Understatement of the year, Finchy!
15th hole: Kingston Heath Golf Club
142-METRE PAR 3
One of the finest examples of golf course architecture from any era, Kingston Heath’s plethora of world-class holes is perhaps highlighted by this incredible one-shotter that demands nothing but precision from the tee. The green and its surrounds make for one frightening defence, one that continually tests the very best players on the planet.
“I love this hole,” admits Jason Day. “It looks really intimidating from the hill. The slope on that green is wicked, too. It’s a special par 3.”
Marc Leishman concurs: “I think it’s such a great hole, especially when there is a half breeze and you absolutely have to hit a good shot because it’s such a narrow green.”
“At Kingston Heath you have three of the best par 3s in the world and the 15th is one of those,” says Baker-Finch.
Incredibly, Mike Clayton believes if the hole were built today it would get crucified. Yet, while it demands the perfect execution from the world’s best shot-makers, it’s actually one of 17 holes on the course that the average Joe can bounce the ball up onto the putting surface if they choose – perhaps one of the most underappreciated traits of Kingston Heath.
4th hole: Woodlands Golf Club
251-METRE PAR 4
Sometimes it’s the simple designs that can be the most sinister for a player. Take this ripping short par 4 for example. Basically bunkerless, straight and barely 250 metres, this hole looks as easy as it does non-descript, says Paul Reeves, director of Pacific Coast Design. “But the barely 350m2 triangle-shaped green points at you, deflecting anything but the perfectly directed running approach.”
The firm green is set on a tabletop and tilted to the right so missing left has serious consequences. “It really is a simple hole full of every shot option from both the tee and in the approach, and a hole that provides endless fun for those fortunate enough to play it,” Reeves adds.
For Tom Doak, it’s a hole that sums up the entire Woodlands experience. “Woodlands is the most underrated course on the Sandbelt, and holes like the fourth are the reason why,” he says. “It’s only 240 metres to the front of the bunkerless green, so most golfers are going to wind up and go for it, and pros may get home with an iron… but if you miss it to either side, the recovery shot is like trying to hop onto a vaulting horse, from the side.”
15th hole: Victoria Golf Club
289-METRE PAR 4
There are few better driveable par 4s than the 15th at Victoria Golf Club, one of several outstanding risk-reward holes on this classic Sandbelt layout. Aaron Baddeley is one of the thousands who have been sucked in by its temptation from the tee. “You look at it and think, Yeah, it’s short. In the right conditions you could even hit 3-wood onto the green,” he says. “But if you’re going to go for it, you have to thread the needle. It’s well bunkered down the left, and then there are a few bunkers on the right you don’t want to go in either. But then you can also lay up and hit a wedge into the green. It makes you think, and that’s why it’s such a great driveable par 4.”
“It’s one of the best short holes in the state… full-stop,” says Mike Clayton.
“The best short holes require precision and guile to walk away unscathed. You certainly need those qualities here,” adds Nick O’Hern.
3rd hole: Kingston Heath Golf Club
271-METRE PAR 4
The late Peter Thomson once said “holes like this simply are not built anymore”, and what a shame it is. If ever a birdie looked probable off the tee before quickly turning into a 6 (or worse), it’s on this short par-4 masterpiece. While the fairway seems wide and open, toying with you to grab the driver and go all out for the green, the odds of a damage-free hole quickly stack up. A very small and narrow green angled from left to right awaits, and is best attacked from farther back on the left side of the fairway, making an iron off the tee the sensible option.
“I love the third because it’s such a great risk-reward hole,” says Aaron Baddeley. “You can hit driver, or you can hit 6-iron and make the same score.” Sadly, for a lot of players, that score is a big one.
2nd hole: St Andrews Beach
279-METRE PAR 4
The short par-4 theme continues in our ultimate composite course with this Tom Doak pearler on the Mornington Peninsula. “While the second at St Andrews Beach lacks the obvious ‘sex appeal’ of the fourth at Barnbougle, in the right wind it’s as tempting as Tom Doak’s other Hall of Fame short 4 in Australia,” says Darius Oliver.
Dictating strategy here is the waste area down the left-hand side and cleverly positioned bunkers through the fairway. There is plenty of space for those content with par, but those hoping for an easy birdie have to attack the sand and try to feed their balls towards the green.
Doak was apparently drawn to this hole’s location by the giant blowout sand dune that runs up the left-side of the approach. Just make sure you don’t end up in it!
16th hole: Commonwealth Golf Club
364-METRE PAR 4
“One of the best water holes in Australia,” declares Mike Clayton.
“An undeniably brilliant piece of golf architecture and one of those rare holes that rewards both strategic play as well as high skill,” adds Darius Oliver.
The key to mastering this unheralded hole of the Sandbelt is being able to shape the ball both ways. “Those who can draw their tee shot close to the lake, and then play a soft fade into the green have an enormous advantage – as they should,” Oliver says. “Technology has made the drive slightly easier, but the angled green remains a Melbourne masterpiece.”
7th hole: The National Golf Club (Moonah Course)
502-METRE PAR 5
The Bob Harrison-Greg Norman design duo created a number of cracking par 5s across Australia, none better than Moonah 7 at The National. “Golfers hoping for an easy birdie here need to flirt with deep bunkers off the tee and then run their ball along a narrowing valley towards a beautiful green pushed back into a natural dell,” says Darius Oliver. “Strong crosswinds are what give this hole its teeth and make your first two shots interesting.”
The aggressive play is to take on the left fairway bunker and enjoy the added distance of landing the drive on the downslope.
10th hole: Royal Melbourne
(WEST COURSE) 258-METRE PAR 4
As if this hole was ever in doubt of making this esteemed list.
Remembered by most as the short, dogleg left with the huge bunker – or as members call it, Hell’s Half-Acre – this hole is literally trouble from tee to green if you don’t bring your smarts.
“It’s short, it’s up a hill and it’s always ready to catch you off guard. It’s a really good hole,” says Marc Leishman, who will get another shot at it in December’s Presidents Cup.
Adds Nick O’Hern: “The corner bunker is a work of art and beautifully frames the hole but definitely a no-no to inspect up close.”
Tom Doak likens it to another hole on this list, but perhaps with more dire consequences. “As on the fourth at Woodlands, it’s less than 250 metres to the green from the back tee but the hole is a dogleg and it’s uphill, with a 10-foot-deep bunker on the bee line, and ti-tree to the left and right if you take enough club to go for it. Playing safely out to the right and leaving a 60-yard pitch is the safer option, but even then you have to hit it straight off the tee, or you’ll leave yourself with the nastiest 60-yard bunker shot in golf.”
4th hole: Royal Melbourne
(WEST COURSE), 461-METRE PAR 5
MacKenzie’s West course is full of iconic holes, but this tee shot up over big fairway bunkers at the top of the hill is a thrill. A drive exactly over the top will get the best kick down the other side of the hill, bringing the green into play with the second shot over a dip on the right. “If you bail to the left, your drive gets deflected farther left, and then the yawning bunker left of the green is a thorn in your side,” says Tom Doak.
If the green is reachable, the gamble is worth taking. But bunkers short and to the right of the green threaten the mis-hit and must be avoided at all costs.
16th hole: The National Golf Club (Moonah Course)
447-METRE PAR 4
This bruising par 4 sits in a perfect little valley and is a brilliant driving hole designed by – surprise, surprise – the greatest driver of the golf ball of his generation, Greg Norman, and Bob Harrison. The routing of the hole was so perfect and obvious from the very beginning that it was impossible not to have a world-class hole, according to Tom Doak.
“When I tried to route a course there 20 years ago, I found the same hole here that Greg Norman did,” Doak says. “All you have to do is thread the needle between fairway bunkers off the tee, and then avoid bunkers all up the left side of the approach and green.”
Any shots hit short of the green will feed to four deep bunkers left of it, while the fairway bunkers are among the deepest on the course and must be avoided at all costs.
8th hole: RACV Healesville
423-METRE PAR 5
Mike Clayton believes the eighth hole at RACV Healesville is arguably the best hole his company has ever designed.
“If it was at Royal Melbourne or Kingston Heath, the world would be raving about it and it would make any list,” he says.
He’s not alone. Several members of our all-star panel nominated the hole on this quirky short course tucked away in the gorgeous Yarra Valley.
“This medium-length par 5 plays downhill to one of the wildest greens I have ever seen,” admits Tom Doak. “A stream cuts diagonally across the front, and a bunker eats into the left side about halfway back, so the back hole location might be a full stroke tougher than the front.”
11th hole: Yarra Yarra Golf Club
165-METRE PAR 3
Another hole to receive multiple nominations from our panel, the 11th at Yarra Yarra remains as iconic now as it ever was with its timeless bunkering. And with Tom Doak tasked with the restoration of Alex Russell’s 1929 design, expect plenty more holes on this Sandbelt classic to draw the same level of praise.
“Supposedly, Alex Russell designed Yarra Yarra on his own after Dr MacKenzie set sail back to America, but then how is it that the 11th green at Yarra Yarra is so clearly an iconic, multi-tiered MacKenzie green?” Doak says. “Architect Dick Wilson said the four short holes here were the best set he’d seen, and the 11th is the cream of the crop.”
2nd hole: Peninsula Kingswood Country Golf Club (North Course)
161-METRE PAR 3
A new player in town, Peninsula Kingswood re-opened this year to much fanfare thanks to holes like the par-3 second, which plays across a beautiful valley to a green set in the opposite hill, not a lot unlike the fifth hole at Royal Melbourne West. “It’s probably the best piece of land outside Royal Melbourne,” says the heavy lifter behind its design, Mike Cocking. “When MacKenzie was here in the 1920s, he would have passed this joint by a kilometre or two when he went from the Sandbelt down to Flinders. Had he known this land was sitting here, he’d be kicking himself now.”
“We definitely took inspiration from Royal Melbourne’s fifth hole,” says design partner Mike Clayton. “And it’s just as good in many ways, particularly given in also goes across a similar valley on very similar land. It’s amazing to think the North course was once, in my opinion, the worst course in the world on the best piece of land. It really was amazing how bad it was. Then they got some extra land out the back and when you get a free hit with a decent budget, you can’t go wrong on this site. It’s truly amazing.”
And the par-3 second looks destined to become the most celebrated of the 36 new-look, world-class holes on the best new facility in Australia.
1st hole: Victoria Golf Club
233-METRE PAR 4
Is there a more deceiving opening hole in Australian golf? This “dinky, old, little par 4” – as Jason Day calls it – is as splendid as it is sinister. While the club’s website describes it as a “friendly opener”, the reality is this hole is anything but if you stray left or right of the green.
“You have try to play it safe and get yourself in position with a mid-iron off the tee but miss the green on the second shot and the bunkers make it extremely tough to get your ball back on a green that slopes severely towards the front,” Day says. “It may be a really short hole but it’s a really tough one. I like short, tough holes.”
Adds Mike Clayton: “The beauty of it is if you get out of position it’s so hard to get back in the right position. For such a short hole, if you don’t play it how it’s designed to be played from the tee, you can find so much trouble. Guys like Peter ‘Chook’ Fowler ask, What’s so hard about it? For him it’s just an iron, short pitch and putt, but not everyone has a short game like Chook.”
16th Hole: Royal Melbourne (East Course)
151-METRE PAR 3
Tom Doak once asked Ben Crenshaw what he thought of Royal Melbourne. Aside from expressing his admiration for the course, he told Doak, “We walked past the best par 3 I’ve ever seen.” He was referring to the 16th on the East course.
“There could be no higher recommendation,” says Mike Clayton.
Designed by Alex Russell, the uniquely shaped green into which the front bunker eats, perfectly separates the front-left wing from the front-right corner. When the pin is cut in the front left of the green, the wayward player who finishes right of the bunker, but still on the green, may find that the only way to reach the pin is to pitch across the corner of the intruding sand.
“A flatland masterpiece, 16 East arguably showcases the skills of shaper/superintendent Mick Morcom better than any other hole at Royal Melbourne,” says Darius Oliver. “His bunker work here is sublime, as is a green that feels much smaller from the tee than it really is. The front bunker that eats into the putting surface is key, and has given golfers fits for nearly 100 years.”
Happily, the 16th is now a part of the Composite course but somewhat sadly it comes at the expense of the equally meritorious uphill 4th on the East.
2nd hole: Yarra Yarra
400-METRE PAR 4
Royal Melbourne, Peninsula and the final 10 holes at Victoria aside, most of the Sandbelt is made on relatively flat land. Alex Russell’s outstanding second hole at Yarra Yarra is one hole to take full advantage of a brilliant piece of topography with its tee shot playing up and over a hill (with a short bunker cut into it) and down into a valley, before then heading back up to a long, narrow green. “The trick is to skirt close to the right half of the fairway and open up a clear line to the hole with the long second,” says Mike Clayton. “Drives down the left leave a long approach across the dramatic second-shot bunkers built into the hill that run up to the green.”
Adds Darius Oliver: “Recent tree clearing and turf expansion has made the last half of the hole even more elegant, which is some compliment given how beautiful the overall setting has always been.”
18th Hole, Royal Melbourne (East Course)
395-METRE PAR 4
One of the most iconic finishing holes in Australian tournament golf, the beauty of this hole’s design is often overlooked on first glance. With basically zero undulation from tee to green, this hole is all about the angle of approach you leave yourself, especially if the pin is tucked away in the right side of the dancefloor. The fairway stretches far to the right and has no fairway bunkers – a just reward for avoiding the nasty ti-tree down the left.
“I think it’s as good a finishing hole as you can get anywhere in the world,” says Jason Day. “It’s funny because the green is huge and two-tiered, which is good because there are so many greenside bunkers you want to avoid, but it’s so big that a three-putt is always a possibility.”
Adds Tom Doak: “This daunting dogleg-left has no bunkers off the tee, but it’s the bunkers at the entrance to the green that make it extra fierce for member play. An off-line approach gets swallowed up well short of the green, leaving a 30 to 50-yard recovery shot, possibly over another bunker for added fun. No matter how they number the Composite course, they save this hole for last.” We have too.
For more information on a Golfing Great head to Visit Victoria.
• For their part in contributing to “The 18 Best Holes in Victoria” we’d like to thank Jason Day, Marc Leishman, Aaron Baddeley, Robert Allenby, Nick O’Hern, Ian-Baker-Finch, Tom Doak, Mike Clayton, Darius Oliver, Mike Cocking, Bob Harrison, Mike Wolveridge and Paul Reeves.