Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The course Augusta wants to be..."

Alister Mackenzie.
It's a bit depressing for me to admit that I've yet to visit Australia's Royal Melbourne Golf Club, which hosts the Presidents Cup this weekend. I've studied the genius of Alister Mackenzie's 1926 design - in great detail - from afar though.

There are actually two courses at Royal Melbourne, the West and East. The design of the West is attributed to Mackenzie, with assistance from Australian Alex Russell and greenkeeper Mick Morcom, who handled the construction. Russell and Morcom built the East course following Mackenzie's departure. This week, during the Presidents Cup, a Composite course, compromising 12 holes from the West and six from the East, will be used.

The terrain at Royal Melbourne is said to be ideal for golf - rolling and bumpy but not too hilly, with sandy, well-drained soils and beautiful native vegetation decorating holes without interfering with play. Mackenzie's and Russell's layouts make the most of the property's incredible natural attributes. The Composite course isn't long by 2011 standards. And there are no features at Royal Melbourne that instigate controversy. Yet its design is so complex.

In his infamous book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak writes: "Royal Melbourne, I think, is the course Augusta wants to be: wide enough for anybody, but brilliantly routed to make use of the topography and bunkered to reward bold play and bold decisions."

Mackenzie designed Royal Melbourne more than five years prior to arriving at Augusta to layout Bobby Jones' dream course. But he applied the same principles to both properties. Whereas Augusta has been significantly altered since Mackenzie's time, Royal Melbourne's basically stayed the same. The course's blatant width (there's nearly an absence of rough) caters to golfers of all abilities and, at the same time, subtle complexities created by contour, angles, well-placed bunkers, and a notoriously firm, fast-running playing surface adequately challenge the world's best players. This is the ideal in golf course architecture.

I'll be more than 16,000 kilometers from Melbourne, Australia this weekend, but I'll be tuned into the Presidents Cup. Not because I care much about the competition, it's just not too often that we get to look at Royal Melbourne for four days straight.

***Update: Who designed Royal Melbourne's West course?

After reading this blog post, Lorne Rubenstein was thoughtful enough to send me the following segment of an article on Alex Russell written by contemporary Australian golf architect, Neil Crafter:

Russell was asked by his club in 1924 to provide a plan for a remodelled 18 holes at Royal Melbourne and this indicates that the Club must have been well aware of his interest in golf course design. What is clear, is that he copied the approach used by Colt of first drawing a contour plan and then producing a three dimensional model of the planned course in plasticine, skills he would have learnt as a civil engineer and a Major in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This model was on display at the Club for some time and his modelling work commented upon by the press of the day as being “distinctly brainy. The one he constructed for his proposed lay-out for the new Royal Melbourne course was very well done, and received unstinting praise from Dr. Mackenzie.”

Therefore, the perception that prior to Dr. Mackenzie's visit, Alex Russell was an "empty vessel" as far as golf course design was concerned and that he learnt all his skills from MacKenzie, is contrary to recorded opinion of the time. While there is no doubt that Russell would have learnt a great deal from the Doctor, there is abundant evidence that Russell was widely read and educated in the principles of golf course design prior to MacKenzie's arrival. He had studied the great links and inland courses of the British Isles and his amateur career had led him to play all the leading courses throughout Australia. It should also be remembered that at the time of Mackenzie’s 1926 visit, Russell was only 34 years of age.

The Doctor’s visit, along with the publishing that year of Hunter’s book “The Links”, stimulated an awakening of interest in golf design in Australia, as this account from the Melbourne “Herald” newspaper of November 3rd 1926 explains under the heading of “Pants for Pine Valley”:

“These days, with Dr. Mackenzie here, practically all our prominent golfers are discussing golf courses, golf holes and golf architecture generally. Everywhere one goes, someone is sketching what he considers an ideal hole, and explaining just what the Doctor does to bring about his golfing transformations. Robert Hunter’s great book, with its exquisite illustrations of greens and holes and bunkers and such like, has been bought up so ravenously that it is now impossible to procure a copy, and groups poring over it may be seen in every club house. Alex Russell, the former open champion, has been so intrigued by some of the illustrations, particularly some showing views of Pine Valley course in the U.S.A., that he will not now be happy until he plays over some of the courses.”

Russell’s design for Royal Melbourne was highly praised by Mackenzie in his letter of recommendation of Russell:

"He has made a study of Golf Course Architecture for some years, and on my arrival here I was most favourably impressed with his suggested design for the new Royal Melb. Golf Course as it showed far more originality and ability than the design of any other golf course I have seen since my arrival."

In that same letter of November 1926, Mackenzie announced that he had taken in Alex Russell as a partner to carry on his works after he left Australia. Further, he emphasises that Russell:

“…has been continually associated with me while I have been advising golf clubs, and he has not only drawn a number of my plans but has made many valuable suggestions.”

Very interesting, indeed.

Crafter seems to prove that a routing plan for the West course, by Russell, was complete by the time Mackenzie arrived in Melbourne; and that Mackenzie praised his plan. Question is, did the Good Doctor subsequently tweak Russell's layout significantly enough for the West course to be accurately considered a Mackenzie-design? Or was Mackenzie's input limited to contouring, bunker placement, etc.?

(This is not intended to diminish Mackenzie's significant influence on golf in Australia and course architecture in that country, but) if so, Russell is in fact the principal designer of both the West and East courses at Royal Melbourne.

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