A golf course is really an exam made up of 18 separate, yet interconnected, questions. Some are manageable for all and others, without a requisite level of competence, are not.

Experts look to ace the test while those less competent fumble and bluff through as best they can, hoping their lesser skills give them a chance to at least answer some of the easier questions. The thrill of the game, of course, is occasionally being able to answer the most difficult problems as competently as the best players in the game. Quantum physics golf is not.

The smarter players, no matter their handicap, understand their limitations, play around them and avoid the more difficult problems. There is no compulsion to take on the carry over the intimidating fairway bunkers dictating the strategy at Royal Melbourne’s 10th or the 4th at Barnbougle Dunes – two examples of holes where the only way for a good player to make a five is head off from the tee in search of a three.

Barnbougle Dunes’ 4th hole can yield plenty of birdies and double bogies depending on your strategy. PHOTO: Brendan James.

The thinking player eschews the opportunity to criticise a test on the basis it’s unfair simply because it’s beyond them. A ‘playable for all’ course doesn’t mean every shot on the course has to be playable for every single player.

The tee shot off the 1st on the West Course at Royal Melbourne is a 2+2=4 question, one Peter Thomson once said, “If you miss the fairway you should hand back your PGA membership.”

Into the wind, the drive off the 15th tee at New South Wales is the hardest in the country and you’d better know what you are doing, especially in a tournament, when you’re asked the same question four successive days. You either get it right or you get it wrong and there can be no bluffing or avoiding the question.

Which gets me to my point.

I’ve played a few times at Yarra Yarra recently having avoided it for a number of years because the alterations over the years became such a depressing detraction from Alex Russell’s charming, original course – one I first saw at the 1969 Dunlop International. 

A few years ago, a member asked me how they could best preserve Russell’s legacy.

“Well, if you stopped digging it up it’d be a good start,” I replied.

Critics say the 10th green at Yarra Yarra is unfair. Clayton wholeheartedly disagrees. PHOTO: Gary Lisbon.

Tom Doak and Brian Slawnik’s recent restoration/renovation has transformed the course, regained the brilliance of Russell’s original and recaptured all of its lost allure.

The few remaining critics like to suggest, “You can drive it anywhere” and it’s true, you’re less likely to look for lost balls (something certain to win the approval of Alister MacKenzie, who understood what a detestable chore that is) but the criticism completely misses the point.

To play the course well you have to drive the ball properly and for a scratch player the real par is 68 or 69 – but as sure as night follows day if they called it a par 69 the “you can drive it anywhere” crowd would be complaining the course was ‘too hard’. 

They don’t usually like to give up on their three or four free birdies a round.

If you want to make 4s on the quarter of Yarra Yarra’s longest holes you’d better hit four great drives.

But (and there is always a ‘but’) in any worthwhile design there is bound to be a controversial hole to divide critics and opinions.

“One learns from bitter experience how difficult it is to escape hostile criticism when one makes a hole of the adventurous type,” wrote Alister MacKenzie. His contemporary Tom Simpson addressed the same issue by suggesting, “About 90 percent of criticisms by members are due to invincible ignorance.”

“One learns from bitter experience how difficult it is to escape hostile criticism when one makes a hole of the adventurous type.” – Alister MacKenzie

Yarra Yarra’s downhill, short par-4 10th was one where Russell’s original green was altered a decade ago, the major change being to move it back 60 metres ostensibly to solve a ‘safety problem’.

Doak returned the green to Russell’s chosen site but made a more severe than the original target, built high above the natural grade and protected on both sides by steep, fast running banks. Those who know the green Bruce Grant and I did at the 13th hole at The Lakes or the 4th green at Woodlands (the green after which the Lakes 13th was modelled) will have some idea of the principles.

The critics had a field day with the 13th green at The Lakes and they have wheeled out the same, predictable, tired arguments about Yarra’s new 10th green.

“It’s unfair!” “It’s too severe!” “You can’t chip the ball onto the green from the right.” None are reasoned criticisms – and even if your skills aren’t up to the chipping exam, you can surely putt the ball up the slope? It’s supposed to be really hard from down there because you’re not supposed to get up and down unless you hit a great shot. It’s a drive and a pitch hole made interesting because of the severity of the problem it poses.

The ‘controversial’ short par-4 13th hole at The Lakes. PHOTO: Brendan James.

There is absolutely no point to a drivable par-4 – and Australia does them better than anywhere else in the world – if it’s easy to get up and down from around the green and the penalties for missing are not severe.

Likewise, there is little point to a short, par-3 if saving a par is easy if you miss the green. A difficult green puts extra pressure on the tee shot, making it more likely to induce a false stroke. 

If it was simple to make a birdie from around the 13th green at The Lakes, Woodland’s 4th or Yarra’s 10th everyone would drive it down as close as they could and chip then putt. There would be no point to laying up from the tee (or even making the choice on the tee) and nor would there be any great pressure on the 80-metre wedge shot.

“The critics had a field day with the 13th green at The Lakes and they have wheeled out the same, predictable, tired arguments about Yarra’s new 10th green.” – Mike Clayton

These three severe, “unfair”, greens ask important questions and they both are necessarily difficult and easy targets for criticism from the ‘unfair’ cohort.

For the ace player – the equivalent of the smart kid who gets 95 percent in the maths exam – there needs to be a hard question asked of a wedge. Just as the hard maths problem does, it shows off who understands the problem and how to answer it and who doesn’t.