As Royal Queensland Golf Club’s centennial year drew to a close in 2020, one of the men who masterminded its rebirth 14 years ago offered some insights into the layout and addressed some misconceptions about the design.
Fifty years from now, people will work out it’s a really good course.” – Wayne Grady.
I always feel Royal Queensland’s ‘New Course’, opened for play in 2007, is constantly in need of defending, so let this be both a defence and an explanation.
John Sloan, Bruce Grant and I won the commission to build the members a new course, (necessitated by the Queensland Government building a second multi-lane bridge crossing above the old 12th and 17th fairways) based on our vision of spacious golf where players had the chance to make interesting choices. It was hardly a revolutionary idea but choices – and how they might vary in different conditions – make for thought-provoking, and enduringly interesting, golf.
It is a somewhat unusual course by Australian standards and quite different from the golf many architects would have created.
Fortunately, the club had enough spare land to make a full-sized replacement course, something impossible to imagine any other 18-hole club in the country contemplating after the loss of a third of their course.
The site offered up no big or dramatic contours and aside from the incredible old fig trees, no obvious natural features.
The course is what most would describe as ‘flat’ but there are plenty of subtle contours to add interest and the golf is designed around wide fairways, well-placed hazards and greens able to distinguish great from good and good from average or poor shots.
We had long-admired Alister MacKenzie’s virtuous principles espoused in The Spirit of St Andrews where he wrote: ‘Golfers will not put up with the annoyance of looking for lost balls.’
The Scotsman transformed golf in Australia and understood, ‘narrow fairways bordered by long grass make bad golfers. They do so by destroying the harmony and continuity of the game and in causing a stilted and a cramped style, destroying all freedom of play.’
I don’t have any data but I’d bet the members spend less time looking for misplaced golf balls than any course in the country.
There would be no shots, no matter their length, played from long, green grass. Rather, misdirected shots often find sand – either a formal bunker or one of the larger sandy wastelands built around the course to add character to the land. Sand is an infinitely more interesting hazard because, no matter the length of the shot, it truly distinguishes, and rewards, the quality of the strike.
Shots from the left edge, the middle and the right edge of the expansive fairways were made as noticeably different as possible, rewarding players who drove accurately (as opposed to simply straight) to the most advantageous part of the fairway.
The driving on the wide fairways was made interesting by building fairway bunkers in the fairway as opposed to just down putting them down the sides.
The bunkers in the middle of some of the fairways are easy targets for critics who complain their ‘perfect shots finish in the bunkers’.
It’s amazing to me, given the seeming logical the principle that the measure of the worth of a golf shot is its position relative to the one following.
Maybe the course is a little too wide in places but to play it well you have to hit good drives and the ‘fairway’ bunkers force players to consider where best to aim and what club to use.
The classic story is of the drive bunker on the 9th fairway.
In a member’s meeting, one man questioned me about the value of the drive bunker almost dead in the middle of the fairway about 230 metres off the members tee and 260 metres from the tournament tee. It’s funny – in 2005, a 260-metre carry seemed a pretty decent feat but in the intervening years we’ve seen it become the norm at the top level and the game isn’t better for the lack of regulatory response. To the point anyway.
The complainant ran off the usual, ‘my perfect drive finishes in the bunker’ argument as if a perfect drive is simply one hit out of the middle of the club, with a nice flight and a good swing.
To me, where it finishes might be something important to consider.
Either way, I countered with the suggestion there was almost 30 metres right of the right edge of the bunker and 20 metres left of the left edge.
He agreed with my assertion a 30-yard-wide fairway was hardly unreasonably narrow.
“So, if we took the entirety of the fairway left of the bunker and grew it over as rough, thus placing the bunker on the left edge of a 30-yard-wide fairway, that’d be ok?”
“Well”, he said, “I’ve never thought of it like that.”
The greens are undulating, some perhaps even qualifying by Australian standards as ‘severe’. Controversial even, although I don’t really understand, or give much credence to, the argument.
The, high in the front, low in the middle and high in the back 16th green is ‘controversial’ but it wouldn’t earn a second look at The Old Course St Andrews, North Berwick, The National Golf Links of America or Augusta National.
A few greens are small – notably the 10th, 13th and 17th – reflecting a feature of the original course. The 13th green is about as difficult to hit from 150 metres away as the old, upturned 7th green, although it’s not quite as difficult to get up-and-down if you miss. The par-3, 11th green is much bigger than the admired original 14th hole but the same pinpoint accuracy is essential to get close to the hole.
The majority of greens are what most golfers might describe as medium-sized and the 2nd, 8th and the aforementioned 11th are large … largish anyway.
Both the 8th and 11th are par-3s where the position of the pin completely changes the shot you might attempt to play.
In contrast, the tiny green at the short 17th suggests no matter the pin position it should make no difference to the shot you are trying hit. As Jack Nicklaus used to say, “just hit to the middle and putt to the corners.”
It’s a bit of a generalisation but there are two sorts of par-3s – those where the pin position completely changes the shot you are hitting and those where, no matter the pin position, you are hitting basically the same shot.
There is a place for both and one isn’t necessarily more meritorious than the other. The 150-metre 16th on the East Course at Royal Melbourne is an example of the former. The 9th at The Lakes and the 7th at Royal Adelaide are a couple of others.
The 190-metre 16th on Royal Melbourne’s West, the 150-metre 16th at Royal Adelaide and Barnbougle’s 112 metre 7th are examples of the latter. All three are excellent holes although out of the trio most would award Royal Adelaide the bronze medal.
Given the fairways are wide and there is no rough around the greens, the bunkers were made to be proper hazards and only the reasonably skilled would be able to effectively answer the variety questions they pose.
The others had two choices. They could (and do) either complain or they determine to expand their repertoire of shots. ‘Shots’ said MacKenzie, ‘they were hitherto unable to play.’
Learning how to properly put the sole of a sand wedge into the sand is the key to decent bunker play and something every member playing a first-class course should be able to do with some level competence.
And, something every designer of a ‘championship course’ is entitled to assume.
The Old at St Andrews was MacKenzie’s favourite course and its bunkers demand a high level of competence but there is almost always a way around for those determined to avoid them.
“Given the fairways are wide and there is no rough around the greens, the bunkers were made to be proper hazards …” – Mike Clayton
Like so many of the penal greenside bunkers on the Melbourne Sandbelt, there are shots at Royal Queensland played from a variety of lies and I’ve never been able to rationalise why playing off a slight downslope on occasion was an unreasonable encumbrance.
We quickly came to understand there was a cohort of members who think every lie should be flat and played from perfectly consistent sand. Those complaints seem at odds with the concept of a hazard but it’s a view held by the majority of golfers.
The majority view, however, is often wrong because the majority often don’t think beyond what suits them or their myopic view of the game.
Of course, good bunker players – players who know what they are doing – find almost every bunker shot relatively easy now the 60-degree club is the norm but those with poor technique are never going to be able to manage anything aside from the simplest of shots.
The question is, how far do you compromise the design of the one ‘championship’ course in the city for those who haven’t learned to grip the club properly?
I caddied for Lukas Michel at the Australian Amateur Championship in January this year and then, after he lost, for Elvis Smylie, who lost in the fourth round to the champion, Jed Morgan.
They all hit it further than we had imagined 15 years ago when we conceived the course. As staggering as it is to me there are a few who can carry the bunkers (280 metres) in the middle of the par-5, 7th fairway. Jed ripped a pair of amazing woods into the wind onto the 9th green in his match against Elvis.
I know we had never considered something so monstrously impressive as a possibility.
The reality is for the best young players most par-4s in Australia are drives and short irons and there are very few true three-shot par-5s.
If an architect wants the modern first-class player to hit a long iron into a green, the requirement is to build either a 230-metre par-3 (the 8th is almost as long to the back pin) or a 520-metre par-5. It’s a pity to have to stretch a hole so far and it’s a real distortion of how the game was meant to be.
Some say its evolution but do we have to like evolution no matter the consequences?
There is a good mix of holes on the new course. In the old language, the 17th is a pitch shot par-3, the 8th a long one-shotter and the 12th a drivable, short two-shotter. The 10th and 14th are long two-shotters (the 10th is a 460-metre par-5 for the members but will play as a par-4 when the Australian PGA is eventually played there) and the remaining par-5s are reachable but until this generation of power all would have qualified as three-shot holes.
“It’s funny how in the course of a life in golf you see shots that, such is the quality of the strike and the flight, they imprint themselves in your mind.” – Mike Clayton
Probably no course in the country has a trio of par-5s as long as the 7th (520m), 9th (520) and 15th (500) holes but all will be reachable with two great shots.
During an opening day exhibition match, Adam Scott hit the most incredible 2-iron onto the 15th green. The green is of a size making pitching demanding, especially from the right but it takes a pinpoint shot to hit it with a long iron.
It’s funny how in the course of a life in golf you see shots that, such is the quality of the strike and the flight, they imprint themselves in your mind.
Scott hit a similarly amazing 3 wood onto the 13th green at The Lakes during one Australian Open and both shots clearly showed the difference between a great player and the rest.
A couple of years after the new Royal Queensland opened, the nines were switched. There are arguments both ways but I like the test of the final seven holes including the tauntingly drivable 12th, the long and difficult par-4 14th, the reachable par-5 15th and the tiny par-3 17th.
They ask a wider variety of questions than playing the other way around and when the Australian PGA eventually makes its long-awaited return, it will be fun to watch players manage the choices and the shots – especially so with a decent wind off the river.
A FABULOUS CENTURY
The Royal Queensland Golf Club was founded in 1920, initially as the Queensland Golf Club, and 457 acres of land on the banks of the Brisbane River at Eagle Farm were leased from the state government.
Brisbane’s The Daily Mail newspaper reported: “Sandy soil exists on 420 acres of the area, thus providing the greatest essential, for a first-class golf links.”
Carnegie Clark, who was the newly elected President of the Australian PGA and a three-time Australian Open Champion, was commissioned to design the club’s original course and construction began in late 1920.
Australian Governor-General Lord Forster, a former English first-class cricketer and President of the Marylebone Cricket Club, officially opened the yet to be fully completed course on August 12, 1921. Interestingly, when Forster left office in 1925 he was succeeded by Lord Stonehaven – a keen golfer whose name has adorned the Stonehaven Cup for the past 90 years and is awarded to the men’s Australian Open Champion.
Within months of Lord Forster officiating, King George V bestowed the Royal Charter on the club, with the King’s official letter of notification to the Governor of Queensland, Matthew Nathan, being signed by British Secretary of State, Winston Churchill.
Clark’s 18-hole creation was fully completed by the Spring of 1922 and was deemed to be “a great success”.
However, when the opportunity arose to seek the advice of the world-renowned golf course architect, Dr Alister MacKenzie, the club jumped at the chance. Brisbane’s three biggest clubs – Royal Queensland, The Brisbane GC and Indooroopilly – combined their financial resources to pay MacKenzie nearly a thousand guineas to inspect their layouts and advise on improvements. Representatives from each club were on hand to meet MacKenzie at Brisbane’s Central Station on December 10, 1926. In the case of Royal Queensland, the club hoped any suggested alterations would lead to hosting the Australian Open Championship.
Some suggested changes were adopted, but it would another 21 years before the club hosted the national championship for the first time. That was won by Ossie Pickworth, who would win again the following year to become the only player to ever win three consecutive Australian Opens.
Sadly, the Royal Queensland club has hosted the Open only twice since.
In 1966, Arnold Palmer overcame a world class field, winning by five strokes from Kel Nagle, with Argentina’s Roberto De Vicenzo a further three shots back. Peter Thomson and Bruce Devlin shared firth place. Gary Player and Bob Charles along with Aussie trio Len Thomas, Alan Murray and Billy Dunk rounded out the top-10.
The Australian Open returned in 1973 and it was another American, J.C Snead, who hoisted the trophy. That championship was the first for a then unknown Queensland teenage amateur named Greg Norman.
The club has since been the venue for other major events, including the Australian Amateur as well as the 2000 and 2001 Australian PGA Championship (pictured above), which was won by Robert Allenby on both occasions. Of course, the PGA was set to return to the course this year but will instead host the postponed tournament in 2021.
It will be the first time the club has hosted a national professional championship across the ‘new’ layout created by Mike Clayton and opened for play in 2007.
- Brendan James