The simplest values of strategic course design are being rediscovered by one of the star courses of the Melbourne Sandbelt and the golf is more interesting for it.
When the modern bible of golf courses and course design – The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses – was published in the mid-90s it became an immediate hit simply because its author, Tom Doak, didn’t hold back any punches.
Today, Doak is one of golf’s most sought after course designers. His theories on course design all revolve around building courses that make golf interesting, which is no doubt why his creations have become so popular … just like his original book, which could set you back $600-$700 (or $1,200 for a signed copy) these days.
Dozens of Australian courses were put under the microscope by Doak, and some with big reputations were deflated by the blunt writings of the American.
Not Commonwealth Golf Club.
Doak included the Melbourne Sandbelt course in his list of 31 courses “among the first I would take a good friend to see.”
He added: “The genius of Commonwealth is its adherence to one simple rule – that each green should be oriented or tilted in such a way that it cradles an approach from one side of the fairway and shoulders away shots from the incorrect line of approach.”
And that’s the way it has always been at Commonwealth, thanks to its long line of knowledgeable course designers.
It is just on 97 years since the first rounds were played on the current site of the Commonwealth Golf Club.
The club was constituted in 1920 and land, regarded as scrub country and comprising only 89 acres, was purchased near Centre and Warrigal Roads, South Oakleigh – right in the heart of the region now known to golfers worldwide as the Melbourne Sandbelt.
The course was extended from 12 to 18 holes in 1926 after the club’s devoted captain, Charles Lane, travelled to Great Britain to study the design work of legendary course architect Harry Colt. Lane spent several weeks in the company of Colt and returned to Commonwealth to put the finishing touches on the greens and bunkers based on what he had learned, often taking to the course with a shovel in hand to do the work himself.
This design was completely changed in 1938 – all 18 greens were rebuilt, fairway bunkers added and tees altered – under the charge of the club’s long-time secretary manager Sloan Morpeth, a former New Zealand amateur champion.
“Doak included the Melbourne Sandbelt course in his list of 31 courses “among the first I would take a good friend to see.”
In subsequent years, additional purchases of land and changes to the course layout were made, including the lengthening of several holes.
In more recent times, excess trees have been removed, all the fairways and greens surrounds were converted to Legend Couch grass, while a 43 megalitre dam was also built to address water management issues.
Commonwealth is no different to its neighbouring Melbourne Sandbelt courses in that the bunkering here, particularly greenside, is brilliant. The bunkering combines well with the beautifully contoured green surrounds and tilted putting surfaces – designed, as Doak says, to dictate that an approach must come from the correct spot in the fairway – to create a stern challenge. This is best seen on Commonwealth’s wonderful collection of par-4s, particularly its short two-shot offerings.
The round opens with one of the heaviest bunkered holes on the layout but, played well, the 294-metre dogleg right can offer players the chance to get off to a quick start. The key here is the club selection decision to be made for the opening tee shot. Short and safe will leave a longer approach and a likely par but an aggressive play, in the right conditions, with a tee shot blasted over the fairway bunkers can create an easy birdie opportunity.
The 339-metre 4th hole is another classic short par-4 where there are a variety of different ways to play the hole. The hole bends slightly to the right and the best angle into this tilted green is from the right half of the fairway, anywhere beyond the fairway bunker cutting into the right edge of the fairway. The green here slopes markedly from left to right and an approach from the conservative left half of the fairway brings a bunker short left into play and, in trying to avoid that, your shot can run through the right side of the green leaving a difficult chip shot.
Any essay on the best of Commonwealth would not be complete without mentioning the diminutive par-3 9th hole, which many regard as one of the best short one-shotters on the Sandbelt. Measuring 133 metres from the tips, the strategy required from the tee is dictated by the pin position of the day. Laid across the highest point of the course, the wind is often a factor here but standing on the sheltered tee further complicates the club and shot selection. The shape and dramatic slopes on the green, which is protected by two deep bunkers right and another to the left as well as steep closely shaved slopes off the back, turn a straight-forward short par-3 into an interesting and fun challenge.
Another of Commonwealth’s very good short par-4s comes within view of a return to the clubhouse. The 307-metre 17th is a terrific short par-4 that, like the 1st hole, will inflict as many bogies as it will reward with birdies. Approaching this green is best from the right half of the fairway to avoid playing a blind approach over trees. Good club selection will offer a real birdie chance but a slight mis-hit, right or wrong club choice, will see shots kick down a steep greenside slope.
For mine, the most significant improvement Commonwealth has made in recent times is to address issues of overgrown trees, Ti-tree and thick undergrowth.
An extensive tree planting program during the 90s ultimately saw playing lines narrowed and, in some places, turf quality suffer. But the decision to undertake a program of opening the course up by clearing away unnecessary trees and shrubs has certainly had a positive impact, which is far more complementary with the vision of its various designers … and what impressed Doak most.
LOCATION: Glennie Ave, South Oakleigh, Victoria.
CONTACT: (03) 9575 0444.
DESIGNERS: Sam Bennett (1921); Charles H. Lane (1926); Sloan Morpeth (1962); Kevin Hartley (1992); Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Clayton, Mike Cocking & Ashley Mead – OCCM (2006 and ongoing).
SLOPE RATINGS: MEN: 132 (black), 131 (blue), 126 (white); WOMEN: 138 (white), 129 (red), 127 (green), 118 (gold).
PLAYING SURFACES: Legends couch fairways, bentgrass greens.
GREEN FEES: $250. Members of golf clubs within Australia who hold a Golf Link number will receive a 20 percent discount.
PGA PROS: John Wade and Sandy Jamieson.
MEMBERSHIP: Membership at Commonwealth is quite exclusive, however the process of joining is not overly onerous. New member intakes are approximately quarterly. These intakes will be subject to field sizes and player comfort, aspects that the Committee monitor very closely.
In addition, all new members commence in the six-day category (excludes Saturday), and upgrading to seven-day playing rights is subject to player comfort which is reviewed regularly. Benefits include: Access to the course, competition golf, course swap opportunities with other Sandbelt clubs, reciprocal rights with international and interstate clubs, practice facilities including grass tee driving range and discount on non-golf events.
For more information, contact the Membership Coordinator on (03) 9575 0444.
RECIPROCAL CLUBS: NSW – Newcastle GC, New South Wales GC, Manly GC; Queensland – Royal Queensland GC, Indooroopilly GC; SA – Kooyonga GC; WA – Royal Perth GC, Lake Karrinyup CC, Cottesloe GC; ACT – Royal Canberra GC.