Mick Morcom and his son, Vern, were this country’s most pre-eminent greens keepers for more than half a century, but their influence on course design and construction remain today.
In the world of golf course architecture there is a widespread and very understandable assumption the person with their name on the golf course is the one primarily responsible for its creation.
It’s not a belief rooted in any sort of reality.
In the spring of 1926, Dr Alister MacKenzie came to Australia and transformed golf in this country.
In Adelaide he reworked some of Royal Adelaide’s holes including conceiving the brilliant short par-4 3rd hole. In Sydney his visits to New South Wales, Royal Sydney and The Australian were important, although barely any of his work remains at the latter two and almost all of the greens at NSW are altered from the years of MacKenzie’s association with the club.
Royal Melbourne though was his primary focus and it was in Melbourne where he left his greatest legacy.
The Royal Melbourne club paid his passage and fee and charged him with making a
world-class course out of the one they were already playing in Sandringham. They’d already endured a move from their original course (shared with members who would go on to found Metropolitan) in Caulfield and this was the time to make something world-class on one of the great sites for golf in the world.
RIGHT: Dr Alister MacKenzie came to Australia in the spring of 1926. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Unquestionably MacKenzie succeeded in making a course recognised the world over but considerable credit should go to his design associate Alex Russell and, more importantly, Mick Morcom – the Royal Melbourne greenkeeper charged with the construction of the greens and bunkers as well as growing and tending to the nascent turf.
Mick’s son, Vern, was working with his father at Royal Melbourne when the ‘Good Doctor’ arrived.
The bunkers they made weren’t just any old bunkers either. Rather they were big, bold hazards now recognised globally with the sand flashed all the way to the top lip and cut right into the very edges of the putting surfaces in a fashion unique to the Melbourne Sandbelt.
The prolific English architect, Harry Colt, was Royal Melbourne’s first choice designer but he was unable to make the long trip. Colt, instead, recommended MacKenzie.
Colt’s bunkers at Sunningdale, Swinley Forest and Wentworth (three of his best known London courses) were smaller, not as dramatic but equally well-positioned as the bunkers so critical to the strategy of Melbourne golf.
Peter Thomson long suggested the look of our golf would have been quite different had Colt taken the Royal Melbourne commission believing Colt’s bunkers would have mirrored what he was doing in London. Maybe Morcom would have had as great an influence over a Colt finished course as one done by his equally talented contemporary?
The style of the Morcom and MacKenzie bunkers became the standard look on the Sandbelt but what is really unknowable is who built what and how much influence Morcom had outside Royal Melbourne’s fences.
Commonwealth, for example, eschewed the opportunity to have MacKenzie visit and report as he had at Kingston Heath, Metropolitan and Victoria. Instead they stuck with Sam Bennett their pro, and Charles Lane, a prominent member and obviously one with a good eye for what made interesting and striking golf.
What is certain is the Morcom influence was significant at Kingston Heath. MacKenzie recommended Mick Morcom to construct the bunkering but it was Vern who oversaw most of the work, which led to him being appointed Kingston Heath’s head greenkeeper, a position he held from 1928 to 1967.
Whilst the elder Morcom’s influence was profound at Royal Melbourne, it was Vern who went on to design a number of courses whilst still looking after Kingston Heath.
Just up the road, Vern designed Spring Valley in the very early 1950s and many others including Rosanna, Leongatha, Grange East in Adelaide, Point Lonsdale, Royal Hobart, Curlewis, Kyneton and Anglesea.
I haven’t played the latter two for more than forty years so there isn’t much point sharing sketchy memories but I’ve worked on several (Spring Valley, Lonsdale, Curlewis, Grange, Rosanna and Kingston Heath) so have an idea of what Vern Morcom did and a couple of things have always stood out about his approach to architecture.
“The style of the Morcom and MacKenzie bunkers became the standard look on the Sandbelt but what is really unknowable is who built what and how much influence Morcom had outside Royal Melbourne’s fences.” – Mike Clayton
He (Vern) unquestionably built beautiful bunkers and greens, a skill inherited from his father and those at Spring Valley is likely his best set.
The other thing always striking is how problematic his dogleg holes were to play. Tom Doak alluded to it in his 1988 review of Spring Valley when he wrote; “It’s a two-iron tee shot to the corners of several doglegs to keep from running through the fairway into the trees.”
Doak’s point is unarguable but in the intervening years Bruce Grant, John Sloan and I moved several tees including the 2nd, 4th, 11th and 16th too alleviate the problem. Some thought it was because I ‘hated doglegs’, which would be entirely wrong.
Royal Melbourne is probably my favourite course in the world and it’s full of them.
What I dislike are doglegs, which are too short to the corner and, worse, guarded by trees on the corner instead of ground hazards. There are few architectural crimes worse than forcing longer drivers to play up and over trees on the corner of a hole. If you disagree it’d be worth studying the brilliance of holes including Royal Melbourne West’s 6th and 10th holes and ask yourself if they’d be better with trees in lieu of bunkers on the corners.
Some have suggested the modern ball compromised the way his doglegs played but how did they get them right at Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, courses built by his father a couple of generations earlier?
Rosanna, like Spring Valley was blighted by the same problem and moving tees there also solved problems at a number of holes.
What is so interesting to me about Vern’s work at both courses is every straight- away hole is first-class.
Perhaps he thought limiting the tee shot by forcing players to play a club other than a driver to the corner effectively lengthened the course by making the approach shots longer?
He also moved forward and right the original Dan Soutar tee at Kingston Heath’s 11th hole, forcing players to tee off on the far left of the tee and hit a pokey fade with a long iron or a 3-wood to avoid running into an unplayable lie in the ti-tree through the fairway. Good players never hit a driver so dangerous was the shot but another of the club’s superintendents, Graeme Grant, moved the tee back to the original position in the mid-1990s and it was a hugely significant improvement. Subsequent small revisions since have made it arguably the best hole on the course. But, it wasn’t so for decades until it’s ‘restoration’, put the driver back in the hands of many.
“He (Vern) unquestionably built beautiful bunkers and greens, a skill inherited from his father and those at Spring Valley is likely his best set.” – Mike Clayton
Leongatha a couple of hours south east of Melbourne is another terrific Morcom course. It’s made on beautiful soil, cut through the indigenous bush and showing off typically excellent greens and bunkers. Again, every straight hole is very good and the par-3s would have garnered more fame had they been in any of our capital cities.
Then there are the doglegs, which don’t work at all. Some including the par-5, 18th are fixable with a decent tree culling but others including the 5th, 15th and 17th are much more problematic.
In Vern’s defense it wasn’t an easy site and I have wondered what his alternatives were. Perhaps do a routing, show off its inherent problems and suggest buying more land or choosing another site altogether?
Or just make the most of what you’ve got?
Unsurprisingly the poorer holes at Grange East (subsequently ‘fixed’ by Greg Norman’s design company) and Royal Hobart where there are several odd dogleg holes. One even (the 5th, from memory) achieved fame, notoriety even, when Jack Nicklaus drove it up and over the trees and onto the green in the 1971 Australian Open.
Curlewis, just out of Geelong, is a fine Morcom course with its short par-4, 3rd hole one of the greatest of the genre in the country and one of only a couple of holes in the country (Bonnie Doon’s 14th is the other) using a boundary as a brilliant and strategic hazard. Just as Leongatha’s par-3s would be better known if more saw them, Curlewis’ 3rd would rank as one of the top holes on the Sandbelt if it too were more familiar to big city golfers.
Again, the doglegs including the 1st, 6th, 12th and 18th holes were problems but happily ones quite easily repaired and now the course is better than ever.
The criticisms aside, the legacy of the Morcom’s as superintendents, constructors and architects was immense and father and son both left golf in Australia in a much better place. If ever you see their name on a course you can be sure it’s one well worth playing.
During his 40 years as course superintendent at Kingston Heath Golf Club, Vern Morcom was commissioned to design, remodel or build dozens of courses throughout Australia including:
Anglesea GC (Victoria) 1950-53
Cobram-Barooga GC (NSW) 1955
Curlewis GC (Victoria) 1947
Geelong GC (Victoria) 1948
Glenelg GC (SA) 1955
Healesville GC (Victoria) 1957
Lakes Entrance (Victoria) 1956
Launceston GC (Tas) 1955
Leongatha GC (Victoria) 1956
Long Island GC (Victoria) 1945
Lonsdale GC (Victoria) 1950
Moe GC (Victoria) 1956-63
Mt Gambier GC (SA) 1957
RIGHT: Long Island GC. PHOTO: Brendan James.
Naracoorte GC (SA) 1956
Patterson River GC (Victoria) 1948-50
Rosanna GC (Victoria) 1962
Rossdale GC (Victoria) 1949
Royal Hobart GC (Tas) 1956-63
Spring Valley GC (Victoria) 1949
Flinders GC (Victoria) 1956
The Grange GC (SA) 1956-61
Kingston Heath GC (Victoria) 1928-67
Kooyonga GC (SA) 1960
Metropolitan GC (Victoria) 1946
Riversdale GC (Victoria) 1946
Royal Adelaide GC (SA) 1957
Trafalgar GC (Victoria) 1961
Traralgon GC (Victoria) 1957
Yarra Yarra GC (Victoria) 1957
Yarrawonga Mulwala GC (NSW) 1957