“Powerful forces railed against me….because….there was a golf course! And all the heads of all the departments belonged to it. And they took a fine pride in making the then Prime Minister the President of the Club! And I fought an uphill battle for a long time”.

So recalled the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies at the inauguration of Lake Burley Griffin in 1964. A long-time supporter of American architect Griffin’s vision for the centre of Canberra, he felt the city would never be complete without it. ”You can’t have a great city unless you have water in it!” he went on to say.

There was of course a golf course in the way – it was Royal Canberra and the original site is now somewhere under 33 million cubic metres of water. Coincidentally on the 50th anniversary of this very speech, Ogilvy Clayton Cocking and Mead (OCCM) began construction to redesign the course. 

Royal Canberra's new 14th hole has brought the lake well into play. PHOTO: Supplied.

With the impending flooding of the Molonglo River, the city granted the club compensation in the form of some land higher up the hill – home of the National Arboretum, where trees from around the world had been planted to assess their performance in the Canberra climate and soil.

It would prove to be a wonderful decision and Commander John Harris was commissioned to design the layout. The undulations on the new site were excellent for golf and the trees would provide a unique backdrop, making one of the prettiest settings for a golf course in the country.

RIGHT: Mike Cocking's drawing of the new 14th hole design shows the greater width of the fairway and the playing lines from new tees.   

Fast-forward to 2010 and we (OCCM) were fortunate enough to be awarded the role as the club’s architects with the aim of essentially giving the course a face-lift. It was still a very pretty place to play but there were some fundamental issues that needed to be addressed. Plus, after once being ranked inside the top-10 in the country Royal Canberra had slipped to outside the top-100.

One of the great assets of the course – the trees – hadn’t been well managed and now encroached on every hole, drastically narrowing the fairways and affecting
turf quality.

It was a logical time to consider which direction the club should head in. In no way did we want to change the feel of the course – it still wanted to be a parkland, tree-lined type of layout – but we saw there was so much more potential.

Watching members play the course it was amazing to see just how much golf was played out of the rough. On such a big property there was very little short grass – rough surrounded every green and bunker and the fairways were only 20 to 25 metres wide.

There were some agronomic issues too, driving the need to reconstruct the greens and tees, many of which were still originals from the 1950’s. And the bunkers, which are notoriously difficult to build in clay – especially 50 years ago – were badly in need of attention.

It was a logical time to consider which direction the club should head in. In no way did we want to change the feel of the course – it still wanted to be a parkland, tree-lined type of layout – but we saw there was so much more potential.

Australians have often compared Royal Canberra to Augusta. It was lush, tree-lined and undulating like Augusta, and I guess felt more like an American golf course than an Australian one. But that’s where the similarities ended.

Royal Canberra's new 10th hole. PHOTO: Supplied.

Augusta, by contrast, is an incredibly wide golf course – wider even than Royal Melbourne – with short grass extending from tree line to tree line and surrounding every green. Combined with width it has an amazing set of greens that demand you position your ball perfectly back in the fairway. Sometimes this will be laying up to find some level ground, other times it’s hugging one side of the fairway or the other, to improve the angle into the flag or to gain a slightly better view to the green. With width the player has the freedom to choose their own line – for good or ill.

By no means was this the case at Royal Canberra and whilst we weren’t trying to copy Augusta, the timeless principles of strategic design which Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie championed certainly were at the forefront of our minds.

The 10th hole before the redesign. PHOTO: Supplied.

Fairways were widened as much as we could – in light of the fact that much of the vegetation had to be preserved. The bunkers were all rebuilt with a bit more shape and artistic flair, and a relatively new drainage system (Kustombind) was added to help preserve their appearance no matter how much it rained.

In building the new greens we wanted to return the ground to its natural contours so they would fit better into the landscape. This meant removing many of the mounds and hollows that surrounded most of the green sites.

Putting surfaces now have predominantly long tilted surfaces, a little like the sandbelt in Melbourne, and the combination of slope and bunkers pinching into the putting surface sets up the strategy back on the tee. Sometimes you will need to hug the right side, other times the left. Rarely will the best line be from the middle of the fairway.

Around the green we introduced more short grass – so missed shots may funnel away from the target a lot further and increase the variety of recovery shots to be played. No longer is the only shot a lob wedge from the rough.

The final piece of the puzzle was re-grassing the course. A blend of grasses more akin to American golf was chosen by the club to suit the difficult Canberra climate – bentgrass on the tees, greens and fairways and rye grass in the roughs. As it turns out, the effect is a course that looks more like Augusta than ever before!

Of all the changes made to the course, without doubt the talking point will be the holes around the edge of the lake, in particular, the long par-4 14th – a cape style hole played across the edge of the lake.

The concept was inspired by Commander Harris’ original sketch of the course, which sadly never got built but you could always get a sense of its potential. Rather ironically the cause for the relocation of the course back in the 1950’s (the lake) would become one of its greatest assets, helping make the 14th one of the most dramatic and photogenic holes in the country.

The final walk towards the clubhouse... Royal Canberra's par-5 18th. PHOTO: Supplied.

Looking back I wonder what the mood of the membership was back at the inauguration speech, having been forced to move from the original home?

Excitement? Concern? No doubt it was similar to what many of the current members felt when they first heard the course was to be renovated. I can’t speak for those members who were part of the relocation from the valley, but with this redesign now complete and feedback trickling through, some of the most satisfying compliments have been that “it still feels like Royal Canberra.”

Now as far as I’m aware, Sir Robert was not a golfer, but we should be thankful for his doggedness in helping realise Griffin’s centerpiece for Canberra, and for inadvertently helping to create one of the greatest inland courses in Australia.