Kingston Heath’s many admirers will revel seeing the great dame in full springtime splendour for the best players in the world
A rising legion of people immersed in the game regard Kingston Heath as the best golf course in Australia. And if not the best, certainly their favourite – a subtle but telling distinction. Where Royal Melbourne has its cavalcade of admirers (and surely always will), the band of devotees of ‘The Heath’ is far from insignificant.
“It’s not uncommon,” Kingston Heath’s general manager, Gregg Chapple, says of the club hearing people call The Heath the best or their favourite course. “Led by the likes of Adam Scott, Peter Senior, Geoff Ogilvy, Ian Baker-Finch, there are many people who rate The Heath. We are very fortunate that the course is regarded as being worthy of being in the top-25 courses in the world (currently 18th), and as such we appear on numerous golfers’ bucket lists and on the list of top-50 or 100 courses to play.”
Baker-Finch is certainly among the most vocal Kingston Heath ambassadors. Earlier this year he told Golf Australia: “I know many pro golfers from around the world share my opinion and make sure to play Kingston Heath whenever they’re in town. Regarded highly around the world, it’s my ideal course – it epitomises all that is Sandbelt golf.”
“Unbelievable golf course,” says Tiger Woods, the 2009 Australian Masters winner at Kingston Heath. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Sandbelt golf courses. The bunkering is just phenomenal. You don’t get to see bunkering like this in any other place in the world.”
Adds Scott, the only other player to win an Australian Masters there: “I could play Kingston Heath every day for the rest of my life.”
So it is perhaps fitting that Kingston Heath succeeds venerable Royal Melbourne – for the time being, at least – as the chosen venue for the 58th World Cup of Golf. It is a collective accolade for Melbourne and all of Australia that the city and nation will host the event for consecutive stagings, albeit three years apart. During a difficult time of year globally for scheduling, the lure of the Sandbelt cannot be understated when it comes to player participation.
The World Cup adds another layer to Kingston Heath’s recent success as a tournament venue. In an era in which large events continue to slip off the local calendar, in the past decade The Heath has hosted numerous International Final Qualifying for the Open Championship, the Women’s Australian Open, multiple Australian Masters tournaments and now the World Cup. Were the Australian Open not so domiciled in Sydney, it is reasonable to think Kingston Heath would have seen the national championship far more recently than 2000, while it is logical to think the Presidents Cup might be in the club’s future as well. Putting aside any space and infrastructure issues, this World Cup could be something of a litmus test for the biennial matches in 2019, which are already slated for an as-yet undetermined Melbourne Sandbelt course.
Whether or not the club is chosen as the host venue for that event, the steady stream of elite tournaments is due credit for a course that has existed seemingly forever in the vast shadow cast by mighty Royal Melbourne. In reality, Kingston Heath, is a mere breath behind its two-course cousin and will test the 56 global players who make the journey from November 24 to 27.
AHEAD OF ITS TIME
Kingston Heath, and the members who drove the move from the club’s original site in Elsternwick to the current one at Heatherton, in many ways solved a riddle in 1925 that continues to perplex course architects today. Under advice from six-time Open champion Harry Vardon to allow the new course to “stand the test of time”, the 6,229-metre layout was, at the time, the longest in the land and played to a par of 82.
Such a meagre total distance and generous par sound laughable now, however the overarching mindset was on point: it would be easier to shorten the course if it was considered too long rather than lengthen it. Today, Dan Soutar’s layout measures a robust but not ridiculous 6,481 metres and holds a par of 72 for the World Cup. Length has never been a determining factor of greatness for Sandbelt courses, not nearly as much as at other great venues around the globe. Ground and wind conditions will always play more dominant roles at Kingston Heath and its sister Sandbelt layouts, as each hole inflicts its own brand of intrigue in an 18-strong conglomeration of eminence. Yet one of the star attractions will once again be missing.
Visit Kingston Heath’s website and the first thing you’re greeted with is a glorious photograph of the club’s short but sinister par-3 10th, a hole sadly lost to four-round tournament play since the 2000 Australian Open, won by Aaron Baddeley. This gem of a hole occupies a central location within the property and represents a logistical nightmare for crowd flow while a new back tee at the 4th creates further headaches for organisers when it keeps its place in the routing. So once again, the spare hole utilised in recent tournaments after the par-4 1st will enter the sequence. Thereafter, competitors will play what are usually holes two to nine, then skip the 10th and play the 11th to 18th
Tournament organisers began tinkering with the course’s routing for the 2008 Women’s Australian Open, which saw play finish on what is normally the 6th hole (the 7th for the World Cup). Another slight variation was adopted for the club’s two Australian Masters, when play commenced from the 7th hole (8th for the World Cup). It’s worth noting that the members almost always play the course in the conventional 1st to 18th routing, other than when the spare par-3 19th hole is called upon, either to rest another short hole during winter or if maintenance work necessitates the closure of one hole.
Since the 2012 Australian Masters, the club has removed the controversial central fairway bunker on the 11th hole to instead bolster the scheme of fairway bunkers flanking the right side. The traps along the 18th received a refresh in order to match the bunkering style of the rest of the course, while an extra bunker was added up the right side of the 6th fairway.
Kingston Heath deals one of its strongest hands at the outset. The 418-metre 1st begins from a teeing ground situated almost under the ceiling of the clubhouse verandah if the very back portion is employed. The hole meanders over a gentle rise with an array of bunkers on the right side, shared with the 7th hole (normally the 6th). It is not the narrowest passage at The Heath and the green complex is wide open, yet the distance and the desire to begin the round with two earnest long shots are in many ways the most obtrusive hazards.
The Mike Clayton-designed 19th hole slots into the tournament rotation next, one of only three short holes. Tucked into the far corner of the property, the new hole looks like it has been there far longer than the 20 years since it opened.
One of the best and most captivating viewing prospects is the short par-4 4th, retained at its conventional 269 metres and driveable – in terms of distance – by anyone in the field. The shallow, angled green is near impossible to hold with a wood as the conventional play is to leave the tee shot at an agreeable angle and distance for a pitch-shot approach. The most delicate and delicious of birdies beckons but so often after a miscue they make way for cruel and crippling bogeys, or worse. Given the rotating foursomes and fourball formats for the World Cup, it’s a hole that will be played far differently day to day, with numerous attempts to reach the green likely to be made during the rounds with two balls in play per duo. Just how varied the scoring is at the 4th hole could be one of the most enlightening metrics to emerge from the tournament.
More birdies will come at the 8th, the 460-metre par-5 that served as the opening hole at the past two tournaments at Kingston Heath. The drive is tight but even taking a club shorter than the driver from the tee will still bring the green into reach for two. The art to setting up an eagle putt here is adjudicating the approach and either carrying the ball upon the surface and keeping it there or judging the hollow in front of the green and what affect it will have on a bouncing ball. As is the case several times at The Heath, the evaluation of a ball in the air versus one hugging the ground is principal in pre-shot assessment.
The finish at Kingston Heath ranks among the game’s ultimate crescendos. The 15th is an uphill par-3 of world acclaim. The tee-to-green bunkering is a rarity and the presence of more sand in view compared to grass makes the 141-metre journey far more ominous than the scorecard indicates. Last year, the club reinstated the back-left pin position, which brings the front bunkers into the frame. The 16th presents a sneaky, blind tee shot to a fairway that doglegs right towards a huge, undulating double green that’s shared with what will play as the 9th hole.
The 17th is spacious off the tee then blind for the approach. It’s a divisive piece of design that caused many players, most notably Greg Norman, to fume during the 1995 Australian Open at Kingston Heath after the then-AGU watered the area short of the green to negate a running approach, forcing players to flight the ball high from long range then hold a green that slopes towards the back fringe. Norman had the last laugh, though, when he canned a long birdie putt from the back edge on Sunday to seal his fourth Open. The way the turf is usually nurtured, the second shot to 17 is more a links-style play where options abound and judging the ball’s reaction with the ground once again becomes the objective. Were all 18 greens constructed like this, the course would be ridiculed, but once a round is perfectly appropriate.
The 18th hole will, like 16 and 17, surpass 400 metres, making a 4-4-4 finish nothing to sneer at in foursomes play. Incongruously, given the nature of the climax, most recent tournaments at Kingston Heath haven’t featured a crucial turning point at the home hole. Maybe this is the occasion for the grand 18th to salute two champions who share the spoils of a pinpoint final approach or a curling winning putt to become kings of the golf world at regal Kingston Heath.