12 Oct 2011

It’s not quite Lazarus rising from his tomb, but the return of Royal Melbourne to the international spotlight as host venue for this month’s Presidents Cup is quite a story, and further proof of the old adage in sport – that you can never count out a true champion.

When awarded the hosting of the Presidents Cup back in 2007, there were many in the local industry who openly questioned the club’s suitability for staging such a prominent event. Sure it had done a wonderful job back in 1998 when the first Cup outside America was held there, but the golf courses at Royal Melbourne had suffered considerable hardships in the years that followed. Significant improvements were desperately needed.

Two major factors contributed to the perceived fall of Royal Melbourne in the middle years of the last decade, and those were Melbourne’s prolonged and devastating drought, and the ridiculous and unnecessary advancements made in golf ball and club technology. The effects of drought and the lack of a reliable water supply were obvious anytime you stepped on property during those years, while the problems caused by the distances modern professionals hit the golf ball reached a flash point in the wake of Ernie Els’ infamous opening round 60 in the 2004 Heineken Classic. Shortly after that round International team Captain Greg Norman described the Royal Melbourne Composite Course as, ‘totally obsolete.’

Whether Norman’s words were appropriate, or even accurate, one suspects the club was relieved when it was announced that the 2005 edition of the Heineken Classic would be the last. It would give the board time to refocus on its membership and try to solve its very serious water issues. At the time Melbourne was suffering through the worst drought on record, and as the years passed the restrictions placed on water usage became ever more stringent, particular for golf courses. Royal suffered more than most, and things became so desperate at one point that it literally ran out of water, and had to truck in supply in order to save its greens.

Club CEO Paul Rak describes this period as ‘a nightmare’, and refutes those keen to point the finger of blame at former superintendent Jim Porter. As Rak points out, ‘if you haven’t got water it doesn’t matter what sort of superintendent you are, or what sort of captain you are or what sort of manager you are… you aren’t going to be able to grow grass and have a happy club.’ Porter was not only using 2nd grade water during this period, his supply was dramatically reduced. At the height of Melbourne’s water restrictions, says Rak, ‘Porter could only water three periods a week, and he had to pre-empt what was going to happen with the weather…whether we were going to get a heatwave or whether it was going to rain.’ Things indeed were dire.

Fast forward to November 2011 and as Royal Melbourne prepares to host one of golf’s showpiece events it yet again looks the resplendent colossus of Australasian golf. So just how did they turns things around, and not only save the Presidents Cup from having to be shifted but also restore the reputation of our most esteemed golf club?

It was really the prospect of ongoing water shortages together with the increased cost of potable supply that forced the clubs hand, and led to the establishment of a sophisticated stormwater harvesting system. At a cost of around $4.5 Million, this system has transformed golf at Royal Melbourne and saved the club from relying any longer on town supply for the survival of its courses.

Work on the project began shortly before the Presidents Cup announcement was made, and involved the creation of a holding dam beside the club’s maintenance shed that worked in partnership with a stormwater detention facility built beneath the 7th hole on the East Course. Treating this stormwater required membrane filtration and chlorination systems as well as the construction of a state-of-the-art bioretention compound and an upgrade to groundwater reticulation infrastructure. As Rak explains, this was all done to ensure that, ‘the product going out was safe for members and staff, but also the proper quality so we could grow decent grass.’

The other significant step taken by Royal Melbourne to solve its water and conditioning problem, was to convert its dying fairways to the more robust Legend couch. Again this required a significant capital investment, as well as a rethink on how the green surrounds at Royal would be presented. As the coarser Legend grass does not accommodate the running approach shot well, the club decided to install a sizeable strip of fescue around each green to encourage the ground game and ensure that the integrity of the Royal Melbourne test was preserved.

This fescue strip also acts to prevent couch infestation into the club’s famous putting surfaces. These putting surfaces feature a unique strain of bentgrass known as Sutton’s Mix, which has only ever been found at Royal Melbourne and is now grown for the club at a seed nursery in New Zealand. Interestingly, the man now responsible for the maintenance of Royal’s golf courses, former Metropolitan supremo Richard Forsyth, says his only concern when taking over from Jim Porter in 2009 was the Sutton’s Mix greens, and in his words, ‘how to get the best out of a grass that I don’t really know a hell of a lot about.’

Sutton’s Mix was first introduced to Royal in the 1920s, and survived with great success through to the late 1980s, when it was strangely abandoned for a more fashionable, modern bentgrass from overseas. Ten or so years ago the strain was reintroduced to the club, but as the drought wore on the greens slowly deteriorated as high-quality water became more and more scarce. A decision had to be made on whether to retain this iconic grass or convert to something more widely used, and perhaps easier to maintain. While unsure at the time, ask Forsyth now and he’s very pleased that the club persisted with the Sutton’s Mix because, as he points out, the grass is, ‘a link to the history and tradition of the place.’

It’s also a wonderful putting surface, and to Forsyth’s great credit the green complexes at Royal Melbourne are now as good as at any time in recent memory, thanks to a renewed bounciness. The greens have always been integral to the character and challenge of golf at Royal Melbourne, and Forsyth credits the writings of legendary superintendent Claude Crockford (Royal Melbourne superintendent between 1937 and 1975) as helping provide guidance on how they should be maintained. As Forsyth explains, ‘I’ve been using a lot of historical information to help me make management decisions. In my position you can get a little bit too caught up in what’s happening in America and how they do things, but we’re dealing with a grass that has its history back to the 20s and the profile of the greens is the same as they were then.’ Forsyth’s focus was on restoring the firmness of the greens and he says the key to achieve this was to, ‘remove the organic matter from the surface so that the ball is really landing on the native grey dune sand…like it did in Crockford’s day.’

With the spring back in the green surfaces, and the ball no longer running as far on the fairways, Royal is providing golfers with a more significant test than throughout most of the previous decade. It also looks a picture, thanks to the slightly off-colour greens, which are beautifully offset against the rich fescue fringes. Under Forsyth there has been a renewed focus on the look and character of the bunker complexes as well. Moving away from mechanical edging, the maintenance team has instead started working by hand again in order to preserve the jagged nature of the sand edges.

It’s important to note here, that most of the work done at Royal Melbourne has been to the Composite Course holes in preparation for the Presidents Cup. For the first time in the history of major championship golf at Black Rock, this Composite routing now includes the 16th hole on the East Course, in place of the long par three 4th. While the change was made primarily to help spectator circulation around the green on 3 East, it brings into play a hole long regarded by architecture buffs as the most under-rated little gem in Australian golf.

Playing 33 metres shorter than the uphill 4th, the inclusion of the 16th will certainly make the course a little easier but it won’t make the contest any less riveting. We often talk about the distinctive bunkering of the Melbourne Sandbelt, and the 16th hole (will play as the 14th) has glorious sand shaping in abundance, as well as a slippery green with a number of fascinating hole locations. In many ways this hole is like the entire Composite Course, perfect for matchplay because the temptation to try for birdie is strong, but the punishment for a false swing absolute.

For those familiar with previous Composite Course routings at Royal Melbourne, the other major change for this month’s event is with the sequencing of the holes. As was the case in 1998, the round begins on 3 West and continues through to 6 West but this time a more conventional sequence of 7, 10, 11, 12, 17 and 18 West follows. Last time these were all part of the back nine, and a closing run that featured seven straight par fours. This year’s sequence seems to have a better balance, with the final eight holes comprised of 1, 2, 3, 16, 17 and 18 on the East Course followed by the 1st and 2nd on the West.

As a result of these routing changes, some of the best holes at Royal are certain to play a pivotal role in the outcome of many matches. The traditional Composite Course closer, the 18th on the East, is now the 16th hole and likely to feature prominently in even more matches. With its large, sloping green, wicked greenside bunkering and storied championship history, the desire from event organisers to ensure more matches get to this point is perfectly understandable. As is their insistence that the new 18th hole, 2nd West, will adequately fill the void left by our most famous finisher. With one of the most demanding, not to mention attractive, green complexes in the city, this brilliant short par five has been converted to a strong par four for the professionals and is sure to provide galleries with a number of thrilling climaxes.

Other pivotal holes to watch out for include the short but deadly uphill 5th (7 West), which only requires a wedge or short iron for the professionals but is about the toughest hole to recover from if you happen to find sand off the tee. The same is true of the 3rd (5 West) and the 4th (6 West), which are brutal on those leaving their ball above the pin. With a renewed fire and firmness in Royal’s greens, watching the world’s best tackle short par fours at the 1st, 6th and 11th holes will be absolutely fascinating as well. Each at various times will be reachable for the competitors, and likely attacked ferociously in the Foursomes and Four-Ball games. As none of these targets is receptive at all to an ill-placed approach shot, however, there is an absolute premium on positioning from the tee, which means in the Singles we may see as many holes halved in par as won with eagles and birdies.

For those attending the Presidents Cup matches at Royal Melbourne this month, there will be excitement and action right across the Composite Course and endless opportunities to witness professional golf of the highest calibre. For those keen on architecture and the study of golf course design, the venue itself might just steal the show and prove once and for all that it’s not the longest, the hardest, the greenest or the most spectacular courses that we should admire the most. It’s the best.

Darius Oliver, Architecture Editor

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