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  • Mike Clayton

Beauty and fun in width

In the past week I’ve seen a couple of magnificent courses deemed by the critics of recent renovations to be both “too easy” and “too wide” and something allowing you to “drive it anywhere”.

It’s a typically Australian thing to equate the worth of a golf course with its difficulty and it’s not helped by a leading local golf magazine including “resistance to scoring” as one of several criteria for measuring a course’s merits.

So many golfers seem obsessed with the notion every bad shot should be punished, yet lining fairways with water or impenetrable bush is a sure recipe to make golf slow, less enjoyable and more expensive.

It was the great architect Alister MacKenzie who pointed out the folly of attempting to punish every errant miscue, arguing it is an impossible and unworthy ambition. Those who would have every bad shot punished would likely also argue for 25 fielders on a cricket oval. They fail to understand luck – both good and bad – is a critical element of both games and how one deals with it is the great mental challenge of it all.

The irony of it is the course regarded as the best in the country, Royal Melbourne’s West, is also arguably the easiest course among the best 50, both to par for a scratch player and for an 18-handicapper to play in “even fives”.

Yarra Yarra, one of the two aforementioned criticised courses, employed the American architect Tom Doak to regain the brilliance of the course Alex Russell – MacKenzie’s Australian partner – left the members in the early 1930s.

Along with almost every other club on the Sandbelt, the early members at Yarra Yarra made the quite predictable – understandable even – mistake of importing both European and “native” vegetation on to the largely treeless original course. Almost a century on, the committees and consulting architects are left to deal with the mis-steps of the past. 

Nor was the mistake limited to golf courses. The Englishman who brought out two dozen rabbits hardly did anyone a favour. He just didn’t know any better.

The mistake was a failure to understand the indigenous plants – the ones which over centuries had best adapted to the site – were the only way to plant out a golf course and have it feel completely natural. Ask the critics if a golf course should feel “natural”, and the answer will be 100% “yes”.

Either way, Doak is taking out several hundred trees and the cries from the critics of the work that are sure to transform the course and resurrect the club’s reputation is, “you can drive it anywhere” and “it’s too easy”.

For me it’s neither harder nor easier, but only because I rarely miss a fairway – if you’re short, you’d better be straight! Instead, it’s about the questions the course asks of golfers and how it plays is barely altered.

There are now beautiful long views so characteristic of almost all of the game’s best courses. The work has completely changed the look and feel of what had become a terribly claustrophobic golf course. The upcoming phase will enable Russell’s genius to be regained after years of tinkering unworthy of his legacy.

Maybe the course will be easier – but does that matter, even one dot, if it’s better?

“Better” is, naturally, subjective. But let there be no doubt that in no time the praise will overwhelm the criticism.

You can get away with more off the tee, but what a joy it is not to be hunting for errant balls – especially someone else’s – an annoyance MacKenzie identified a century ago and studiously avoided building golf that was likely to create that problem.

The second criticised course was the recently rebuilt Gunnamatta at The National. I’ve repeatedly heard the “too easy” and “you can drive it anywhere”, criticism but having walked the course numerous times during construction, I knew those accusations to be far off the mark.

Sure enough, the new holes, as well as the revisions of the originals, are brilliant. The course is wide off the tee, but you have to drive the ball more than competently through the ever-present seaside winds and the width means players of all abilities can chart their own path to the hole.

The brilliance of the course is there is no right or wrong way to play it and this principle is the genius of the game’s best course, The Old at St Andrews.

Width, well used, gives the average golfer space while at the same time luring better players into a false sense of security in which they are likely to find driving into open spaces leads to a more complicated approach – either longer or played from a poorer angle.

The thinking player will figure it out and the rest will leave confused as to why they can’t score lower.

It’s a lesson the lovers of hard golf would do well to understand because the best courses are encouragers of good play and not promoters of suffering, hacking and ball-searching.


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