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  • Mike Clayton

The true worth of a golf course

Few things in golf arouse as much debate as magazine rankings purporting to put golf courses into a reasoned order. It is also the season for them, and a couple of recent offerings are promoting discussion and -- most likely -- argument.

Too much is put into developing a set of criteria on which to base the worth of a course.

Some think condition is important, and no doubt it is, but almost all Australia’s best courses nowadays are in excellent condition with little worthwhile separating any of the best of them.

Mostly, people consider only the condition of the grass, when it’s not as architecturally important as the skeleton of a golf course. The routing, the quality of the best (and the worst) holes, the strategy, and the beauty of the construction of man-made features are the true measures of the worth of a course.

And the true test of the condition of a course is how everything inside the fences is managed and not just the playing surfaces. The best courses all tend to their vegetation with diligence and understand proper maintenance of forests is as much about removal as planting.

Others think difficulty a measure, but there is no real link between architectural quality and how difficult, or easy, it is to break par. The west course at Royal Melbourne is the best course in the country and arguably one of the easiest to shoot par – or to break 100.

The reality its par is 70 (at best) given the state of modern equipment and the length (or the relative lack of it) of the par-five second hole, 12th and 15th holes. For scratch players – the only measure of par – they are barely even long par fours now. Two of them – the second and 12th – are great holes and at 95 percent of Australia’s courses, the 15th would be the best hole on the course.

America’s GOLF magazine recently published the most credible World Top 100 list.

Rather than having a specific set of criteria, they suggest to the panelists, “GOLF doesn’t offer set criteria to evaluate a course. You are the judge and you are on this panel because we respect what you believe to be important.”

Australian courses did well in GOLF’s latest rankings with eight courses amongst the 100.

The west course at Royal Melbourne ranked as the seventh-best course in the world, begging the question of where the composite course would sit given it’s an even better course with the half dozen east course holes being superior (as a group) to the west course holes they replace.

One great pity of the composite is the brilliant 200-metre 16th on the west is on the wrong side of Cheltenham Road, and therefore not included.

There is a legitimate argument to suggest it’s golf’s best course and the Presidents Cup only enhanced its reputation, as golf fans tire of watching the week-to-week architecture professional golf serves up around the world.

The quality of the course has little to do with demands of the professional circus with the Ryder Cup being a good comparison. It hasn’t been anywhere near any of the best British or European courses since Walton Heath in England back in 1981.

Pine Valley in New Jersey is thought the finest layout in the world and it’s the one course I’ve played where every hole is a truly great hole. It is though, hardly the ideal because it was unashamedly built for excellent players. Royal Melbourne’s composite, by contrast, is manageable by all with a modicum of competence.

Kingston Heath was 22nd followed by Barnbougle Dunes, (33) New South Wales, (46) Cape Wickham (60), Ellerston (77), Barnbougle Lost Farm (89) and Royal Melbourne East (96).

Twenty years ago if someone had suggested Tasmania would have three courses in the world’s top 90 they’d have been considered certifiable.

It wouldn’t have been for the lack of suitable land, but rather finding owners Richard Sattler and Duncan Andrews (who at the time were both thought insane) willing to invest in great golf, no matter how remote or unlikely the chance of commercial success.

Sattler’s Barnbougle is likely the most important golf development ever built in Australia, because for the first time anybody can play two of the best courses in the world for much less than you would pay at other great public courses. You could, for example, play half a dozen rounds at Barnbougle for the cost of a single 18 at Pebble Beach.

Golf Australia magazine released its biennial offering just before Christmas, and it slightly rearranges GOLF’s list in terms of Australian courses. Royal Melbourne is No.1,  followed by Cape Wickham, Barnbougle Dunes, Lost Farm (Barnbougle’s second course) the newly-opened and reimagined north course at Peninsula Kingswood and then Kingston Heath.

The east at Royal Melbourne is at No. 7 then Victoria, Royal Adelaide and the excellent Tom Doak-redesigned Gunnamatta course at The National. New South Wales and St Andrews Beach completed the top dozen.

What is heartening is of the top 12, six are relatively new courses and Victoria was closed last year for a number of months as all the greens were rebuilt, completing an almost 25-year restoration of the great club forever associated with Peter Thomson.

But does ‘ranking’ the north course at Peninsula above Kingston Heath mean it’s a ‘better course?’

Of course not. One reason for the elevation of the north course is because it’s by some way the best-vegetated course in the country. Every piece of flora is indigenous and clubs would do well to understand why heading down that path is important. It may take a century to get there, but environmentally it’s the right thing to do.

You could put the second to sixth ranked courses in any order and justify it. What’s important is the quality of those five courses in infinitely – unimaginably almost – superior to the quality of the same level 30 years ago.

Every course in today’s top 25 would have been at least the 10th ranked course in 1990.

This is the most important thing to take from the Golf Australia list. The standard of the best courses is infinitely higher than it was 30 or 40 years ago.

Superintendents have raised the conditioning of all courses to a much higher plane. The great new courses as well as the reworking of many tired and poorly tinkered-with existing courses has been hugely significant and as much as these lists are criticized, they have been in some way responsible. In a job interview at Sydney’s Bonnie Doon in 2010 I told the committee it was a ‘disgrace a course on a piece of land this good isn’t in the top 100 in the country’.

You either win or lose the job with a comment like that, but now Bonnie Doon is at No. 31 on Golf Australia’s list. Much more importantly, the members get to play a course worthy of the site and one making for really interesting – but not particularly difficult – golf.

And who wants difficult golf when the average handicap is 18?


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