Tiger's master-class at RM
Alister MacKenzie loved the way Walter Hagen played golf and was an admirer from the first time he saw the great American hit a shot.
It was a tricky pitch at the Road Hole at St Andrews in the 1921 Open and the Scot determined to follow the American to the clubhouse to find out who he was.
Hagen played with flair and joy and the great golf architect understood just how to encourage golf played with flair and abandon. St Andrews gave Hagen space to play and MacKenzie’s understanding of the Old Course allowed him to transport its principles to amazing courses including Augusta National, Crystal Downs, Cypress Point and, of course, Royal Melbourne’s West Course.
MacKenzie didn’t know it at the time, but he was building Augusta and Royal Melbourne for Severiano Ballesteros. The Spaniard was Hagen reincarnated, probably even more so than the great American showman, Arnold Palmer.
MacKenzie was also building it for the best of the post-Seve generation, Tiger Woods. Tiger is a great US Open player; a winner three times on the typically tight, restrictive courses the USGA likes to decide its championship over; but it isn’t really an arrangement suiting his driver, which has, at times, been unreliable at best.
So good though was Woods with his irons that he won the 2006 Open at Hoylake hitting a single driver for the entire week. It was the first day off the 16th tee and after hitting it a fairway across from the one he was playing, he retired his longest club for the rest of the week.
On Sunday at Royal Melbourne we saw a player in complete control of everything, including his woods. There is space at Royal Melbourne and one could never describe Tiger’s golf as ‘tight or restrictive’. When he plays with freedom there is no better sight in the game.
Off the tee he put the ball right where he had to and then set to work with his irons. In fairness, most of them were short ones, but every time he looked up the ball was going right where he aimed it. The trajectory was perfect, the ball shaped to suit the green and only rarely did he take himself out of a hole by missing in the wrong place.
At the par-3 third with 148 yards to the hole, he flew a wedge a step short of the front line of the green and, as every member at Royal Melbourne knows, the inevitability is the ball tumbles back 20 paces to the base of the hill. He was short again at the treacherous uphill, fifth, but they were rare errors.
It was a master class in playing a treacherous golf course with control and precision and watching Woods swing and hit this week suggests the race is still on for Jack Nicklaus’ major championship record.
He was the best player here.
The sadness - one I am sure MacKenzie would share - was the clubs Woods was playing into the greens were almost dismaying. He’d have adored the way Woods played, but not the big, long holes he built being reduced to tee shots (many times with a 3-wood) and short irons.
What the game does about the issue is important, because these great courses were not only built for members, but to decide big and important state, national and international championships. They are still brilliant members' courses and it’s critical the enjoyment of the members who pay the fees that the essence of the course isn’t taken away to suit a professional circus arriving once every few years.
Some might suggest narrowing the fairways and lining them with rough, but that would be to ruin what Royal Melbourne - and the rest of the best of the city's Sandbelt – stands for.
One thing you know for sure is no one would enjoy playing Royal Melbourne closer to the way MacKenzie envisaged than Tiger Woods. It would only serve to emphasise just how great a player he is and MacKenzie would have been a proper admirer of a man who has played golf at a level no other has reached.