[Editor’s Note: In honor of the President’s Cup being contested at Australia’s greatest gem, Royal Melbourne, we are re-printing sections of our earlier interview with 2006 U.S. Open champion and golf design expert Geoff Ogilvy. We were also joined by former Tour pro and current golf designer and writer Mike Clayton, with whom I wrote for GolfObserver. Those were the days! This interview is still a handy guide to the strategy of the golf course. We’ll be back live later this week with more golf, football, skiing, and adventure sports coverage.]
Jay Flemma: Tell us about the origins of the courses at Royal Melbourne. When were they designed and by whom?
Geoff Ogilvy: It was in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s. Most of the courses that existed were built in the city. But then there was a movement out to the sand belt where there was this incredible terrain, native trees, and great sandy soil. It was perfect timing for Alister Mackenzie because he came to Australia just as there was a rush to build courses out there and the area blossomed.
Mike Clayton: Right. By the time he came, all the new courses had been built, but he then refined many of them with his partner Alex Russell and the Royal Melbourne greenskeeper, Mick Morcom, who built much of his work.
GO: It’s such a unique place, just perfect for golf because usually you have to be on the beach to get sandy soil. If you don’t have sandy soil, you have issues with drainage and you can’t get the course to play as fast and firm as you’d like. Back then the ground game was still in vogue as well. But Melbourne and Victoria are gifted with great terrain and sandy soil. And then the stars aligned that the great land got a great architect. There was a plan in place for the two courses, but he re-routed them. The West course is especially Mackenzie.
Mackenzie was in Australia for three months, and besides working with Royal Melbourne, he also gave advice to Royal Adelaide, Kingston Heath, and Victoria, and these all happen to be the best four of five courses in Australia. There is no place in the world like Royal Melbourne, and it has similarities to Augusta National, St. Andrews, and Cypress Point.
JF: What are those similarities?
GO: Like most great courses, there’s nothing narrow about it. Then there are 18 astonishingly great greens. The west is the best of the two courses, with large greens that have big slopes, like Augusta. And also like Augusta, if you miss the green on the wrong side even by a little, you’ve got no chance to recover, but you can miss the green by 30 yards on the correct side you have every chance to recover. Then, if you move the pin 15 feet, you have to play the hole completely differently. You can have a pin on the left one day, so then you want to be on one side of the fairway to approach, but then move the pin 15 feet and you have to come into the hole form a completely different side of the fairway. It’s creative and interesting and different every time you play it, and every time you play it you find something new, which is really the true sign of a great golf course.
JF: How is it like Cypress Point and St. Andrews?
MC: For me the great similarities are that nothing is dictated to the player. There is space to play the game, and the player must decide for himself or herself where to play – and the right place to play will vary depending upon the strengths and weaknesses of the golfer.
JF: Since Mackenzie’s day what renovations or restorations have been made since then?
GO: Not much! They’ve replanted the grasses, but as far as changing the course, I can’t remember anything in my lifetime. Again, it’s like Cypress Point, I don’t think the members would tolerate change. They’re happy where they’re at. It really didn’t need much.
MC: Exactly. There are new tees at 4 West, and the fairway was reshaped to accommodate a boundary problem at the adjacent hole, 17 East.
I first saw the course in 1972, and it’s pretty much the exact same golf course. The biggest change has come with the ball and how that’s impacted how the course plays. Mackenzie would be apoplectic if he had known how the administrators has failed to protect courses like Royal Melbourne.
JF: Then how and why has it been able to deal with advances in technology and distance so well?
GO: Some say it hasn’t, but most don’t agree. Ernie Els once shot 60, but that was on a perfect day and perfect conditions during the Heineken. But if the wind its blowing 10 mph, like it almost always does, and it’s firm and fast, and the pins are tough, that’s not gonna happen. A couple under par will be great.
MC: That’s right. More and more, it’s defense is the wind and the greens, which need to be hard and fast, so no matter how short the club, it still takes a precise shot to get anywhere near the flag. Also, you must be coming in from the right side of the fairway.
GO: It’s a little bit short – just under 7000 yards. What the Composite course doesn’t have really is one real par-5, where it’s not a guarantee you’ll reach in two. But par matters much less in match play. You’re not measuring yourself against another group, you’re just trying to beat your opponent. The Composite course has three par-5s where we’ll hit mid irons. But even so, it’s kept up with technology because from the middle of the fairway, it’s still a difficult course, even though you’re hitting shorter clubs. When you have pros hitting mid-irons into par-5s that’s where they do their damage, but not at Royal Melbourne. They cold make eagle or birdie, but if they miss, they may make something much worse.
JF: And the reason for that is the terrific contours of the greens and the difficulty of the surrounds and the trouble near the green complexes?
GO: Exactly. Also, there are some dog-legs and short holes where if we drive too far we can drive into trouble. The greens show the genius of the design. Mackenzie wasn’t thinking directly about what technology would bring like we do know, yet the course still defends itself.
However, Mackenzie also said in the book The Spirit of St. Andrews, – a must-read for any golfer, by the way – everyone has to be careful about the golf ball going to far – it may go 400 yards and that’s bad for golf. So perhaps he understood this could happen.
The other thing about Royal Melbourne is that correct place to be isn’t necessarily closer to the hole – driving it further doesn’t help you much at Royal Melbourse. Again, it’s like St. Andrews. One set of bunkers are in play one day into the wind and other bunkers appear no where near play and you wonder what they’re doing there. But then the next day the hole plays downwind you’re in that bunker! Royal Melbourne has held its own better than probably anywhere else in the World has that hasn’t changed their golf course.
JF: Then what makes a great match play golf course and what makes a great match play hole?
GO: Good question. The one that has the best matches to watch.
JF: And those are?
GO: I don’t know – Are they ones that change hands and go back and forth? Or are they the ones where there’s lots of birdies and bogeys? You don’t want to watch guys just grind out pars. You want guys who risks taking shots at birdies also miss and make bogey – so it’s a course that has holes that can hand out lots of birdies and lots of bogeys.
JF: How would a golf course architect build a course that would do that?
GO – By designing great golf holes. Few of the best holes in the world are really, really hard where everyone grinds to make par, neither are they the really easy ones.
The best example is 13 at Augusta. An 18 handicap golfer can bump it up the fairway, bump it up further to get into position around the corner, get to a place to pitch on, and try to get up and down and have a putt for par every time. If you do that, you can almost never make worse than six. But the best golfer in the world will make eagle three or double-bogey seven. The more risk you take off the tee the easier the hole becomes. The more aggressive you are getting around the corner, the easier it is to lay up, or you can even go for the green The safer you play, the tougher the second and third shot.
It’s thousands of shades of grey. The braver you are the more talented you are, directly results in your 2d and 3d shots easier…the less brave you are, the tougher your approach and layup will be. But then even a terrible golfer who gets in trouble out of position can still recover and find a way to save a par, yet pros will struggle to make birdie. Those are the architectural principles that stand up.
JF: Name a few more great holes like that.
GO: 4 at St. Andrews and 9 at Cypress Point – there is a direct relationship with getting easier the more you take the challenge off the tee. Also 17 West at Royal Melbourne…
JF: That will be the 9th of the Composite course.
GO: Right…good! It’s a dog-leg left with bunkers on the corner. The closer you are to the bunkers, the easier your second shot. You can hit to the right forever, but you’ll never get near a right pin. Also, two at Talking Stick North is great. Anyone can play there for not much money. At that hole, the tee and green are against the O.B. fence. The green has one bunker on the 5 o’clock position, front right. And that’s all there is – an O.B. fence and one bunker, but the hole has terrific strategy. The closer you play to the fence, the more the green opens up to the approach. The further right you play, the more you have to deal with a cavernous bunker. Actually six at Carnoustie and six at St. Andrews use OB fences well also, and in a similar way, a way that’s actually good. Drive it near the O.B. and the hole opens up and is easy, but it takes courage and talent to do it. That’s golf course strategy 101 – at first glance it’s simple, but then you find that you have to get closer and closer to the fence to make the holes easier. Holes that require thinking like that, those make great match play holes and great match play golf courses.
JF: Let’s discuss more of that in a bit, but first let’s talk some more about Royal Melbourne. Why do they always use a composite course?
GO: I think they used to do tournaments in the early days on the West or the East, but not since the ‘80s. I remember Watson win the ‘84 Australian Open and it was a composite. (I was 7 I think.) But in my living memory, I don’t think they’ve exclusively used the West or East alone for a big tournament with galleries.
The West is clearly better, with much more Mackenzie influence. I think it’s as good as the composite. But it does cross a road, and maybe that’s the problem…and it’s not like at Oakmont, where they have that giant bridge and it’s easy. Here you actually have to cross road. It’s one thing for members dragging a cart to cross it, but for thousands of spectators, it’s different.
JF: How is the Composite course as a match play venue?
GO: It’s a wonderful course. It encourages players to play what I call proper golf. You have to think where to hit your tee shot, where to place your 2d shot, when to be under the hole, all that. And there are a lot of holes out there – and again, Augusta might be similar – where you have an advantage if you can work the ball both ways. You have to work the ball at Melbourne, and you have to know when to be aggressive and when not, and it changes from day to day. It’s so much more interesting to watch pros making decisions and then showing the fruit of their decisions. That’s why the Masters is such a spectacle, you get pros making decisions on every hole that they don’t want to make.
JF: So what you’re saying is the best way to inject excitement into a golf tournament is to make a pro think. Mackenzie said the same thing in Spirit of St. Andrews.
GO: Well, make him do something out of the ordinary – maybe a low draw instead of a high soft shot. You don’t have to play Royal Melbourne like this, but the guys that do score the best.
JF: So the smartest or most creative golfer will win there?
GO: Well, the guys who understand what the course requires. For example, the two captains know it. Freddie lost in a playoff in the Bicentennial Classic in 1988…[Author’s Note: Australia’s Bicentennial]
MC: That was to Rodger Davis
GO: Yeah, and Greg Norman owns three Australian Opens.[Author’s Note: 1984, 1985, and 1987]
GO: Those two guys are perfect Royal Melbourne players – they move it both ways and they hit it high. A player whose game suits Augusta National will play well at Royal Melbourne.
[Author’s Note: Did everybody just see that?! COUGH COUGH! TIGER! COUGH COUGH!]
JF: What would be some other great courses to host a Ryder Cup or President’s Cup?
GO: Well Royal Melbourne was high and my list and I’m thrilled it will be there. How about a Ryder Cup at Augusta National? Playing Amen Corner with a Ryder Cup on the line would be incredible.
Some of my choices are mere fantasies, but Pine Valley would be great. It demands good players to take on big risks to make birdies and eagles. There would be plenty of birdies and plenty of others, as it encourages aggressive decision making: “Do you have the heart to take this shot on?” and then “Can you execute?” Pine valley is a fantastic match play course, and what an atmosphere!
In fact, I’d pretty much list the World top-10 courses, if you are looking for interesting golf. Chicago Golf Club is a good choice; they played a Walker Cup there. There are no trees, and you can see all across the course and feel the atmosphere from several holes away. Players play great holes, and have to play interesting shots.
MC: It’s not going to happen, but the best Ryder Cup courses in Europe are the Open Rotation courses. The best courses are now too short really – they need a modern European course – assuming they don’t go to an Open venue, but there aren’t many really good ones. Castle Stuart and Renaissance in Britain are great. It would be amazing to play something at National Golf Links of America or Sand Hills – the first truly great American course, and the most recent.
JF: Are you heartened by the way architecture is moving?
GO: It’s amazing to see some of the best golf courses in the World being built right now. The last 15-20 years or so we’ve had Coore and Crenshaw, Tom Doak and Gil Hanse building some golf courses that feel and look like they were built in the golden age – rugged, and with less earthmoving – places like Sand Hills and Barnbougle Dunes and Old Sandwich and Boston Golf Club. They’re not being built to be difficult or to attract pro tournaments, they’re just concentrating on designing great golf courses. Bandon Dunes is three hours from civilization, and you can’t get a tee time, yet back when he told people he was going to build out there [Kaiser] people laughed at him and said it was crazy. Now there’s four courses. This new crop of designers is building modern courses that look like they were built in the ‘30s.
JF: They also play like the ‘30s.
GO: Yes, they play strategically. They also got great pieces of land. Like Sebonack, it’s much better to give that great land to a golf course and not to houses.
Also with websites like Golf Club Atlas, Geoff Shackelfor’s sites, and your websites and writing, there’s writers and people getting more and more golfers interested in the subject and they are not only learning about golf course architecture, but getting involved. The Internet really helped. Now, it’s not just a friend telling a friend about a great course he played, we can learn all learn so much about so many more great courses at the click of a mouse. Word spreads right away about courses, and we all get brought up to speed almost immediately.
And it was you bloggers and Internet writers that led the mainstream on the issue. You guys led the scene from people lamenting in a room that “there is better golf out there” by writing and greatly increasing public interest and awareness, and the word is spreading into the mainstream and getting out there to the general public.
MC: Also, right now, the golf design business is moving to Asia and they need to establish a culture of great courses, not simply copies of what they see on television from America. Bill Coore and Tom Doak are doing courses in China right now and those will hopefully show there is another way and open the doors for others to follow.
JF: You raise a great point there. Isn’t television right now a problem for great golf architecture because A) everyone wants to copy what they see on TV, B) TV only seems to show length, water, flat greens, and ridiculous green speeds and C) because TV preconditions us by simply saying what an outstanding course everything is, even if it’s horrible architecture?
GO: TV can be the enemy – overproduction and over commenting can be misleading. Look at St. Andrews for example. It looks strange on TV, it looks kind of funny. St. Georges is another where, at least on TV, you don’t see the undulations, and also the brown fairways look motley, but it’s the best grass to play on. Grass is naturally supposed to have every shade between green and brown. All perfectly green grass is unnatural. Additionally, great archtecture is about what’s on the ground, and you lose that feel on TV. So people gravitate to courses that show well on TV like Augusta, so everyone wants to emulate it. Plus we all love Augusta.
Take Riviera, one of the best courses we play all year, but on TV Riviera may not look any better than some courses that are nowhere near as good because you only hear the coverage which invariably says they love it, and viewers repeat what they heard.
JF: Tell us about how the pros and cons of being a major champion. What was the toughest adjustment and were you ready to handle it?
GO: I used to be able to go to a golf tournament and generally fly under the radar – practice, not do too much media, and just go and play and not have a lot to handle. Now there are many more media requests and time management is tougher. That takes you by surprise. I used to get there at nine, play a practice round, hit balls, and be back in the room by two or three. Now that doesn’t happen. It’s a longer day because of all the extras and a few more duties. It took me by surprise.