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30 Nov 2022 | Australian Open |

Clayton: An overdue return to the sandbelt

by Mike Clayton

Practice round group walking the 10th hole at Victoria.

Twenty years is a long time for the Australian Open to have been away from the Melbourne Sandbelt. Too long, really.

One of the finest groups of courses in the world, it stretches from Metropolitan at its northern end all the way to Peninsula Kingswood’s 36-holes on the edge of the transition of suburban Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula.

The courses further to the north – Metro, Huntingdale, Commonwealth and Yarra Yarra are relatively flat. Kingston Heath too although the run from the 14th through to the 17th plays around a dune making the undulation a real feature. Victoria’s final 10 holes in contrast feature nothing remotely close to flat aside from the brilliant short par-4 15th, a hole likely to play some important part at the end of the week and players try and resist the temptation to drive the green. “The 15th is never a driver,” says member Geoff Ogilvy, but many will eschew his advice.

The look of the courses is remarkably similar because the same, spectacular, sand-flashed bunkers are so recognisable and so different from anything else in the world.

Attempts at copying them elsewhere always fail, but there is much to learn from the strategies around which the architects build the fairway hazards and the greens which are usually best approached from a particular side of the fairway.

Judicious use of long grass as a penal hazard is a blessing not shared often enough on the professional tour and the imaginative use of short grass around the greens sweeps the slightly errant shot far from the green and leaves short recovery shots played with a wide variety of clubs and flights. Watching those shots this week around the Kingston Heath and Victoria greens ought to be as fascinating as the modern bombs the men hit off the tees. Neither course is particularly suited to players attempting to conquer them with power alone but new tees at Kingston Heath’s sixth (playing as the ninth this week) 12th, 16th and 18th holes make them much different propositions when the wind is into the player’s face.

Victoria is shorter but with two of its par-5s – the 8th and 17th – playing as par-4s, make it harder to break the par even though the 17th, and thus the course, is easier for playing the hole off the women’s tee as a 460-metre par-4.

At so many of Victoria’s holes, the further down the fairway you go the narrower they get fairways get and it’s a characteristic likely to see many hitting clubs other than a driver off the tees.

Melbourne’s weather is much maligned, but this spring has been truly awful with courses on the Yarra River closer to the city have been underwater and closed for the best part of two months. The result is greens slower and softer than the usual sandbelt offering, and inevitably the scoring will be low unless the sun comes out and the wind gets up. The former seems unlikely, the latter probable.

The experiment with a mixed men’s and women’s championship seems just that and how it works in practice will be interesting for all to observe and contemplate. The positive side of the ledger is we get to watch our two top ranked players Cameron Smith and Minjee Lee playing the same championship on two of the best courses in the world.

Less so, in my opinion, are the two fields being cut to 30 players (including ties – meaning it could me a dozen or more extra if the field is bunched) for Sunday’s play.

Logistically it may be easier, but a worst-case scenario is being tied for 31st, five or six shots from the lead and heading to the airport on Saturday night. Either way, it’s great to be back in Melbourne and fantastic to be playing an Australian Open for the first time since 2019.

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