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Nov 28 - Dec 1, 2024 | Kingston Heath & The Victoria GC

30 Nov 2023 | Australian Open |

Clayton: Different strokes in Sydney

by Mike Clayton

The Australian GC image
The Australian presents a different challenge to its neighbour, The Lakes. Photo: Brett Costello

This, the second year of the mixed Australian Open experiment, brings the most important championship in the country to the edge of inner-city Sydney and The Australian and The Lakes Golf Clubs.

With it comes a quite different playing experience for the competitors. In Melbourne the design philosophies of Kingston Heath and Victoria are unsurprisingly almost identical given both were hugely influenced by Alister MacKenzie. The bunkers look the same, the strategic philosophy likewise, the local sand allows for noticeably firmer greens and the fairway grass is indistinguishable.

This week makes for an interesting contrast, and it would be hard to find two courses so close together looking and playing so differently.

The fairways at The Australian are pristine couch grass whilst at The Lakes they are all kikuyu, a much- maligned grass with its reputation forged in the 1970s when it was a dreadful surface for golf.

Now with modern chemicals and better management it’s a much finer grass and, fescue aside, it’s hard to imagine a better surface to play iron shots from. It does though make for more one-dimensional chipping around the greens and it’s more problematic if you want to run the ball on to a green.

Of course, the only time the men this week will be wanting the ball to run on to a green is on the par-5s and no matter the surface, the modern pro (read almost all post-Peter Thomson) is almost never choosing to run an iron shot on to the green when flying it all the way there is the alternative.

As an example, the second at The Lakes is a long par-4 (420 metres uphill) for the men (so long my boss this week, Elvis Smylie, was forced to hit an 8-iron to the green in the practice round) but the women play off the same tee as a par-5.

For the women, running the ball in from the left is likely to be the common attack and it’ll make for more interesting observation than high-flying 8-irons landing in the middle of the green.

Spectators could do worse than watch Minjee Lee the day she plays The Lakes because how one of the best handful of players in the women’s game plays the second, 13th and 14th holes alone will make it worthwhile. The 13th perhaps aside, it’ll be a lot more interesting than watching her brother play the same. Which isn’t to say watching Min Woo Lee play golf is dull – far from it.

The bunkers, too, are wildly different both in appearance and the type of sand. At The Australian, in the mould of Muirfield Village (likely Jack Nicklaus’ finest course) and Augusta National, the sand is imported and pure white which provides a remarkable contrast with the green fairways.

The bunkers at The Lakes deliberately look more rugged, less perfect and the sand is a more natural colour because it’s the sand you’ll find if you dig a hole in the ground. The fairway mowing lines, too, are quite different. At The Australian they are more ordered and prescriptive whilst at The Lakes there is a lot more short grass and less organised rough.

I’m not sure which the players prefer – or if they even notice – but if you do notice you’ll tend to like one or the other but not both.

The contrast between the two courses is fascinating as is their history. MacKenzie had an influence at the original Australian but in the 1970s seismic changes happened to both courses.

In the very early 1970s the new city to airport freeway sliced The Lakes in half and Bruce Devlin and Robert von Hagge built the members an entirely new course. It’s much different from the one Devlin lost the 1964 Open to Jack Nicklaus when the 18th was the current 14th in reverse and the first played backwards up what is now the 13th fairway.

Then, five years after the new Lakes opened Jack Nicklaus redesigned The Australian and courses which from the old photos looked quite similar now look quite different. For a start, the original Australian was almost treeless, something hard to imagine if you see it now.

A little over a month from now Gil Hanse begins his redesign of Royal Sydney and it will be as seismic an alteration as Nicklaus’ was at The Australian and the contrast between the best three courses close to the city (New South Wales GC is farther out) will make for much interesting discussion.

As for the golf, the Lee siblings are clearly the favourites but the men’s field, as it was last week in Brisbane, is one of the best we’ve seen here in a long time. A noticeably stronger contingent from Europe helps and all our best players – Jason Day aside – are here.

One we’ve missed is Aaron Baddeley who hadn’t played here enough but it’s always fun watching him play, and can it really be a year shy of a quarter of a century since he won at Royal Sydney?

Unheralded is young American Nick Hardy who not only has an Australian partner (Elizabeth Elmassian and an Australian coach in Gary Barter) but is a member at Crystal Downs in Michigan, the least known of MacKenzie’s very best courses.

He won the pairs tournament in New Orleans this year and barely missed the top 50 on the money list. He’s off early at The Australian with Michael Hendry, the Victorian Open champion, and Dane Soren Kjeldsen.

No one will be following them (not counting family, caddies, scores, divot fillers and bunker rakers) which makes it an even better reason to watch more than a hole or two because it’s a fair chance Hardy will be in the midst of it on Sunday afternoon.

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