31 Oct 2023 | Clubs and Facilities |

Clayton: A cultural icon

by Mike Clayton

Royal Melbourne image
Royal Melbourne hosted the Asia-Pacific Amateur with rave reviews. Photo: AAC

Not a single player had birdied the 18th hole at Royal Melbourne on the final day of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. Indeed, three great pars at the best finishing hole in the country saw local man Jasper Stubbs finish at 285, the same score as third-round leader Sampson Zheng and his countryman Wenyi Ding. Zheng’s Saturday 65 wasn’t the lowest score since Bob Shearer’s 65 on the opening round of the 1974 Chrysler Classic when Royal Melbourne was at its most feared, but it may have been the best single round since. Sure, Ernie Els shot 60 on a windless day in 2004 but Zheng’s round was played in a brutal wind on greens where not a single player was required to fix a pitch mark. In the end the Saturday night leader had the prized exemption into both The Masters and The Open in his hand until his tee shot found a sandy divot in the middle of the 15th fairway. Some would have him allowed a free drop but given we still play the ball as it lies, he had to pinch a short iron out and whilst not a poor shot, it left him 60 feet from the hole. Coming up, over and down from the right of the 15th green (3 East) makes for difficult putting. Three-putting was predictable but careless was hitting an iron into Alex Russell’s cross bunkers at the 17th and from there the three-putt six he made was something between a possibility and an inevitability. Ahead Stubbs and Ding made testing putts for fours to edge ahead of the excellent Max Charles and then Zheng made a terrific par at the last out of the front bunker. Given the hole appeared to be fiercely resisting threes the conventional wisdom was the championship would be decided by a mistake and in the end, on the 74th hole, it was. Zheng was never making better than a four after an iron over the green on the 73rd hole, but both Stubbs and Ding fired irons straight at the flag behind the bunker on the right. At most courses in the world, they’d have finished inside ten feet but the bounce and run of Royal Melbourne’s greens left them around twenty-five feet. Stubbs went first and played his ball at least seven feet left of the hole and watched it curl, at perfect speed, dead into the middle of the cup. Ding had a straighter putt but one straight down the slope as well but with the fear of three-putting gone, he rolled it perfectly. The two went back to the tee and this time Ding’s short and right iron caught the bunker and from there, par was too much to ask. The local man could easily have taken three putts from the very back edge of the green but instead his first putt was so good he was left with almost nothing to do to complete his four. The final day was ideal for golf, but the opening three days were golf at its most demanding as only the most perfectly-flighted shots hit with the required spin and force finished anywhere near the hole. Royal Melbourne is a short golf course by modern standards and it’s wider off the tee than almost anything else in the world but with width comes the requirement of extraordinary precision. It sounds incongruous but you must flight the ball properly through the wind. Good drives make a massive difference to the questions asked by the approach shots and here angles do matter despite there being a lot more short irons to the greens than the days of Shearer’s best golf. It was also the week the most credible list of golf course rankings was revealed and unsurprisingly Royal Melbourne’s West Course was judged to be the seventh best course in the world. The Composite Course is not ranked, the conventional wisdom being rating the clubs two courses is a better way to do it. The East Course contributes half a dozen holes to the combined 18 and they are unquestionably superior as a group to the six holes they replace. Which begs the question. Is the Composite Course at Royal Melbourne the best golf course in the world? I am reminded of the opinion of my friend John Carroll, who was a long-time sociology professor at Latrobe University and is a dedicated golfer. Writing in a book on the holes of Royal Melbourne he suggested Australia has two man-made things of world-wide architectural significance. Everyone would pick the Sydney Opera House. But only a few golfers, and almost undoubtedly not more than a handful of non-golfers, would pick Royal Melbourne as the other.

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